Volume 75, Number 18 | September 21 - 27, 2005

City has plans in place in case a major hurricane ever happens

By Caitlin Eichelberger

A dome of water spun up from the sea and thrown onto land. A torrent of wind racing along the avenues. A flood rising around the bases of skyscrapers.

Such doom-and-gloom disasters are the substance of summer blockbusters. But following Hurricane Katrina and the much-criticized evacuation efforts in New Orleans, the reality of natural, and unnatural, disasters has jolted many to ask, What if? For New Yorkers, the question is not so far-fetched — New York City is the third major U.S. city most vulnerable to a hurricane after New Orleans and Miami — and the New York City Office of Emergency Management has thought it through enough to establish an evacuation system.

In the case of a hurricane, related storm surges and flooding, evacuations depend upon an area’s vulnerability to the approaching storm. Susceptible areas are divided into one of three zones. Zone A encompasses the most vulnerable locations — low-lying waterfront locations like Battery Park City and Stuyvesant Town and coastal areas, in general — and would be evacuated in the event of any hurricane near the city. Zone B — which includes much of Chelsea and most of the Lower West Side, for example — would be evacuated in the event of a landfalling category 2 hurricane or greater, and Zone C — farther inland — would only be evacuated in the event of a category 3 or 4 hurricane. Most of Greenwich Village is safe — in a zone where flooding would not be expected — as is Midtown.

While a category 3 or 4 hurricane is unlikely, it has happened before — in 1938 a category 3 hurricane blacked-out power and caused widespread flooding in the Bronx. Even a lower-level hurricane could cause its share of damage — a category 2 hurricane would completely inundate both J.F.K. and La Guardia airports, according to O.E.M.’s Web site.

The decision to evacuate would be made 36 to 40 hours prior to landfall, said Jarrod Bernstein, O.E.M. spokesperson. But before that, he said, people would be aware of the impending situation.

“Even before we put out the order or request, we would be talking about it well before time,” Bernstein said.

Evacuation recommendations and/or orders would be made primarily through mass-media outlets. In a less predictable hazard, like a terrorism attack, O.E.M. officials would potentially go door to door to alert residents if necessary.

“Our plan calls for erring on the side of caution, we’d rather do it and not need it,” he said.

Evacuated residents are recommended to stay with family and friends outside of the evacuated zone or zones. If that is not an option, residents are directed to reception centers — temporary holding zones for those needing to be transferred to a more permanent shelter.

Reception centers are available in all boroughs and can be reached via public transportation. An online program pinpoints the nearest location for an individual’s residence. I.S. 131 at 100 Hester St. and High School of Graphic Communication at 439 W. 49th St. are two local Manhattan reception centers.

“That’s what we are really trying to get people to do now,” Bernstein said.

Each reception center is associated with several evacuation shelters in what is known as its solar system. There are 23 systems total, and each is capable of accommodating between 3,000 and 12,000 people. Each shelter, opened dependent on need, would be managed by the American Red Cross staff and other partners assisting with facilities, food services, security, communications, health services and staff support.

While much criticism has been aimed at the assumptions in New Orleans that individuals would have personal transportation available, O.E.M.’s materials recommend public transportation and advise against driving. However, in the event of heavy rains and storm surges, subway stations too would become flooded. Bernstein said, though, that residents should be evacuated before the possibility of flooding.

“The whole idea is not to be evacuating while it is raining, you want to get people out while it is 70 degrees and sunny outside,” he said.

Scot Phelps, director of the Metropolitan College of New York’s master’s in public administration in emergency and disaster management program, said he does not believe New York City would fare as poorly as New Orleans in evacuating, because unlike New Orleans residents, New Yorkers are familiar with mass transit.

“The bus system in New Orleans — clearly not sufficient for their population,” he said; whereas “we have millions on mass transit everyday, so it’s a much simpler concept.”

In the unlikely event of a citywide evacuation, Phelps said the feasibility depends, of course, on time. “If you have two days, you probably can; if you have two hours then you probably can’t,” he said, adding that people know their way out of the city. “You have a million people evacuating Manhattan everyday at 5 o’clock,” he said.

Bernstein would not go as far as to say a citywide evacuation is impossible, but only that “the types of hazards that would make you do something like that are very unlikely.”

Since it is the first time a “merchant city” has been completely evacuated in modern history, O.E.M. is sending a team to New Orleans to “look at some lessons learned,” Bernstein said.

“Some things were done well, and obviously some things were done very poorly,” he said.

O.E.M. plans to pay close attention to forthcoming written critiques. Despite the disaster in the Gulf, it has encouraged residents to inquire about their own safety and their own cities’ course of action. O.E.M’s Web site hits have multiplied, according to Bernstein, as well as 311 calls, since Katrina.

Pete Gleason, a Tribeca/Soho Community Emergency Response Team member and team organizer, said he is confident in the city’s capability to respond to a disaster.

“If they got it right in ’92, I’m sure they’re going to be able to get it right in 2005,” he said, recalling the north-easter of 1992.

CERT’s role in a natural disaster would be to assist in traffic control and to notify officials of the most vulnerable populations in the neighborhood, because “they know their neighborhood best,” Bernstein said.

But, Gleason said, “Hopefully, if there is an evacuation, the CERT team wouldn’t be needed because people would already be out.”

“New Yorkers are very resilient,” Gleason said. “We can deal with property damage, we just don’t like dealing with loss of life.”

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