Hurricane Irene In Queens
Weather System Impact On Queens, Evacuation Centers & NYC Emergency Response Decision
I arrived at Aviation High School in LIC at around 4 pm. At the time there were about 19 people who had evacuated their homes in Zone A in Long Island City, seeking refuge in the city-sponsored emergency shelter. The city had mandated the evacuation of all residents in these areas by 5 pm.
It appears that most residents had either found friends with whom they would stay the night, or decided to break the law and remain in their homes. It’s worth noting that Zone A encompasses land upon which the city is sponsoring a large new 5,000 unit development project called Hunters Point South. The map showing the evacuation centers and the evacuation zones [orange is zone A] was provided by NYC government officials.
Aviation High School In LIC – Hurricane Irene Evacuation Center In Queens
As I entered Aviation High School, I was greeted by the evacuation center registration staff. Everyone who decides to stay at the center must register so that the city can immediately respond to inquiries when these people are found missing from their homes by inquiring family and friends.
For me to enter as a member of the press and to shoot and publish photos, I had to be escorted by Luna, one of the volunteers at the center. I was informed that most of the people who were working at the evacuation center were volunteers, many of whom are current city employees. They had all been previously trained for their roles in managing the evacuation center. In the photo above are two volunteers operating the registration desk at Aviation High School in Long Island City.
Emergency Quarters For Pets
Our first stop on the tour was the kennel, where people’s pets are kept in cages on plastic drop cloths. Like the people, the pets must be registered and the pet is tagged and the owner is provided with a matching tag. At the time of my visit there was only one resident: a friendly dog. I noticed plenty of pet food along the side. The pet care area of the evacuation center in Long Island City Queens is shown in the photo to your right.
Emergency Volunteers In NYC
We then traveled along the high school hallway looking into three offices: 1) the first office is where a volunteer inputs the registration data, so that evacuees can be found instantaneously in a database that’s available city-wide and 2) the second office is the command central post where volunteers are registered and assigned their roles and 3) the third office was the training center where new volunteers are trained for their roles.
History of the NYC Office of Emergency Management
The Office of Emergency Management [OEM] was created in 2006. It was believed that since its inception, this was the first time the OEM had been activated. There are approximately 65 evacuation centers throughout the city and each evacuation center oversees about 5 – 10 hurricane centers. Aviation High School is capable of accommodating about 300 evacuees, and hosts a staff of about 68. Half of the staff  is on duty at all times, as the unit operates with 12 hour shifts. My understanding is that the OEM is currently capable of handling about 200,000 evacuees and that they hope to increase that capacity to over 600,000 in the coming years.
Bring Your Own Medications & Personal Care Products
Our next stop was the medical center. This is a small office that is equipped with basic first aid supplies. Incoming residents must bring along their own medicines because the staff is not permitted to medicate. We also visited the guys in the Supply Room. They oversee and dispense personal care products, but I was told that people are strongly encouraged to bring their own personal care products as well because these are emergency supplies.
We then visited the Aviation H.S. Auditorium which had temporarily renamed the Reunification Center. This is where families and friends reunite / congregate as well as where unit-wide announcements are made.
Evacuation Residence Quarters In Long Island City
The evacuation center living / sleeping quarters appeared to be classrooms that were converted to dormitories. Inside each room there were about 20 new green cots, each of which was equipped with an NYC blanket. The evacuation rooms were segregated into: 1) Women’s, 2) Men’s, 3) Families, 4) People with disabilities and 5) children with special needs. The families were located in the library, where they were also given access to books and computers.
There’s a water station located in the hallway where evacuees can get a drink.
The Kitchen & The Basement
Our last stop was the kitchen, which was located in the basement where I was not allowed to take photos. The high school cafeteria is where the meals are prepared and brought up to the evacuees. As you can see by our onsite visit to Aviation High School, it seems the OEM was prepared and that once activated, the process works. Now let’s take a look at the decision making process of activating the OEM.
The Decision To Shut Down NYC
Hurricane Irene Data - Two Days Out Through Storm System Arrival
The OEM was activated at 7 am on Friday morning to respond to Hurricane Irene. At the time Hurricane Irene had just been downgraded to a Category 2 Hurricane with winds of 109 mph. This was about 48 hours prior to the hurricane’s expected arrival in NYC. By 3 am Saturday morning Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a Category 1 Hurricane with winds of about 89 mph. By Saturday afternoon, forecasters were expecting a light Category 1 or possibly a Tropical Storm [74 mph] by the time the storm reached NYC. See the tracking map to left which was easily accessible via the internet more than two days prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irene in NYC on Sunday morning, August 28th 2011.
Decision Making By Residents Versus NYC OEM
As stated above, most folks in Zone A areas didn’t evacuate, likely because they were monitoring the situation themselves [using maps on the internet like the one shown above] and made judgment calls that differed markedly from the call made by NYC government officials.
When we heard of the MTA transportation system shutdown, we looked up Hurricane Irene on the internet, and were puzzled by the dramatic actions taken to shut down the city for the weekend. The data didn’t seem to justify the dramatic steps taken by city government officials. The photo to your right shows that the MTA posted signs hastily announcing the system shutdown over the weekend of hurricane Irene.
Invalid Comparisons - Hurricane Irene Vs Katrina
Before the storm some people were making specious comparisons to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as a Category 4 or strong Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds double what Hurricane Irene hit NYC. At the time Hurricane Irene hit NYC it was a Category 1 or a strong tropical storm. But this is less important than the fact that NYC terrain is above sea level.
The area of New Orleans that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina has an elevation below sea level, and it was protected by a levee system [dikes] which held back the Gulf of Mexico water. These levees weren’t built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane and hence fell apart in fifty different places, flooding the area, and creating the mayhem and devastation for which Katrina is so well known. None of this applies to the situation surrounding Hurricane Irene in NYC.
Minimal Physical Damage In NW Queens
We did a survey around the borough beginning just after 10 am on Sunday and found virtually no damage at all. We’ve seen far worse from storms, such as the tornado last year, that was never mentioned by NYC officials or the media until after it had happened. The only destruction we found was a tree down in Woodside, a branch down on Skillman Ave in Sunnyside and another branch down along Ditmars in Astoria.
Along the waterfront the waters were as calm or calmer than a normal day. And with respect to flooding, we saw one large puddle down near the new Hunters Point South development [Zone A] and even larger puddles that the kids were playing in along Shore Blvd in Astoria Park. In the photo to your right are kids playing in the slightly flooded Shoreline Blvd along the East River. Some people walked through the shallow water.
Lost Weekend - Economic Damage To NYC Small Business
While the physical damage was miniscule, the economic impact, which is less visible, was very real. By shutting down the MTA, LIRR and Airports; all of the people from Queens who work in transportation lost income. And by telling local residents to stay inside, over ten thousand Queens restaurants and retailers also lost income, save food, liquor and hardware stores. In the photo to your left is 31st Street looking toward the subway and inset is Ditmars on Sunday, August 28th around noon.
Before the storm, a longtime NYC resident told me, “In the state where I'm from, when a storm comes, we just let the wind blow and the rain fall. But in Manhattan when a storm comes, they think they have to do something about it.”
Opinion – OEM Has A Good System, But Decision Making Needs Work
The NYC Office of Emergency Management seems to have developed a good process for handling emergencies, with one notable exception. It appears the decision to shut down NYC was made far too soon and far too completely. NYC OEM needs to develop a more seasoned / surgical activation of its emergency response system, so that the city doesn’t become physically and economically paralyzed every time a major weather system comes our way. In the photo to your right is a fallen tree limb along Ditmars Blvd in Astoria.
Special thanks to all of the folks at the Aviation High School evacuation center for their help in putting together this story - and for volunteering their time to staff the evacuation center [many are shown in the photo slide show below]. Also special thanks to all of the volunteers who staffed the Office of Emergency Management operations over the weekend.
Photos Of Hurricane Irene Damage & Evacuation Centers In Queens
The first nineteen photos are of my visit to the Evacuation Center at Aviation High School in Long Island City and the remainder of the photos are of street scenes of damage and flooding on Sunday morning following the storm.
The street scenes start with photo #20 and are from Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside [fallen tree limb], the East River near Gantry Park, the kyaking beach near Socrates Sculpture Park, flooding along Shore Blvd in Astoria Park, a fallen tree along Ditmars Blvd and very quiet shopping districts along Ditmars & 31st in Astoria, 30th Avenue in Astoria, Steinway Street in Astoria [with horseman] and Queens Blvd in Sunnyside late morning / early afternoon on Sunday.
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