After Hurricane Sandy, Long Island safety officials turned their focus to storm safety and redeveloped a comprehensive coastal management plan to better prepare and better protect residents against future emergencies. Long Island's location and population density pose numerous challenges for emergency preparedness plans. Other communities with similar safety and evacuation challenges should look to Long Island for guidance in developing their own emergency action plan.
Long Island’s location to the South-East of New York exposes it to tropical storms pushed up the coast from the Caribbean. In recent years, New England residents fought to rebuild after the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene (2011) and Hurricane Sandy (2012). Emergency action plans for numerous coastal communities in New England have been updated to reflect new storm safety protocol.
If an event such as Hurricane Sandy was to be repeated, safety officials acknowledge a total evacuation of the island would be impossible. As bridges, rail links, airport services, and ferry terminals would be closed during a weather emergency, a controlled evacuation would need to take place prior to a hurricane’s landfall - first in the form of a voluntary evacuation, and then in the form of a mandatory evacuation for residents most at risk.
For the island’s remaining residents, hundreds of storm shelters have been set up with essential shelter supplies by the American Red Cross. Residents with a disability or mobility issue are being advised to join vulnerable needs registries, and all residents are being encouraged to download apps for the NotifyNYC and Suffolk County Emergency Alert Systems. The challenge comes with keeping information in the registry up-to-date. Emergency responders need accurate community information in order to be proactive in identifying all residents who might require additional services.
Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy Influence Storm Safety Plans
Guided by the Long Island Disaster Preparedness Program, local residents are beginning to take responsibility for their own safety during and after an adverse weather event. The program coordinates between multiple New York safety organizations and hosts peer-to-peer education meetings to raise awareness of disaster planning and general storm safety tips.
In 2017, the program conducted a survey among Long Island residents to determine what lessons had been learned from Hurricane Sandy. Thankfully, the results were extremely reassuring:
- 75% of survey participants indicated that they were prepared for an emergency that would require sheltering in their home for at least three days without power, phone, or other services.
- Almost two-thirds of survey participants said they were more prepared for an emergency that would require an evacuation for three days than they were in 2012.
- Half of Long Island residents surveyed have an emergency supply kit, and nearly all of those were familiar with evacuation routes and the location of shelters in their area.
- Almost half of participants with school-aged children said their child had taken part in a school-based emergency drill; although the frequency was not so high for home-based drills.
In 2012, fourteen residents suffered fatal injuries attributable to Hurricane Sandy and more were badly injured. If another tropical storm hit Long Island, the level of emergency preparedness by safety officials and residents - along with a new 18-foot-high seawall - would likely result in a better outcome. Long Island has prepared for the next Sandy well, and other locations should take note.
Which Other Locations Should Take Note?
Long Island may have a unique location that makes it vulnerable to tropical storms, but it is not unique in being a heavily-populated region with limited evacuation routes. Indeed, just across the Long Island Sound, the heavily populated areas of Milford and New Haven are largely encompassed by the Housatonic River to the West and Quinnipiac River to the East with few bridges to evacuate across.
If an emergency event requiring an evacuation were to occur, Fairfield or New Haven Counties could communicate to residents via their emergency alerting systems. Unfortunately, both systems are limited. Residents are not as well prepared for emergencies as their Long Island neighbors, and information about what resources are available during an emergency are hard to find. Similar scenarios exist in:
- Cook County IL., which is subject to heavy rainfall and has had eleven federally declared emergencies due to flooding since 1991.
- Harris County TX., has also seen more than its fair share of flooding and damage caused by Hurricanes Ike (2008) and Harvey (2017).
- Maricopa County AZ., may not have experienced such devastating rain but is subject to earthquakes and at risk from chemical leaks.
The three locations mentioned above share characteristics with Long Island and Milford/New Haven inasmuch as they are heavily-populated regions with limited evacuation routes. The cities of Chicago and Houston both have a water boundary, and the city of Phoenix only has six evacuation routes that could cope with heavy traffic - assuming it was possible to evacuate in all directions.
Communities that share similar evacuation challenges must invest in the creation of a vulnerable needs registry to ensure that all residents, especially those requiring additional services and aid, are accounted for in the local emergency action plan. While there are many challenges associated with building a vulnerable needs registry on your own, purchasing an emergency management platform with a web-based registry can be a more affordable - and often easier - option.
Solutions for Emergency Preparedness in Unprepared Regions
In all regions where there is a risk for an emergency, state and local governments should implement emergency preparedness programs to mirror those in Long Island. Even though total evacuation may not be possible, measures are in place to offer protection to all residents.
It would also be advisable for state and local governments to implement app-based emergency alert systems. These can be more effective at delivering early warning signals than SMS-based systems and can continue delivering updates throughout an emergency when cellphone networks are overloaded or unavailable due to the consequences of a storm.