The public was not getting information and didn't know where to find it. "There were services that worked and some that didn't, and the public didn't know who to turn to to ask for that aid," Thompson said.
An example of that was in Chinatown in southeast Manhattan where residents felt alienated. Helena Wong, executive director of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, said residents were told to go to evacuation centers but weren't well received when they did. "A lot of people who went to the evacuation centers felt unwelcome there, and when they asked for information, they were told, 'We're not giving out any information or we don't have any,'" Wong said. She also said there weren't interpreters for non-English-speaking residents.
Wong said the only government representatives she saw in Chinatown were police officers and they were giving out contradictory information. "We were also told FEMA was addressing the issue and the city was going to take care of things," Wong said. After a couple of days her organization began providing its own relief efforts, getting donations and supplies like generators.
But Thompson said the public had a misunderstanding of which government entities do what. "The public has a general misconception of what FEMA does," she said. "They believe FEMA is going to come in and help in a physical way. And they don't recognize the responsibility of the local and state [agencies] as far as who provides things."
Wong said FEMA did come and distribute Meals Ready to Eat, but she complained that the instructions weren't provided in Chinese. She said a lot of the elderly Chinese people were reluctant to eat them.
Wong said people were desperately seeking information but the power was out, there was no cell reception and no signs were posted anywhere. "Cellphones weren't working and batteries went dead anyway," she said. "People would leave us looking for reception and use all their battery power just looking for reception."
She said people desperately needed to feel connected. "They needed to call their loved ones."
A spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office said posters in Chinese and Spanish were posted in many areas, including Chinatown.
The feeling of being connected is important during a disaster and in areas with cell reception, the ability to reach a loved one or receive an important bit of information can be critical, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
"Your ability to let your friends and family outside the disaster area, or perhaps inside, know that you're OK or that you need certain things [is vital]," Fontes said. Social media plays an increasingly viable role in the ability to connect during disasters as well.
Fontes remembered being in an earthquake two years ago and evacuating to a park with other residents. He said everyone there benefited from those texting or using social media to get information.
That was borne out during Sandy too as the New York City Fire Department's Social Media Manager Emily Rahimi kept citizens abreast of Sandy news and responded to their pleas for information.
Rahimi said she went into work a little early on Monday, Oct. 29, because of the storm and thought she might be a little extra busy. She was right and tweeted right on through until around 6 p.m. Tuesday.
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