News Column

Sandy Created a Black Hole of Communication

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Communication is a fundamental of emergency management and yet an inherent struggle during disasters. Superstorm Sandy was no exception as complaints about a lack of information were common. This came from communities in pockets of the East Coast where information was desperately needed but scarce, according to some community organizers.

Although there were areas hit by the storms that fared well soon afterward, there were "black holes," where printed paper and bullhorns were needed to get out the word. Social media was a bright spot, as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker showed on Twitter, and in New York City where Emily Rahimi chained herself to her desk at the Fire Department for a day and a half, monitoring the department's Twitter feed and proving heroic to desperate residents.

The lessons from Sandy have been repeated over and over: Communities should be prepared to be self-sufficient for close to 10 days. That means having food, water, batteries and flashlights, among other things. Batteries were especially important during Sandy or perhaps more importantly, ways to charge them.

The challenges of Sandy emphasized the need for community leaders to become informed about how their communities can help themselves during disasters. Questions about to what degree local, state and federal agencies are responsible immediately following a disaster and which agencies or levels of government were responsible for certain services was a source of confusion for some communities.

Humanity Road is a nonprofit whose mission is connecting aid providers with those who need help. The organization has volunteers worldwide trained to data mine the Internet during disasters for the purpose of fulfilling its mission.

Humanity Road was asked by Maryland and FEMA to help with projects and assisted the New York Virtual Operations Support Team in Suffolk County. The organization saw areas where public information was scarce and a misunderstanding among the public about the roles of state, local and federal government functions during an emergency.

Chris Thompson, president of Humanity Road, said she got to 17-mile-long Rockaway Peninsula in New York seven days into Sandy and she was sitting in a "doughnut hole of a total blackout. There was still no communications to speak of," she said. There was about a 17-mile by 15-mile square that was completely blacked out.

Thompson said residents shared information by congregating at local hubs like churches, community centers and schools. "They would gather around and talk to each other and say, 'What do you know?' Information was not flowing." She said information was shared via fliers but there was just one printer -- the one she had brought.

The fliers were marginally helpful but only available in English for the first couple of days until Humanity Road found a volunteer who could translate the information into three languages. Thompson said that when the nor'easter was on its way following Sandy, she and others were out in the storm relaying messages using bullhorns.

She said that although the community understands what a nor'easter is, many residents were still at home waiting for a knock on the door. "You're looking at a community that, from what I could see, didn't have a strong CERT [Community Emergency Response Team]," Thompson said. "There was no FEMA, no Red Cross, no [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster], no CERT. I don't know who they thought was coming."

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.

But even Rahimi was startled by the amount of activity on Twitter and the nature of the tweets. "Once the emergency calls started coming in, I was surprised and it took a second to figure out how I was going to handle it," she said. "I didn't think about the fact that with cell service down they'd still have access to Twitter."

She said people were panicking. "It was extremely scary outside. Sitting in my office listening to the wind rushing past the building, it was a crazy sound, and to be out in it and having water rush into your house or even approaching your house is a scary situation."

Rahimi said many people were in shock as water threatened their homes. They didn't know what to do and needed advice and comfort. "Many of them were saying they were trying to stand on furniture or had rushed to the second floor -- anything to stay out of the water. Without cell service, they didn't feel like anyone was able to help them or connect with them."

Rahimi never intended for Twitter to be used in such a way, but sees it as a key for communications during future disasters. "This is a little different from what I expected Twitter to be used for; not only to help people get the help they needed but to dispel rumors [and] share information about what certain people should be doing if something is happening around them," she said. "This has given us a look at how Twitter will be used in the future. And it was a good introduction and a good way to figure out how we can best use it for emergencies in the future."

Thompson saw social media at its best when it came to donations management, always a problem during disasters. As usual, donations were pouring in to the point where there was too much of a good thing. A local church, inundated by the flood of donations, posted on Facebook daily lists of needs, such as flashlights, batteries and cleaning materials like buckets, Thompson said. "Once they started to become more specific about what their needs were, the spontaneous donations still came in but they got more of what they actually needed."

Using social media to glean needed donations and possibly halt the flow of unwanted items could be a good practice. There are other lessons from Sandy as well.

"The preparedness materials say you should have batteries and radios, but when we arrived seven days after the storm struck, those batteries are dead," Thompson said. Preparing for three to five days is old, and "educated" people say be prepared to be self-sufficient for 10 days, Thompson said.

She said a company called Goal Zero arrived with solar-powered battery packs that provided light and power for cellphones, laptops and printers. "Prior to that we were using a 12-volt car battery, which we had to haul out into the street to recharge," Thompson said.

The ability to scale from a disaster to a catastrophe is an important consideration, she added. "We have processes set for disasters. You have disasters, and you have catastrophes. You can't use the same processes for both, you have to think bigger and these Goal Zero folks came in with solar-powered battery packs that were rechargeable on their own."

NENA's Fontes said tips on how to preserve battery power on phones, especially smartphones, would be helpful. "How to shut down applications that are running in the background that can drain power," he said. "Those types of tips can help people manage the power on their cellphone."

Fontes said efforts to harden networks like what was done after Hurricane Katrina will likely take place. He said after Katrina businesses moved central offices away from basements and higher up into buildings. "We know there is placement strategically along the hurricane coast of fuel supplies," he said. "We know there are a number of things associated with credentialing both at the federal level and state level to ensure access by personnel in charge of restoring and moving fuel and supplies for communication purposes."

Wong suggested earlier preparation, long before a disaster strikes, such as educating community leaders about what to do during a disaster and where to get certain information. "We're [community leaders] the ones who know who is elderly, who needs medication or who has babies."

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