I happened to sit in my office in the eye of the tropical super storm ‘Sandy’ when it hit our valley a bit north of Philadelphia and 2hrs west from Manhattan. In the following, some eye-witness- comments about the crisis communication around this natural catastrophe that hit east coast of the United States on October 29th 2012.
First, the nation definitely has taken learning from Katrina some years ago. A day or two before the estimated landfall, we millions of people around New York City and Philadelphia, started getting updates of the movements of the then hurricane-classified storm Sandy followed by satellites in the Atlantic Ocean. We received serious reminders of how to prepare from both national news channels but also from our local service providers, communities and city offices. The moves of the hurricane were followed on the national weather channel 24/7, and thus, the morning of the estimated landfall day, we already knew that this valley in the inland would be pretty much right on the route of the storm.
As an example of city measures, Philadelphia’s mayor declared a State of Emergency for the City of Philadelphia with City’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activated; a call center with emergency line 311 was opened for updates 24/7 to help residents to cope with the storm. Furthermore, the city advised residents to take precautions and prepare for heavy rainfall, flooding, high winds and possible power outages. Residents in flood prone areas were advised to move.
The American Red Cross opened three emergency shelters in the city centre on the eve of the expected landfall. New York closed its public transport already a day before and airports on the day of the landfall. Basically, you were not able to avoid the precautionary announcements, reminders to fill gas to your car, draw cash from ATMs, stock food and batteries for flashlights. Cities offered free parking, charging stations for cell phones and electronics to keep in touch. Our power company called us at home, asking to prepare to lose power for approximately until Sunday. We were prepared.
The storm hit to the land pretty much according to the forecast, we lost power pretty much as envisaged. What we had not thought about was that we also lost all cell towers – and since the internet was lost due power outages and cell towers, there was no way to communicate anyone outside the home street that we were okay. New York City flooded worse than anyone could have guessed in the worst scenarios, water levels went inches and inches higher than estimated. Full moon and astronomical tides worked for Sandy. Lowest of all low-pressures was measured at the storm-center on the east coast. Atlantic City became an “Atlantis City” half-slid into the ocean. A lot of the shoreline of New Jersey is still today, soon a week after Sandy, in total devastation. World has been shocked by the live and photo reportage of the havoc on the most populated, wealthiest areas of the wealthiest nation in the world.
Pictures from ABC news 10/29/2012: Precise forecasts of the forthcoming landfall of the hurricane on the morning of 29th October.
Despite the evacuations and extremely intense advance precautions, the nation lost more than 100 lives in the havoc (Nov 3, 2012). Every lost life is a tragedy but I have to yet say, having seen all devastation with my own eyes, it is purely amazing we did not have ten-folds of that number to report from here.
It is largely thanks to the communication and information about precautions necessary ahead of the hit. We had time to prepare.
However, it was not only impressive, how information was shared before the hit of the hurricane; I will give a local example of efficient communicating during and after the storm. Our power company opened an emergency website, where we, their customers were able to follow online the progress of the rescue workers efforts to set up power lines.
Alone this small valley had more than 100,000 households without power after the hit of the storm on Monday night. That’s about the entire population. On Friday of the same week, the website tells that Lehigh Valley has roughly 37,000 households left without power. Our house got powered last night, so I can be writing this at home today.
Going through this kind of an ultimate nature catastrophe was a new and a bit scary experience for me as a Finn, having grown in the firm belief that Finland is the safest place on the earth – no earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes.
However, I have been very impressed by the great crisis communication I experienced during the last days as one of the millions living on Sandy’s route from the Atlantic Ocean to the inland. I felt safe; I continue feeling safe in this country which clearly communicates and cares. That’s what people need in a crisis.
Now it is time to pull forces together, and have this fixed – there is a tremendous mess to be cleaned. But there is a lot of ‘winter war spirit’ on this side of Atlantic as well!
Minna Mars, November 2nd, 4 days after Sandy