2006-01-13 / Front Page

City Reworks Coastal Storm, Hurricane Plan

Jonathan Gaska, Community Board 14 District Manager, standing right, speaks to FDNY Assistant Chief Robert Sweeney, the Queens Borough Commander.Jonathan Gaska, Community Board 14 District Manager, standing right, speaks to FDNY Assistant Chief Robert Sweeney, the Queens Borough Commander. The city’s Office of Emergency Management is overhauling its response plan for coastal storms and hurricanes, and will present the updated version to the public in June, top agency representatives told simmering members of Community Board 14 Tuesday night.

The agency’s changes that include, for example, the designation of many more reception areas for evacuees and advice on evacuating with pets, will modify the existing plan based on the harsh lessons learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to Maryann E. Marrocolo, OEM’s Director of Plan Management.

Twenty of OEM’s 120 staffers have been assigned the challenge of coming up with a “workable plan” in time for northeast’s next hurricane season.

“In June, [our plan] will be very different,” Marrocolo told members of CB14 after giving what she called a “25-cent tour” of the existing plan.

Maryann E. Marrocolo, the Office of Emergency Management’s Director of Plan Management, fields questions from members of Community Board 14.Maryann E. Marrocolo, the Office of Emergency Management’s Director of Plan Management, fields questions from members of Community Board 14. Marrocolo and OEM Director of External Affairs, Christina A. Lyndrup, met with the community board at the request of District Manager Jonathan Gaska and others who feel that to be successful, OEM needs community input.

“I know that there has been some angst because we have not been here in the last few years,” Marrocolo, said. “We want to have a regular dialogue with you,” she then assured the board members and the audience.

Although Marrocolo’s statement and her local appearance suggests that she agrees that community feedback is important, she and Lyndrup faced skepticism – if not thinly veiled contempt – from board members who say they’re frustrated because all but one of the recommendations made after two storms in the early 1990s have seemingly been ignored.

Gaska reminded everyone that only two of the FDNY stations in Rockaway have backup generators – bad news when high winds hit aboveground power lines. The police precincts don’t have them either. He also highlighted the fact that the board has repeatedly requested Zodiac rescue boats with outboard motors for the local FDNY stations.

A single request, for coastal evacuation signs, was honored after 10-years, but locals were critical of them because the roads are prone to flooding and, they say, some of the routes are illogical. In fact, board members traded off taking swipes at almost every part of OEM’s existing plan.

CB14’s Vince Castellano predicted that most Rockaway residents would either refuse to leave or resist evacuating until it was too late. He called OEM’s plan to evacuate 48-72 hours before a storm “a fantasy.” At one point, he was so outspoken that CB14 chairperson Delores Orr admonished him.

Marrocolo said an evacuation of the peninsula would be ordered for a level-one hurricane, the weakest classification, with sustained winds ranging between 74-95 mph. “The time to evacuate is when you’re asked to do so,” Marrocolo reiterated.

Steve Cooper, a board member from Edgemere, held a different opinion and said evacuees would try to leave and wind up snarled in traffic or left stranded by mass transit.

“I see a possibility of everybody paying attention to [OEM’s evacuation order], but they’re stuck with no way to get out,” he said.

Dr. Gerald David wanted to know how long it would take for a storm surge to recede.

“What you’re hearing here tonight is not hostility, it’s cynicism,” said Jeff Cohen. Lyndrup countered: “We thought you would want to hear the highlights. We didn’t realize this would be an all-night event.

“You might not like our information, but our information is what’s going to help people,” she said.

Is everyone on the same page?

Gaska said the NYPD was invited to the meeting, but no representatives chose to attend. Captain Charles Neacy, the commanding officer of the 100 Precinct, has indicated that the NYPD is preparing its own plan for southern Queens.

Top FDNY representatives, Assistant Chief Robert Sweeney, the Queens Borough Commander and EMS Division 4 Commander Robert Browne, were on hand for the meeting. Sweeney confirmed that only two of the peninsula’s FDNY stations are generator-equipped, but he also shared that FNDY Battalion Chief Michael McGrath is close to leasing two Kawasaki Jet Skis for rescue purposes, and added that the department has access to small boats that are kept in Brooklyn.

Sweeney also pointed out one of Rockaway’s inherent advantages in an emergency: “A lot of [FDNY/EMS] members live on the peninsula,” he said.

Browne confirmed that volunteer fire departments, such as the Broad Channel V.F.D, are covered by a mutual aid agreement and would be able to coordinate with and assist the FDNY.

OEM has also formed Community Emergency Response Teams to teach basic disaster response skills to in communities throughout the city. The CERT for this area will stage a disaster simulation and graduation ceremony next week at the Rockaway Volunteer Fire Department station on Rockaway Point Boulevard.

In the meantime:

Marrocolo said OEM will begin testing its new plan with “tabletop” exercises in March and simulations in June. Gaska and Orr both requested that the agency return in June for public education purposes. Despite the criticism and heckling she endured Tuesday night, Marrocolo was receptive to returning. A date has not yet been set.

The day after the storm event, Gaska described it as a “rude awakening” for OEM. “People want to see something in writing – some good hard evidence – that their government knows what it’s doing.

“If they didn’t get the message last night, they never will.”

For more information on emergency preparedness, check out OEM’s “Ready New York” guide available at www.NYC.gov/OEM or by calling 311.

Brian Magoolaghan

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