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An Elite Recovery? How Built-In Resources Boosted the Big Apple's Disaster Relief An Elite Recovery? How Built-In Resources Boosted the Big Apple's Disaster Relief

An Elite Recovery? How Built-In Resources Boosted the Big Apple's Disaster Relief

by Adam Martin
November 18, 2012

New York City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy has been anything but perfect. Two weeks after the storm there are still sections of the city without power, water and heat, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel has only just reopened. But it could have been a lot worse, were it not for the city’s built-in emergency response resources. New York is so big and puts so much energy and money toward preparing for a terrorist attack or other such emergency, that the city itself already had more of the hardware and personnel required for recovery than a smaller, less-well-funded metropolis would. It’s like an economy of scale, but for disaster response.

“New York City is capable of handling large-scale emergencies because of our emphasis on operational planning, i.e., not only what must be done but how we get it done,” said Joseph Bruno, the commissioner of New York’s Office of Emergency Management. “The city’s unique and substantial assets make operational planning possible.” Put into plain language, that means the city has more resources it can throw at a problem, and more plans to do so effectively, than a metropolis with fewer people.
 
But in order for that economy of scale to work as such, it had to focus on certain parts of the city. A few days before the storm some friends announced they were leaving town ahead of the weather, and wondered if my household would do the same. No, we decided. We want to be as close to Manhattan as possible, because whatever breaks, that’s where they’ll fix it first. We were right.
 
Take the MTA’s speedy repair of the city’s subway system: Even though seven tunnels below the East River flooded, the authority got 80 percent of the trains running by rush hour the Monday after the storm. They did this with the help of three specially built pump trains, diesel-powered trains of five or six cars that each carry three pumps. The pump train drives nose-first into the flooded tunnel and turns on the pumps, which then push the water through a pipe it carries on flatbed cars and out ventilation ducts into the harbor. Even though each pump can remove 1,500 gallons a minute, it can still take up to 100 hours to pump out the largest tunnels. It simply wouldn’t make sense for a smaller transit system to invest in that kind of hardware.
 
The city also has huge numbers of personnel that it can assign to the most-needed areas during an emergency, pouring more manpower on a given problem than any other city in the country. The MTA employs 2,700 track workers to service its 660 miles of passenger-carrying track, for an average of four miles of track per worker. The Washington, D.C. Metro, by comparison, the nation’s second most heavily used subway system, has 106 miles of track. New York track workers put in double-shifts and slept in MTA facilities during the recovery effort, which focused on the most-used lines first, such as the 4,5,6, which serves Manhattan’s east side and is arguably the most heavily used transit line in the country. The repair effort therefore focused a massive amount of manpower on smaller parts of the system. When those 2,700 workers concentrate on one line at a time, they can fix things very quickly. But other lower-traffic parts of the system, such as the bridge connecting the Rockaways to the rest of the city, remain unusable.
 
Similarly, the NYPD has about 35,000 officers to patrol the city’s 8,244,000 people, making for a ratio of one officer to every 235 people or so. By comparison, the nation’s second-most populous city of Los Angeles, employs about 10,000 officers to police its 3,820,000 people—a ratio of one officer for every 382 people. So, New York has more officers to begin with to deploy in places like Lower Manhattan when the lights went out. And with crime subsiding after the storm, those officers were more free to concentrate on storm response rather than everyday police work. The NYPD even employs a special Emergency Response Unit, comparable to a SWAT team in other cities, that went to work pumping out homes in some of the hardest-hit areas using city-owned pumps.
 
The clip at which New York brought parts of itself back from the storm was remarkable, and it was made possible in by the city’s unique resources, the size of its staff, and the plans it had in place. It showed how sheer scale could render an effective response to disasters that would have crippled a mid-sized metropolis, and that still present challenges in Long Island, New Jersey, and farther-flung parts of the city such as the Rockaways.
 
But in some ways it was a response for the elite. The Saturday after the storm in a housing project in Coney Island, the lights, heat, and water were still off. Disabled residents who couldn’t take the darkened stairs asked for water, news, and information about voting. We heard a rumor the power would be back on by Wednesday, November 7, but it wasn’t until November 12 that Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally announced that power had been restored to all public housing. New York’s economy of scale works well for disaster response, but not all city residents will say it has worked well for them.
 
Image via (cc) flickr user MTAPhotos
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