April 19, 2006
Levy: "We're Making No Assumptions"
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last fall, officials at most levels of government held press events vowing to analyze preparedness. The disaster taught emergency responders many lessons about the devastating effects gaps in preparedness plans can have. To that end, County Executive Steve Levy directed county staff in myriad departments to undertake a comprehensive examination of preparedness plans, identify gaps and outline strategies for filling them. Last week he reported how the initiative has progressed.
|County Executive Steve Levy with a map depicting emergency shelters. Fire, Rescue, and Emergency officials plan to hold a summit with South Fork counterparts to discuss preparedness. (click for larger version)|
Hurricane Katrina provided a painful lesson in what happens when municipalities fail to anticipate many facets of a disaster. In directing staff to examine county plans, Levy made clear that each potential scenario should be eyed. "We're making no assumptions," he said.
Not only did the staff create an action plan listing tasks already accomplished and those still in the offing, but Levy also charged them with setting a timeline for the completion of the duties. He acknowledged releasing the schedule was "going out on a limb," but was grateful the timeline would hold officials' feet to the fire.
Issues under analysis include identifying shelters for evacuees, and making sure they are adequately stocked. A map presented at a news conference last week depicted shelters across the island, though few on the East End. According to the county executive, the Red Cross has agreements with just 39 of 70 school districts for sheltering purposes. He's seeking additional sites especially since some shelters may be in flood inundation zones. Officials are also identifying pet-friendly evacuation centers as well. On the South Fork officials on the town level are undertaking a simultaneous review of potential evacuation sites.
Joe Williams, the county's commissioner of Fire Rescue and Emergency Services said he plans to meet with emergency personnel and lawmakers from the South Fork in an effort to coordinate an evacuation plan. Because just one road, Montauk Highway, leads off the South Fork, evacuation is a particularly difficult issue to address.
How special needs residents, such as those in assisted living facilities and shut-ins, would be rescued is another component of the overview. Nursing homes are required by law to maintain evacuation plans, but assisted living facilities are not. Levy reminded of the horror of infirm patients left unattended as Katrina floodwaters rose. It was "outrageous" that there were no plans for getting those elderly people out, he said.
Levy especially recalled a story told by a Southern prison guard who was among just a small contingent of staff that showed up for work when the hurricane struck. With scant staff available to implement an evacuation as the waters rose, the gates to the jail were simply opened and prisoners freed. The county is working to make sure essential staff feel confident that their families will be cared for in an emergency. "They need to know their families are in a safe place," Joe Williams, the county's commissioner of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services noted.
Seamless communication among county departments and facilities are essential during an emergency. Levy deemed the county in "pretty good shape" when it comes to interoperability.
Next month, legislators in each district, along with their chiefs of staff, will attend an all-day preparedness training, and in June the county, along with LIPA and KeySpan will host an island wide drill.