Sandy's fatal lesson: Be prepared
It could have been so much worse.
A year ago this week, the 1,000-mile-wide monster known as Sandy bashed into the coast, causing massive tidal flooding and wind damage before moving inland, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people in South Jersey and Southeast Pennsylvania.
But a change in its path could have brought here the widespread destruction and misery seen in New York and Northern New Jersey's shore. The story of the superstorm could have been much different given that so many residents of Philadelphia and its suburbs were unprepared, officials say.
"If Sandy does nothing else, I hope it makes people realize that a slight shift in the wind, and we would have been North Jersey and New York," says Renee Cardwell Hughes, chief executive of the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Indeed, as the power went out and stayed out for as long as a week for many, phones started ringing off the hook at emergency-management agencies from the Shore to Philadelphia's suburbs.
Too many storm victims - despite days of warnings and pleas by officials - were not ready, believing either they would be spared the worst or that the shrill forecasts were exaggerated.
No food. No batteries. No gas.
Lester Kaplan, 73, of Brigantine, for example, refused to leave, despite warnings. He was found four days after Sandy struck the coast, lying on is living room floor, hypothermic and near death. He died on the way to the hospital.
Those in charge of emergency preparedness hope people learned what could be a life-saving lesson. They don't want those and other problems to happen again when the next big storm strikes.
Samantha Phillips, Philadelphia's deputy managing director for emergency management, agrees.
"We got a lot of phone calls about people needing food, blankets, things that are readily available in the home," recalls Samantha Phillips.
In Philadelphia, many residents were unprepared for the prolonged outages that stemmed from the storm’s strong winds and downed trees, Phillips said. People are often encouraged to have three days of supplies on hand, but five to seven days may be a better target.
"I think what we saw with Sandy, especially from a power outage perspective, is that three days is a short time to use as your benchmark," she said.
The city was inundated during the storm with data coming in from sources that included 311, first responders on the streets and a number of other city agencies and nonprofits. Since Sandy, she said, the city has conducted training for agencies and private organizations on how to track data and storm-related expenses to improve record-keeping.
Sandy has also called organizations to reevaluate how they communicate with the public during a disaster.
Social media use took off during Sandy, Phillips said. But government agencies learned that using such tools to share information requires adequate staffing.
"We need to make sure we can monitor it and have that dialogue," she said.
On top of dealing with panicked calls that might have been prevented, officials encountered other difficulties during the storm, which slammed the East Coast a year ago this week: coordinating the flood of volunteers, sheltering some residents and getting information to certain groups, like senior citizens.
Earlier this month, Monmouth County launched a program called Seniors Taking on Readiness Measures that gives senior citizens preparedness information and an emergency kit, and helps them create a disaster plan for their household.
The program came about after it became clear during Sandy that many people did not have shelter or evacuation plans for their families, officials said.
Agencies are also working to improve collaboration efforts.
During Sandy, some newly formed or ad hoc volunteer groups were unfamiliar with protocols and had trouble coordinating -- both on the ground and online -- with existing agencies or organizations, a Department of Homeland Security report issued this summer found.
Social media made it possible for many organizations and volunteers to distribute information, the report said, but further coordination among groups is needed.
"In the future, relationship building and pre-organized processes for sharing of information responsibilities will be necessary to ensure information is verified, accurate, and comprehensive and available immediately or even prior to the onset of the disaster," it said.
The report identified a number of gaps in technology, policies and processes that should be rectified, including standardizing data, developing training on best practices for social media use, and improving the process for collaboration between groups to reduce duplication of efforts.
That's why organizations such as Hughes' Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania are working to solidify partnership arrangements. In the past year, the Red Cross has expanded its network from 22 community partners to nearly 70, said Hughes.
In particular, it is augmenting partnerships with faith-based organizations, which proved critical during Sandy. The Red Cross had asked about 100 churches to put preparation information in their Sunday bulletins.
"We want to expand that network," Hughes said.
And in regions such as Philadelphia with a large number of seniors, other methods are also necessary.
"Seniors don't tweet, seniors don't text," Hughes said. "You have to have old-fashioned, appropriately worded flyers that you can literally get into places."
Groups have also made logistical adjustments following Sandy, which they say is standard procedure after a disaster.
The Red Cross has beefed up supplies - particularly cots - and has repositioned where it stores some of those items. Atlantic County has also made changes to where it stores some equipment.
In Atlantic County, officials were "very fortunate to have a high number of volunteers," said Ed Conover, the deputy emergency management coordinator. But during the disaster, "spontaneous volunteers" also emerged in the field, requiring impromptu coordination efforts.
The county has been focusing on cementing partnerships before another storm hits, particularly to enhance the ability to shelter residents whose homes are lost or damaged.
"We've spent a lot of time firming up relationships with private partners, identifying sites to be used as shelters," Conover said.
"Those little things, during a disaster, it could save a lot of time or effort," Conover added.