“We did a review of the city’s weather-related evacuation plan,” says Assemblyman Brodsky, “and drew the conclusion that the city’s completely unprepared and relying on an outdated, unworkable plan.”
Brodsky claims the mayor’s office stonewalled him at every turn. Repeated attempts to question Office of Emergency Management commissioner Joseph Bruno were thwarted. “I believe Joe Bruno is an honest professional,” Brodsky says. “Joe said our review ‘lit a fire under our rear end.’ But the mayor’s office refused to cooperate.”
Using subpoenas, Brodsky has now begun to get access to critical documents and Bruno has testified at two hearings, one held last week. “It’s fairly clear that no one has looked at the evacuation plan since the year 2000,” Brodsky says. OEM says the plan is a work in progress and they are updating it.
A mass vaccination is “something we’re constantly working on,” says Weisfuse. “If we had to do it, we could.”
The principal problem, according to Brodsky’s review, is the two-tiered system to provide refuge. First, evacuees will have to go to one of 23 reception centers, then they will be directed to a shelter. Brodsky believes this is a ridiculous setup that will only double the traffic.
“OEM says they did it this way because people won’t want to leave their cars behind and there isn’t sufficient parking at the shelters,” Brodsky says. “Well, guess what? Over half the reception centers have no parking either.”
The city has also underestimated by more than half, according to the assemblyman, the number of people who’ll have to be sheltered and evacuated. “But the most damning thing is they don’t even have a computer model for evacuation,” Brodsky says.
“It’s like they’re playing Sink the Bismarck and pushing plastic pieces around a tabletop rather than running the various scenarios through a computer to determine how many people they can get out in how many hours.”
The evacuation plan also relies heavily on the use of mass transit, but the system’s workers have received no training. Since many of these employees live in evacuation zones, they may be faced with an unfortunate choice between evacuating their families or going to work to evacuate strangers.
The lack of training is a critical issue when it comes to terrorism as well. During last summer’s subway bombings in London, the actions taken by train crews in the first five minutes—before the first-responders arrived—are recognized as having saved a lot of people. Workers in London’s Underground are all trained in first aid. New York transit workers have received no such training.
Hospitals and nursing homes are not part of OEM’s plan—they fall under state jurisdiction—and are essentially left to their own devices for evacuation. No one currently knows which facilities actually have plans or if they’d work. One city insider told me that after Katrina, Mayor Bloomberg put the state on notice about this, and the State Department of Health has now begun to step up to the plate.
It is possible to get a sense of what New York’s officials are worried about by looking at the kinds of drills that have taken place recently. One of the more interesting and complex recent exercises began with the simulated release of anthrax during a concert in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. Called POD-X (points-of-distribution exercise), the goal of the run-through was to test the city’s ability to amass and distribute medicine to perhaps millions of people.
New York is the only city with “green status” (green as in go) to receive immediate access to the strategic national stockpile. The stockpile is actually several shipping containers placed in key locations around the country filled with emergency medical supplies, like Cipro for anthrax exposure.
“New York has a system in place to mass-medicate,” says Ed Gabriel, deputy commissioner for planning and preparedness at OEM. “Once we call in the federal supplies, we have a plan that includes opening and staffing distribution centers around the city, getting the word out to the public, and implementing security. Cops have to guard the stockpile, accompany shipments to locations around the city, and maintain order at the centers.”
Calling it a “system” is probably overstating the case at this point. More than 200 sites—not hospitals, to avoid having them overrun—have been chosen in neighborhoods across the city to distribute medicine and, if necessary, vaccinate people.
“We’ve written protocols for setup and procedures,” says Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, the Health Department’s deputy commissioner for disease control. “In drills, the highest rate at which we’ve dispensed antibiotics is 1,400 people an hour at each POD. Vaccination takes more time. It’s something we’re constantly working on. It’s an immense task, and we’ve made a lot of progress. If we had to do it, we could.”
Again, while experts say New York is light-years ahead of everyone else on this—the NYPD even has a fully formed plan to quickly medicate its own officers at the start of a crisis so they won’t lose any time on the street—the city is still not quite there yet on a practical, finished plan.