Storm Sandy brought more to the shores of the New York metro area than wind, water, lost lives and billions of dollars of damage. The storm placed a spotlight on disaster preparedness, recovery and the leadership of government officials, utilities and disaster services. The following is a communications scorecard since Sandy blew through the area.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – Rating D-minus
The mayor did not cancel, or at minimum, postpone the New York City Marathon that was to occur less than one week after the area was struck by Storm Sandy. After the storm, preparations continued for the Sunday race while city residents were in need of electricity, heat, food and transportation. Generators for the race remained idle in Central Park and port-a-johns were corralled in Manhattan.
Homeless New Yorkers who quickly found accommodations at local hotels were forced from their rooms when notified that guests with reservations were in town for the scheduled marathon. Other people desperate for food were seen diving into dumpsters for scraps while runners and race officials were treated to hot meals at the Javits Center.
The New York Post brought this embarrassing situation to the public’s attention through front page headlines. When the race eventually was cancelled, the mayor did not publically make the announcement nor was he available to answer media questions.
Bloomberg rarely was seen meeting with the people who had lost power or their homes. He held regular news conferences in an indoor war room, possibly the Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn, or at city hall in Manhattan. During each session, he droned on with details, which were necessary, but an expression of compassion was not felt for all who were affected by the storm.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – Rating D
The governor seemed to lead from a lofty location, though he gets credit for meeting people in some of the affected areas and actually helping move supplies to help them. His consistent demand has been that he will hold utilities accountable for the timely return of power to businesses and homes.
This repeated message played to voters and quickly became hollow, especially as residents remained in the dark and were unable to obtain answers from utility hotlines. Companies such as Con Edison may get fined by the state and quasi-government utilities such as LIPA might see a top executive or two fired. Cuomo, however, will not stand up to the union workers, who still had not restored power to customers in non-flood areas of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties by the time the nor’easter storm struck a week later.
Gas, Insurance Wars
On the Saturday after Sandy, Cuomo announced that military-supplied fuel trucks were to be stationed at designated locations in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. The public descended on the locations only to be told that the gas was reserved for emergency responders and vehicles. Cuomo then hid behind an aide, who pointed fingers at the military for providing misinformation.
Cuomo also has blamed residents for the gas shortage and long lines at the pumps, calling it “panic buying.” He had the power to calm the situation but he failed to immediately implement odd-even gasoline purchase days in the affected counties.
A few days after the storm, Cuomo announced that homeowners with storm-related damage would not have to pay deductibles on insurance claims. In a news release, the governor stated that the state’s Department of Financial Services informed the insurance industry that hurricane deductibles should not be triggered by the storm.
After many online media comments and social media postings addressed concern with the state’s decision to waive deductibles in contracts between homeowners and private insurance companies, one post on an online publication shared this comment from Kathy Weinheimer, vice president for industry and government relations at the Insurance Agents & Brokers Association of New York: “Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania officials have barred the use of hurricane deductibles for claims. That’s because Sandy was downgraded to a post-tropical storm from Category 1 hurricane status just before it made landfall in New Jersey.”
Only with this comment was the decision by the state clearly understood, but the announcement still raised serious issues not addressed by the governor’s office. These included:
- The possibility that insurance companies either would use the non-paid deductibles as a tax write off (ensuring that taxpayers pay for it), or they will raise future rates when policies are renewed or new policies are created to cover Sandy loses, or the companies will do both;
- Governments becoming involved in business decisions between insurance companies and homeowners;
- Homeowners, including those in designated flood zones, were not held accountable for signing polices that contained identified deductable responsibilities.
New Jersey And NJ/NY Utility Unions
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – Rating B+
The governor considered the president to be a new-found buddy for the obvious reason to ensure that the federal government was engaged with funds and services for his state’s residents. To some, Christie’s praise of the president, plus his emphatic declaration that the Tuesday election did not mean anything to him, may have tarnished his rise within the Republican Party. This is especially true now that the president is believed to have received a poll “bump” for his New Jersey photo appearance and that he was re-elected.
Christie certainly showed leadership for the people of New Jersey and helped his re-election chances, but he may now be an outcast to some in his own party. He could, however, become one of the leaders of a re-invented Republican Party that has become a topic of discussion among conservatives since Tuesday’s election results.
Christie’s work, compassion, empathy and leadership were huge in helping start the recovery in New Jersey. Among his many decisions, the installation of odd-even days for purchasing gasoline calmed a potential panic and hoarding issue.
Certain New Jersey and New York utility union members – Rating F
Labeled as thugs by some talk show commentators, several New Jersey union members verbally intimidated non-union utility crews from Alabama who arrived to assist with the restoration of power. The Jersey boys called the southerners “scabs” amidst a lot more foul language.
On Long Island, a letter from a Hauppauge-based union that was sent to out-of-state utilities demanded a signature to guarantee that non-union and right-to-work state crews would be responsible for paying dues and other fees to the union while working with the Long Island Power Authority. A wise union leader later cancelled this letter.
In these incidences, certain union members put their organizations and themselves above helping their neighbors during a disaster.
The Rest Of The Politicians, Disaster Services
All New York political figures, collectively, depending on their scope of responsibilities – Rating F
- For failure to properly station National Guard units and disaster resources in advance of the storm so that they could be mobilized quickly when deemed safe to proceed;
- For failure to be engaged with utility companies to help them effectively and quickly restore power;
- For not anticipating that road issues and electrical outages would cause problems at the gas pumps, and not providing solutions once the long lines began to form.
Disaster Services – D- (for FEMA and Red Cross)
The Salvation Army seems to have been engaged in helping victims. But, FEMA and the Red Cross were not entrenched early and were slow to respond. The Red Cross was not functioning in the field (verses its set-up of shelters) until three days after the storm. The Staten Island borough president called the agency’s apparent absence an “absolute disgrace” and advised residents not to donate to the organization.
The Red Cross’ lack of response in New York is a huge surprise. For several years, the American Red Cross in Greater New York had constructed a solid response framework and had earned a good reputation for responding to all kinds of emergencies in New York City and surrounding New York counties. It had planned disaster relief procedures and drills with partner groups and area Offices of Emergency Management. For years, a former director of the Staten Island unit had worked tirelessly at community relations in that borough.
Then the bottom fell out of the economy. The Red Cross, as with many nonprofits, was hit hard by eroding donations and budget cuts. Many of the top executives at the New York chapter departed and more than 50 percent of the staff gradually left or lost their jobs. While many organiations and people are donating to the Red Cross to help the victims of Sandy, many others are opting for other national charities or grassroots groups.