NYC Council eyes disaster planning after Sandy

The city's 911 call-handling system again called into question

By Jennifer Peltz
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Superstorm Sandy pointed out shortcomings in the city's preparedness for gasoline shortages, food distribution and other problems, lawmakers said Monday as mayoral aides spotlighted what they see as an extensive response to unprecedented destruction.

City Council members at a hearing on Sandy questioned the administration's handling of post-storm problems from helping homebound people to dealing with downed trees, while emergency response union leaders said the storm underscored longstanding criticisms of the city's 911 call-handling system. Some lawmakers asked why a city that had long said it was planning for hurricanes wasn't able to move faster to set up relief centers and contend with other needs.

"We have to do better," Councilman Peter Vallone said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is still reviewing its response to Sandy and looking at such questions as how to get more people to comply with evacuation orders, Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway said.

He said it was too soon to say what might be done differently in the future, "but I can tell you there will be things that will be changed."

The Oct. 29 storm pummeled the city with the worst flooding in recent memory, killed 43 people and sparking a dizzying roster of emergencies: a fire that destroyed 126 beachfront homes, an electrical transformer explosion that helped darken a huge part of lower Manhattan, hospitals that needed abrupt evacuations when generators failed, a construction crane that nearly fell apart and dangled precariously in Sandy's winds.

The city's response included helping distribute 2 million ready-to-eat meals and 1 billion bottles of water, picking up tons of debris and getting generators from as far away as Texas to provide temporary power to public-housing high-rises, Holloway said.

Meanwhile, the city's first-of-its-kind "Rapid Repairs" program has arranged electrical and other key repairs at 4,800 private homes so far; more than 13,000 homeowners applied. Some residents and advocates have said the repairs weren't rapid enough; the city now expects to have the projects finished in 40 days, Holloway said.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn and some colleagues, though, suggested the administration had been underprepared to deal with a basic need: getting food and other relief quickly to people in storm-damaged neighborhoods, and getting word out that it was available. Bloomberg launched food distribution on Nov. 1, the fourth day after the storm's arrival.

Until then, the city had to focus on search and rescue efforts, Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno said.

The city also scrambled to deal with a gasoline crunch after Sandy left a key pipeline out of service and many service stations out of power. After initially saying the shortage was expected to ease fairly quickly, Bloomberg ultimately instituted a gas-rationing system from Nov. 9 to Nov. 24.

The problem "should have been anticipated," Vallone said.

Sandy also swamped the city's 911 system, which fielded more than 10,000 calls per half-hour at the height of the storm, 10 times the normal volume. The system, overhauled after a 2003 regional blackout, has spurred years of contention between the city and unions representing firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers. The unions say the new system has led to delays, the administration says it eliminated inefficiencies, and the two sides dispute whether response times have grown or shrunk.

Israel Miranda, president of Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics and Fire Inspectors Local 2507, told council members the 911 technology "systematically denied service to distressed New Yorkers" during Sandy. He cited records showing that scores of calls within minutes were marked by a notation that means no responders were dispatched.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley called the matter troubling, but Holloway insisted the 911 technology "did not fail in any way."

The not-dispatched calls may have been duplicates, calls from areas that rescuers knew were inaccessible or calls from people who were trapped in their homes but not experiencing medical problems, which got priority, Fire Department spokesman Francis Gribbon said by phone.

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