In his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke of the need to revamp New York’s emergency management system, saying that last year’s floods had exposed the limitations of the system.
Cuomo has tapped Jerry Hauer, an emergency management expert who once served with the U.S. Department of Health, to redesign the state’s emergency response system.
Hauer is to establish a new statewide network of municipal and regional emergency responders “to help ensure the most efficient deployment of all our combined resources in emergency situations.” He said that Hauer will convene the first network conference “in the coming months.”
Hauer’s experience also includes stints heading emergency management for the city of New York and the state of Indiana.
“During storms Irene and Lee, I witnessed firsthand breakdowns in communications and transportation and inadequate deployment of personnel,” Cuomo said. “We must have the best state emergency management operation in the country.”
Legislators representing the Capital Region said they support the goal.
“I have to give the governor and his staff tremendous credit,” said Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, whose district includes some of the hardest-hit areas in the state. “He’s demonstrated that he understands how fragile our communities are and how complex it can be to respond to emergencies of this scale.”
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, supported the call but said the governor’s proposal is short on details. He said it was important to evaluate the storm response and figure out what worked and what could be done better, but the state should be wary of setting up a committee that doesn’t do anything.
“We don’t need another study,” he said. “We’ve got too many ghost committees.”
State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he didn’t observe too many breakdowns in communication during the flood, but he supported the governor’s call for an overhaul.
“Certainly we’re vulnerable along the Mohawk,” he said.
911 went out
Judith Warner, director of Schoharie County’s Emergency Management Office, experienced the difficulties in communication firsthand.
As floodwaters neared Schoharie County’s Public Safety Facility, where the 911 dispatch center and emergency management headquarters are located, officials scrambled to relocate to Cobleskill. Their work was made more difficult by the fact that the 911 system shut down, forcing emergency personnel to rely on a radio system considered flawed before Tropical Storm Irene hit.
Warner said Schoharie County has always prided itself on its self-sufficiency and has responded to floods well in the past. The flooding caused by Irene was overwhelming, however, she said, and state help is needed.
“Having statewide mutual aid, of personnel and equipment, I absolutely support that,” she said. “I feel that’s something we need. … I like the words. I want to see it happen.”
Warner said the severity of the storm came as a surprise, as weather reports suggested its impact would be greater to the southeast, in New York City and the surrounding areas.
“Even the websites were not able to keep up,” she said.
One thing Warner would like to do is develop a network of volunteers who live near the headwaters of the Schoharie Creek and could call the emergency management office and provide information about water levels. The National Weather Service has a network of trained severe weather spotters, called Skywarn.
In December, Schoharie County received $858,000 from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to improve first-responder communication.
Local legislators have their own ideas for improving how the state responds to and recovers from natural disasters.
Lopez plans to introduce the Whole Communities Recovery Act, which aims to create a framework for future disaster relief efforts across the state. Among other things, the legislation would establish a grant and zero-interest loan program for homeowners affected by a natural disaster.
Lopez said the state was forced to create flood-relief programs “on the fly” after Irene and Lee, and his legislation would create a formal disaster recovery program. He said state funding is available to help communities affected by the flooding, but municipalities and agencies, particularly those in small, rural areas, have struggled to access it, often because they lack staff.
“Are communities aware of the aid available?” he asked. “Do they have the expertise available to fill out an application? We need to be able to get those resources into the hands of people who need it. Many of these offices might be run on a shoestring, they might have a very small staff.”
Lopez was personally affected by the flood. Members of his staff lost their homes, and his parents’ home in Schoharie was heavily damaged.
Tedisco and Farley have introduced a bill that would eliminate the state sales tax for moving expenses and the purchase of appliances, clothing and construction for victims of Irene and Lee.
“Every little bit helps,” Tedisco said.
In his State of the State, Cuomo said the storm, as devastating as it was, brought out the best in New Yorkers.
“Last summer, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee devastated communities all over the state — communities that could least afford it,” Cuomo said. “We are still reeling from the damage today. But in our darkest hours, New York shined the brightest, and the storm clouds had a silver lining: the way New Yorkers responded. People all across the state came together in a beautiful display of community. And our first responders were selfless. They were professional. And they were courageous. They are what public service is all about.”