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New York Officials Eye Harvey Devastation, Mindful it Can Happen Again Here

By Katie Honan | August 30, 2017 2:50pm
 The iconic photo taken hours before Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York City.
The iconic photo taken hours before Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York City.
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Courtesy Pete Brady

NEW YORK CITY — ​As Hurricane Harvey batters Texas and other Gulf Coast states, New York City emergency planners are keeping track of the devastation there and continuing to refine their own evacuation measures with lessons learned from past disasters here.

The city of Houston, which saw dozens of people die in 2005 during the evacuation for Hurricane Rita, did not order an evacuation ahead of Harvey.

"The local officials — we were all on the same page that to try to move 6.5 million people two or three days before this hurricane was scheduled to land would have put more people in danger," Mayor Sylvester Turner told NPR.

► READ MORE: FDNY, NY State National Guard Deployed For Hurricane Harvey Rescue

New York City has ordered its own hurricane evacuations — but they don't always go as planned.

Residents were ordered to evacuate during Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most of the residents in what was then Zone A, (and is now called Zone 1 under an expanded evacuation map) didn't leave, according to a Department of Health study. 

In New York City, which is a more compact city than Houston, the map of evacuation zones has been divvied up into six regions rather than three to better target the need. City officials try to persuade residents to leave by explaining the threat of a storm surge rushing into neighborhoods and creating hazardous conditions for rescuers.

► FIND YOUR HURRICANE EVACUATION ZONE

Hospitals and nursing homes remain among the highest concerns.

"One of the most difficult decisions is when you're moving the most medically fragile folks," Megan Pribram, Assistant Commissioner, Planning and Preparedness at the Office of Emergency Management, told DNAinfo New York.

During Sandy, after consultation with state officials, the city decided that more than 40 nursing and adult homes would not evacuate during the storm. Nearly 30 of those facilities flooded severely, and it took days for the thousands of residents to be evacuated, according to the New York Times

When evacuating health care facilities, officials coordinate with the state's health department to find beds and facilities for residents, Pribram said. Hospitals across the city prepare to take on coastal patients by canceling elective surgeries and other non-emergency visits to free up space.

In the worst-case scenario, city officials said they will order evacuations to dozens of facilities around the city. 

"We want to give people as much time as possible to evacuate," Omar Bourne, the deputy press officer for the Office of Emergency Management, said. "We strongly recommend for people to adhere to those evacuation orders once they are given.

But the city can't ultimately force people to leave, he said.

One way officials are trying to persuade them is through signs reminding people of Sandy's reach. Last year, the Office of Emergency Management began installing high water marks across the city to remind residents of the storm surge threat.

During Hurricane Sandy, wave heights and storm surges broke records; a sign posted in Rockaway Beach marks the nine feet of water that flooded the peninsula during the storm.

The signs "are a reminder of the risk and a reminder that people need to have emergency plans in place," Bourne said. 

READ DNAINFO'S FULL HURRICANE SANDY RECOVERY COVERAGE

Since Sandy, the city has also earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for coastal resiliency, completing some projects like the $480 million stronger boardwalk in Rockaway Beach. A 4-foot high flood wall was installed in Red Hook this summer, although it sits below the high water mark from the 2012 storm.

Other plans include Lower Manhattan resiliency projects and protections on Staten Island.  

While New York City hasn't seen any major storms since Sandy — although there was a close call with Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 — officials continue to monitor developing storms.

"We always look at the forecast, but it only takes one," Pribram said. "We take every season very seriously."