Communications Clusterfuck: One Account of the Evacuation of NYC City Workers During Hurricane Sandy

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The following is a detailed account of one example of dysfunction in the communication of evacuation orders for city workers in New York as Hurricane Sandy approached. The author is anonymous in order to avoid putting them at risk with their employer.

I am in a mid-level management position at an agency that is part of the New York City government. My agency is filled with people with desk jobs; we are not first responders or in any way connected to emergency service work. On the afternoon of Friday, October 26, 2012, one of the executive staff members of my agency sent an email saying that a determination about how the agency would handle the impending storm would be made on Monday, and updates could be found on the City website. I barely noticed the email, and later in the day made fun of a friend who had already gone out to buy supplies for Sandy. The next day, my father called from my parents’ old house where the power goes out if someone sneezes too hard. He told me that I should come home before the storm arrived. I laughed and said that if things got that bad in Manhattan, the country had big problems. It wasn’t until Sunday that people like me started to realize the severity of the storm that was approaching.

On Sunday, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo announced that the subway system would be closed at 7pm and bus service would be suspended after 9pm. If there’s one thing that Bloomberg does not like to lose, it is money, and closing down public transportation in New York City would instantly cost millions of dollars, because people would be unable to get around and everything would have to close, and even if the storm came and went quickly, it would take hours to get the system up and running again. There was an announcement that there was a mandatory evacuation of anyone living in Zone A, and people who were not in Zone A should stay indoors because it would not be safe to be outside. The Mayor also asked that anyone with a car stay off the road. I looked at a map of the city to make sure I wasn’t living in Zone A and saw that although my apartment was safe, my office was in Zone A. Given that the Mayor referred to anyone staying in Zone A as “selfish” because they would be putting the lives of first responders in jeopardy if anyone needed to be rescued, I decided to check my work email to see officially that my office would be closed.

I was quite surprised to find an agency email from an executive staff member that parsed the Mayor’s speech as follows: The Mayor said that all City employees were required to report to work on Monday. All public transportation would be unavailable Monday. It was mandatory that all residents in Zone A evacuate. Therefore, a clarification needed to be made before any decision could be made about whether or not our agency was closed.

It had seemed quite clear that because the Mayor explicitly stated that absolutely no one should be in Zone A, that people had no way of getting around, and no one should even be outside because of the predicted severity of the storm, our agency would be an exception to the rule about City employees being required to report to work. Everyone knows that when the Mayor says that all City employees need to report to work during some type of impending natural disaster when he asks people to stay home and off the roads, it is not because he expects any non-emergency workers to actually go to work. It is a coded message that the City does not want to pay anyone, so if people do not report to work they will not get in trouble, they will simply have to use a vacation day.

I have worked for the City long enough that I don’t even have the opportunity to use all of the vacation time I have accrued. However, because of the economic crisis and the hiring freeze that came with it, my agency only recently began to staff up again. Half of our agency has less than six months’ tenure, which means that many people have none or almost no vacation time. And with the upcoming holiday season, for many people I work with, the email meant that people who get paid about $100 a day were not going to get paid, or whatever plans they had to spend travelling to see their families might not happen because they might not have the accrued time off necessary.

Before 2pm, the IT department sent an email to the agency saying that they were about to shut down the server for our office. My agency uses a specialized computer system, and without it, literally no work can be done. At this point, I thought for sure an official email would be sent at any moment saying that because our office was in a mandatory evacuation zone, because there was no public transportation to get to an area that was supposed to be evacuated, because the Mayor asked people to stay indoors, no one in their right mind would ask employees to walk miles through a hurricane to sit in an office where no work could be completed because the server was down.

Instead, the executive staff began sending out emails telling people that if they did not feel they could make it into the office, a vacation day would be taken, and if possible they should report to the office. Even after an email went out saying that Con Edison was shutting off power to the building at 3pm the next day, they reminded employees that the office would be open and they should report to work if able. As late as 10:45pm, emails were being sent telling everyone to report to work.

I had no intention of going to work, so I went to bed, still thinking that common sense would eventually prevail and an email would be sent telling people the office would be closed and no one should put themselves in harm’s way by entering a mandatory evacuation zone. However, that was not the case.

When I woke up and went outside, it was raining lightly, but there was already a very heavy wind. At 8:13am, an email was sent that Con Edison changed the time for shutting down the power to 12pm, and therefore people who had already reported to work should leave at 11am and people who had not yet left should not come in. At 8:17am, an email was finally sent out saying that the office was officially closed. I began sending text messages to the people I supervise to make sure they had not started to make their way to the office. Instead, I found that two people were already in the office. I asked how they got there, and was told that they rode their bicycles over the wet windy Brooklyn Bridge, which had been a pretty harrowing experience, and now they had to make their way back across the bridge. I checked in later to make sure they got home okay, which, thankfully, they both did. No one from the executive staff ever checked to see if any of the people who came into the office made it home okay. My guess is because they did not bother to go in.

Photo: Duncan Mitchell

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