Upper West Side CERT

Excerpts from the Night of Irene

Upper West Side CERT volunteers on what it was like to man the city’s shelters during the worst storm to hit the east coast in 26 years — and to support the relief effort from behind the scenes.

ROBERT BRILL, ESQ. – The Value of Good Protocols

Nan (Nan A. Canter) was great as the leader of our group. We were particularly blessed, I thought, to have an excellent school custodian and janitor who both were instrumental in assisting with the utilization of IS 118, where we set up one of three Upper West Side emergency shelters. There were a number of other city employees and volunteers that were very, very helpful.

The more I am involved with CERT the more I appreciate the value of operations manuals. “The Book” is an excellent device to save time, and lives, and to permit on-the-spot adapting to unforeseen circumstances. Arguably, you can’t teach someone to be a leader, but you can have in place basic, simple routines and organizational processes that a CERT team can implement, whether they are commanded well or not at all.

NAN A. CANTER – Team Loyalty Makes It Work

The reason everything worked so well was because of the folks — both city employees and neighborhood people — who turned up to volunteer. Robert is exactly right: it was fortunate that throughout the event our shelter never had lines or lacked for spontaneous volunteers.

There was one American Red Cross volunteer, Linda, who, like me, had worked in a developing country and was used to having not much more at her disposal than the will to make things work. Working with meager resources was probably the best training I could have had for setting up a shelter.

IS118 volunteer group

CERT volunteers at I.S. 118, with Councilmember Gale Brewer (right) and group leader Nan Canter (2nd from right).

We used plenty of elbow grease that night: three male school teachers plus Linda and I unloaded the entire tractor trailer. Seriously!

Because we were beginning with no instructions on how the physical plant should look, Linda researched that while I tried to see what paperwork might be available. A woman who stopped by to see if she could help thankfully had some computer savvy — at least more than I — and was able to set up the Sahana (disaster management) registration system.

The major problem the first day was that we didn’t know that there were four POD (storage unit) bins in the school until the late evening when the relief custodian asked why we weren’t using them. Thankfully he knew where to look and stayed with us to help  to set up the administrative function of the shelter. By the way, these POD bins have all kinds of booklets about how to set up a POD. Thanks a lot!

But this is the big picture: As the ad hoc manager of our shelter at IS118, I saw something happen that I have always sensed. When volunteers first show up to work they come for the cause. They remain — sometimes through all kinds of physical discomfort, difficult clients, and long, often overnight hours — because of the other volunteers they meet, and a sense of loyalty to the team they’re now a part of.

The unbelievable team loyalty I felt during the last difficult hours gave me the strength to remain at my station until the emergency was over. Every single volunteer was willing to stay another night. In fact, in the end, I had to kick everyone out!

Team loyalty cannot be taught, but it’s a large part of what makes the team a success.

IAN ALTERMAN – My Frustrating but Interesting Irene Experience

Ian AltermanFrustrating, because I could not join my CERT colleagues at hurricane evacuation centers or do anything of real value since I had to work during the weekend.  Arghh!

However, I took my CDS (CityWide Disaster Services) radio to work with me on Saturday, along with a fully stocked Go Bag, knowing I would not be coming home until Monday, since mass transit had already been shut down when I left. I had decided to monitor the radio, both to stay informed and to see how CDS functions during a real emergency. It really was an interesting and instructive experience.

I kept the radio on the entire time I was awake (two 12-hour shifts over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, from 4pm to 4am, plus any other awake time), so I heard everything. It was fascinating to have all the newest information, even before Notify NYC, much less the media. For example, I heard the switch from hurricane watch to hurricane warning about ten minutes before my phone rang with a text from Notify NYC.

Similarly, I heard a tornado warning about ten minutes before Notify NYC sent it out. The tornado had touched down in Delaware, damaging 15 buildings, destroying one, and causing some injuries.

I also heard every single new announcement about closings of bridges, highways, etc., in real time, and at least half an hour before the media picked it up. (I was also monitoring CNN.com, The New York Times, and NY1 online.) I heard each new comment about wind speeds in and around NYC, flood encroachments in the outer boroughs, and actual emergencies, including a boater in distress in Brooklyn, and a (truly foolish!) windsurfer, blown almost 100 yards out from the beach, who fell off his board and had to be rescued. These emergencies, of course, brought in the Coast Guard. There was also a fire in the basement of a 25-story residential building in the Financial District that did not make the news at all.

I was most impressed by how absolutely calm and professional everyone was on the air — CDS, NYPD, FDNY, Coast Guard, et al — and the efficiency with which they made their reports. Those of us who took the radio training were taught to think about what we say, and try to use as few words as possible to convey the information.  I could see why this is absolutely critical in an emergency.  Sometimes things are happening so quickly or are so urgent that it is crucial to speak quickly, release and listen, speak quickly again, and so on. I also got to see the importance of using words like “over” or “out”: even among these professionals, when someone forgot to do that (which was not very often, but it did happen), the other person would get back on the radio and request a response. And having to do this took valuable time.

Although the only thing I could do with all the information I heard was to keep the residents of the building updated (I work as a residential concierge at a new rental building in Chelsea), it felt good to be able to do so, particularly when I could update them with respect to things getting back up and running.

And although I was frustrated not to be doing something truly active as a CERT member, it felt really good to be continuously informed (and actually made me feel closer to all of you — no joke!), and to be able to use at least some of that information for the benefit of the residents of the building. Indeed, many of them asked about the radio, and when I told them what it was, they said they felt safer just knowing I had it there.

LINDA LOPEZ – Tweeting through It All

Linda LopezOne of my jobs as an UWS CERT leader and the team’s marcomm person is to maintain the Web site and Twitter feed. When we knew that the New York area was going to take a hit from Hurricane Irene, I took to the Internet to begin gathering and disseminating tips and information to our 400-plus Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and to monitor the conversations of those we follow.

I was also available by my phone to deal with any unforeseen snags in the UWS CERT deployment, should the team leader become unavailable.

Good communication is key in an emergency, and our team used all the tools at its disposal — the Internet, CDS radios, mobile technology, and the OEM bank of information, as well as more traditional information channels — to stay and keep each other informed.

I was cheered by the responses we got from our Twitter followers and friends to the information we shared in the days leading up to Irene, and during the torrential battering we took from Saturday night to early Sunday morning. We were re-tweeted by several people, including @agreatbigcity (twice to their 614 followers), @CitizenCorps (to 5,440 followers) — they also favorited one of our tweets, @1800Prepare (to 869 followers), and @Northlandfox (to 4,994 followers). We got mentions and shout-outs from many more. That kind of exposure is priceless when you’re trying to spread the preparedness gospel.

Now that Irene has passed, our team will proceed to leverage what we’ve learned, not only to improve our value on the ground as an emergency response team, but also to continue fine-tuning our communications, so that we can quickly and efficiently share our knowledge with others — and be ready for next time.


Team member George Contreras was a guest on the Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC) on Friday, the morning before the hurricane hit. He appeared as a spokesperson for the MPA Program in Emergency and Disaster Management at the Metropolitan College of New York.

Team member Lance Dashefsky was the evacuation and shelter center manager at the Coney Island location; he’s wearing a green CERT vest and can be seen in the NY1 clip walking with Mayor Bloomberg, and in a photo in the mayor’s photostream on Flickr.

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