Just five years ago, most New Yorkers were unaware that their city was susceptible to extreme weather events. Sure, some residents of coastal communities experienced flooding following big seasonal storms, but other massively disruptive events — terrorist attacks, blackouts, riots and even transit strikes — were fresher in the city’s collective memory than the last major hurricane to slam the five boroughs, the so-called Long Island Express, which hit in 1938, killing more than 600 people.
“Until Hurricane Irene, most New Yorkers thought big storms happened in Florida or the Carolinas,” said Nancy Greco Silvestri, a spokesperson for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.
This lack of awareness, Silvestri says, is a liability that the city has been working to remedy.
“We’ve moved the target over the years,” she said. “First it was about making people aware of the fact that hurricanes can happen here. Now, it’s a little more nuanced. We want the three million New Yorkers who live in hurricane evacuation zones to know their designation, have a plan and stay informed.”
When Hurricane Irene was churning its way up the eastern seaboard in August 2011, the City only had three evacuation zone designations: A, B and C. Though there were maps available and links on the City’s website, the information was not front and center or easy to read. Many residents, including me (I live on the border of Zone A and B), turned to other resources, particularly media outlets like WNYC and the New York Times, which published user-friendly online maps.
In the lead up to the storm, the City evacuated residents in Zone A. Though the brunt of the storm skipped New York City, saving its wrath for Upstate New York and interior New England, areas of which saw massive flooding and suffered significant damage, Hurricane Irene was not only a reminder to New York City’s eight million citizens but also a wake-up call for city officials.
One year later, when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coast sending a massive storm surge into New York Harbor, the City again evacuated Zone A, and this time they did so with outreach and a better online presentation, ensuring that evacuation zone maps, shelter information and other pertinent details were readily available. Though the impact of Sandy was far worse than Irene, the City and its residents were better prepared.
Two years on, just weeks after the start of another Atlantic hurricane season, the Office of Emergency Management is ramping up its awareness campaign more than ever before. Advertisements on billboards, bus shelters and in the subway implore New Yorkers to “know your zone,” and a new, user-friendly website has all the information a New Yorker could need, including updated maps that show the new six-zone evacuation scheme, information on potential hazards, planning tools, and a sign-up list for Office of Emergency Management correspondence by email, text message, phone, or Twitter.
“When it comes to emergency preparedness, information is key,” said Silvestri. “New York City and the new administration are serious about keeping New Yorkers safe and up-to-date. That’s where our efforts have been focused, and we have every indication that it’s working.”
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b