Emergency! Group of Upper East Siders Prepare for Doomsday Scenarios

Written by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth on . Posted in News Our Town, Our Town.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How one local group is making sure Upper East Siders are ready for hurricanes, terrorist attacks and other
doomsday scenarios.

Imagine one day in the indeterminate future, you’re going about your day when the unthinkable happens. A bomb has gone off in Midtown. An earthquake has toppled Manhattan. A blackout has disabled all communication and transportation. Thrown into this disaster scenario, without warning, do you know what to do?

Many New Yorkers might simply panic. But there is a group of Upper East Side residents who are working diligently to ensure that their neighbors won’t be among the frenzied masses if a major event throws the area into chaos.

“Nobody seems to be doing anything. Nobody seems to be activating this neighborhood. We have to have effective policy makers and implementation on all levels,” said Jacquie Watkins Slifka, the driving force behind the Upper East Side Community Coalition. The group of stakeholders—representatives from local buildings and businesses, churches and schools as well as from the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the Fire Department and the Police Department—has been quietly meeting over the past several months in order to better prepare the neighborhood for a disaster.

Slifka became concerned about her community’s preparedness after Hurricane Irene struck the city last summer and she saw how the shelters in the neighborhood were overwhelmed and insufficiently run.

“I went into a shelter,” Slifka said of that time. “Nobody knew how to run a shelter. I made up my mind that I would go back to work and that we would create a model and a pilot program. I am very discouraged by this whole situation where there is no preparation by the community whatsoever.”

Slifka had formed the Association of Residential Boards, a group of Upper East Side co-op and building presidents, in 1990 and had always been surprised that few buildings had comprehensive emergency plans in place. She joined the East Sixties Neighborhood Association’s Community Emergency Response Team (ESNA CERT), a volunteer group trained and operated by the Office of Emergency Management, but felt it wasn’t doing enough, which is why she began to form the Coalition.

She soon recruited Dr. Robert Bristow to the effort. Bristow is the medical director of emergency management at New York Presbyterian Hospital and the director of disaster medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons. He’s seen his share of emergency situations around the world, and was particularly inspired to get the local community better prepared after his trip to Japan in 2011 in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami there.

“They had invested an awful lot of time and energy in community preparedness. Five days post-event, the community itself has sort of organized where the survivors were, gotten bedding and food and were coordinating with the state and federal governments,” Bristow said.

Many displaced survivors were on their own for about seven days, he said, while the federal government was dealing with the nuclear disaster and the local governments were overtaxed helping the severely injured and most vulnerable populations.

“It kind of gave me pause. I was thinking about the snowstorm after Christmas where people were complaining that the government couldn’t [plow] the streets quickly enough,” Bristow said. “Most of the preparedness is at the city level, the hospital level. I don’t think the community is as prepared as it needs to be.”

Bristow often trains medical personnel for emergencies, but he began to think about shifting the focus to civilian training. Slifka heard him speak and got him on board with her newly formed Coalition. The goal is to get leaders from every building in the 15-block radius from East 68th to 71st streets between York and Park avenues connected and prepared for a situation that would render the Upper East Side isolated or in heavy crisis mode.

“Most of the people in the area, when there’s a disaster, they have a hard time grasping what to do,” said Bill Fichter, the superintendent of the Trump Palace at 200 E. 69th Street. “The whole idea on this is we act together as a community and we help one another. My job in this was to band a bunch of the supers together instead of just being caught in our own little world, our own buildings.”
Fichter said that most superintendents and building presidents they’ve approached have been excited to join the coalition, recognizing how important it could be to have a localized plan. They’re working on developing a centralized communication system that would activate everyone with the coalition’s boundaries, and on a way to get residents more informed.
“There is much more disinformation than information out there,” said Barry Schneider, the executive director of the ESNA CERT. His team of about 17 active members, trained by OEM in areas like fire fighting, light search and rescue, and basic medical triage, has been deployed only four or five times since it formed, but he said that the most important role the CERT can play is in education.

“We try to go out and lecture and discuss Ready New York,” a manual the city publishes on disaster preparedness, Schneider said. “We should be doing more of that, the city should be doing more of that. Most people haven’t got a clue.”

One of the most important things, Bristow said, is to let people know that in an emergency, they should not automatically go to their nearest hospital.

“If there’s a major event, we’re really going to need the community to be somewhat autonomous and take care of itself,” Bristow said. “The reality is that during a disaster, a hospital is going to be the last place to go. We’re going to be scrambling to take care of everyone.”
Slifka emphasized that people cannot rely on the local authorities to step in immediately in a disaster, which is the driving motivation behind her efforts.

“Families have to be able to make some quick decisions. We’re trying to get all that in place so that we’re not relying on the city, state or federal government,” Slifka said. “There will be go bags in every apartment, there will extra water in every building. I’m determined to have this one area prepared, and I hope it will serve as a model.”

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