New York City

Disaster drill at Brooklyn OEM preps for nuclear blast in Manhattan

Planning for the worst

October 22, 2014 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
OEM Commissioner Joseph Esposito. Photo by Mary Frost
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How would the New York City and its regional neighbors react if a nuclear device went off in Midtown Manhattan?

New York City’s Office of Emergency Management ran a simulated disaster drill on Wednesday in Downtown Brooklyn to evaluate how the city’s responders could coordinate with neighboring counties and states in handling a radiological catastrophe.

Officials from local, state, and federal agencies along with private entities like the Red Cross filled the computer and media-filled Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

In the scenario, a 10-ton nuclear blast in Times Square went off at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning, killing roughly 100,000 on impact, with an unknown number of injured. Hospitals quickly became overwhelmed, with thousands trapped in the rubble, elevators, cars and trains.

Midtown Manhattan became inaccessible due to damage and high radiation levels, with the borough essentially cut in half. The hot zone, in this drill, extended from Midtown north into Connecticut. Power, gas and steam went out in Manhattan, and communications became poor to non-existent.

Shelter-in-place orders were issued to those in the dangerous fallout zone and in the moderate damage zones. But many residents couldn’t get home and sought temporary shelters instead. Streets became clogged with cars and buses, buildings collapsed, water mains were destroyed and water became contaminated. NYPD and FDNY requested assistance from the surrounding areas.

During the drill, six EOCs, including the city’s central one in Brooklyn, coordinated a regional response to these seemingly impossible conditions.

Responders had to quickly grapple with questions including, “What is the area affected; how to assure the safety of first responders; how to get people out of the fallout area – and not just by car, but by rail and even by ferry,” said OEM spokesperson Nancy Greco Silvestri.

Responders themselves may be worried about their families back home, Silvestri said. “Staffing is another issue. We have to make sure employees are taken care of.”

Major concerns include shelter, food water, fuel, power and telecom networks, she said. To answer questions about where the nuclear cloud might be headed, “We bring in subject matter experts, weather experts, and hook to the federal government by phone, Skype, radio.”

Esposito: OEM HQ would become the ‘seat of government’

OEM Commissioner Joseph Esposito said the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team (RCPT) chose a worst-case scenario. “In an incident like this, the system would be challenged.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and city commissioners would head to OEM headquarters — if the OEM building is still standing. (If not, the city has other, non-disclosed locations.) “This would become the seat of government,” Esposito said.

“The main challenges are how to communicate with each other, the federal government, and state partners. The key to coordination is communication,” he said.

He advised that residents pack a portable radio in their Go Bags. “Know that phones may be out. Communication is key.”

Learning from previous disasters like Hurricane Sandy, Esposito said that agencies would coordinate their communications to have clear and concise messages for the public.

“I was with the Police Department during Sandy. We critiqued ourselves,” and came up with a number of improvements, he said.

“We have warehouses in New Jersey and Long Island to bring supplies to people in need. During Sandy, some people wouldn’t evacuate because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind. So now we have pet food for people who evacuate. It’s down to the granular stuff. We say it’s minute, but if people won’t evacuate because there’s no pet food, it’s not minute.”

Charles Wells, American Red Cross in Greater New York’s liaison with the NYC OEM, said that the agencies would coordinate on getting accurate information out to the public.

“We want to minimize the confusion and fear level,” he said. “We plan to communicate in plain language and keep it simple.”

Public notifications of where radiation-free areas are located would be described in words over the radio, in case Internet, cell phones and television are down. “We’ll cite four different locations for the radio,” he said.

Hospitals to activate surge plans

In Wednesday’s scenario, one participant estimated the number of injured patients to be roughly a half million.

According to the American Hospital Directory, New York State has 58,506 staffed hospital beds in total.

Hospitals would activate their surge plans, he said, discharging less critical patients to make room for those hurt in the disaster. EMS responders would transport patients in better shape to hospitals outside the city — to New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester.

Large numbers of residents and responders would have to be decontaminated with soap and water, he added. “Copious amounts of water.”

With 100,000 dead, a Regional Mass Fatality Management Plan would be put into place to deal with the large numbers, and to identify them to ease anguish among loved ones.

Curve balls

Jacob Cooper, deputy commissioner for training, exercises and evaluation, announced situation updates to the “players” in the drill.

“We need to get city shelters up and running,” he said over a loudspeaker. “There are still people stuck in debris, elevators and trains. We need staging areas for federal assets, and we need to get food, water and other commodities set up.”

Throughout the exercise, some members of the team threw curve balls to the agency representatives gathered in the EOC. At one point, the city lost a vast amount of emergency supplies it had stockpiled – equipment, food and clothing. At another, medical iodine that was to be issued to residents disappeared somewhere in the supply chain.

Eddie McQuillan, with the American Red Cross, in that in an actual nuclear disaster, unless they were in the hot zone, people should stay indoors in an inside room or a basement – the lowest room possible. “Listen to the radio, close windows and doors, shut off the HVAC. Use your stockpiled food and water.”

The drill was not held to showcase a polished response, but to bring up the many questions that need to be addressed, said Paula Carlson, NYC OEM deputy director of exercises. She said that participants were asking questions like, “‘Who’s going to take care of schoolchildren if their parents can’t pick them up?’ We haven’t worked that out yet, but people were thinking ahead,” she said.

The RCPT for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania named the drill – one of 15 scenarios they’ve devised — the Trinity Exercise. The exercise is actually headed up by a private contractor, Silvestri said -–but one the city has worked with for years.

The exercise is the first of its kind in the tri-state area and included the activation of EOCs in New York City, Hudson County, Union County, Morris County and Bergen County.


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