Bracing for heat waves and hurricanes during a pandemic

Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the committee on public safety.
Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the committee on public safety.
William Alatriste/New York City Council
Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the committee on public safety.

Bracing for heat waves and hurricanes during a pandemic

Natural disasters won’t stop just because we did.
May 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is a massive emergency in itself, but it’s also forcing New York City’s emergency management officials to reconsider plans for upcoming emergencies, like heat waves and coastal storms – and it could even mean the city buying people air conditioning units.

“A lot of our plans are good,” New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Deanne Criswell said. “It’s a matter of how do we do it in a new environment now, and how do we do it with this new normal?”

Criswell was one of the panelists on a City & State webinar on safety and emergency management with the coronavirus pandemic. She was joined Tuesday by New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the committee on public safety, FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, and Tiffany Chapman, manager of mitigation at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management and an adjunct professor at Metropolitan College of New York.

If the photographs of people sunbathing on the Christopher Street Pier this weekend didn’t remind you, summer is coming soon. And for somebody like Criswell who is trained to prepare for the worst, that means heat waves and hurricanes. New York may be looking at a bad year for both. The city has experienced some of its hottest summers on record in the last decade, and experts are predicting an active Atlantic Ocean hurricane season, which lasts from June to October. So NYC Emergency Management is doing “cascading impact planning,” preparing for emergencies on top of the existing coronavirus emergency. 

The agency normally runs cooling centers – public, air conditioned rooms where anybody can come to avoid the heat. But getting a bunch of people in one room might not work this year, given social distancing guidelines. So Criswell is exploring some other possibilities, such as providing hotel rooms. With tourism all but halted and hotel rooms vacant, the agency has already been booking private rooms as “isolation hotels” for the homeless and other people that do not want to spread the disease to their families or housemates. The New Yorkers who need relief from the heat – the elderly, homeless or sick – may be the same ones that are already staying in those hotels. “Those that are the most vulnerable to heat are also those that are the most vulnerable to COVID,” Criswell said.

If public cooling centers aren’t a good option, then the city could help people at home, Richards suggested. “The strategy really has to move towards in-house cooling,” the councilman said. “How do we purchase air conditioners for the most vulnerable?”

Richards represents much of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, where the memory of Superstorm Sandy is still fresh. He thinks that tragedy actually helped prepare the neighborhoods on the shore for this one. “A lot of our local community-based organizations knew where we needed to go, how we needed to respond,” he said. 

There was a massive relief effort after that 2012 storm, including converting some public buildings into shelters. But if social distancing is still in effect, that might not be able to be replicated. So if there are major storms this year, Criswell said, decisions like evacuating certain parts of the coast may have to be made earlier than usual. “Maybe our triggers have to be a little bit sooner to make decisions,” she said, “since it’s going to take us longer to do the preparatory work.

How will the city be ready? Kavanagh noted that the fire department can’t plan for everything, but that training for some emergencies can help prepare for others. “Ebola is one example,” she said. “We had hazmat training that had originally been put together for a nuclear attack, that was able to be adapted for a biological event … and that was adapted again for COVID.”

Richards also brought attention to the present and future economic emergency being caused by the coronavirus – an issues that’s hitting predominantly black communities like the ones he represents particularly hard. “Now the world gets to see once again, just as Sandy did, that when America catches a cold, black and brown communities get pneumonia,” he said.

With the city facing a massive budget shortfall, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council are going to have to make some cuts. But Richards hoped that emergency programs can be protected – even something expensive like providing air conditioning units for New Yorkers that don’t have them. “I think the city’s budget will certainly be a measure of what we are looking to prioritize,” he said. “We have to look out for our most vulnerable.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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