Training citizens to respond to the next big storm

Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012, before she made her trip up the coast.
Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012, before she made her trip up the coast.

When Stony Brook University shuttered its nascent sustainability programs at the former Long Island University campus in Southampton in 2010, environmentalists on the South Fork banded together to form The Peconic Institute to carry on the work of ensuring a sustainable future for the East End.

The Peconic Institute was only incorporated in the spring of 2012, but when Sandy hit in October, the group’s leaders knew they could play a role in helping the East End learn from the storm.

Beginning November 7, The Peconic Institute is hosting a series of six FEMA-certified National Disaster Preparedness Training courses at their headquarters in the Stony Brook Southampton library.

A team of disaster experts affiliated with the University of Hawaii will lead the training, which includes classes in resilient building design, using social media and caring for seniors during disasters, flood risk reduction, and a class tailored specifically for elected officials.

Peconic Institute Executive Director John Botos said he was impressed when he took
part in one of the classes, which was sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of Montauk at Gurney’s Inn earlier this year.

“It focuses on the specific needs and opportunities of islands,” he said. “The Coastal Community Resiliency Course is for the greater community, for people who are interested in preparing a resiliancy plan. There are other courses for builders, engineers and senior caregivers.”

More information on the courses is available here.

“The goal for the Institute is to have enough people be trained to develop a plan for our region for the benefit of the community,” said Mr. Botos. “For individual citizens, everyone has a bit of information that is unique. We want to develop a holistic plan.”

Mr. Botos said he would like to see a regional plan prepared for the East End so that
if, say, Riverhead was spared by a storm but East Hampton was badly hurt, Riverhead’s resources could be deployed to help other towns.

“We have many shared experiences and inputs,” he said. “We’re looking to do this from the bottom-up level, where individuals can take this information back to their towns.”

The sessions will begin with lectures, after which the participants will be broken into groups of people who all have different skill sets, who will be given a dummy disaster scenario to solve.

“It will have a local flavor, with ideas that come from people in the community,” said Mr. Botos. “We don’t give you a plan and say, here you go, have a nice day. We’re covering many bases and stakeholders, and learning how a community works together and responds together.”

Sandy was one of the first major hurricanes where citizens had access to social media on their smartphones, even if they couldn’t make phone calls, and one course in the series focuses exclusively on how to better use social media during storms.

During Sandy, said Mr. Botos, the New York Fire Department’s social media administrator answered more than 1,000 tweets from people who were in danger and needed help. She managed to route help their way, even though Twitter hadn’t been an official route for the fire department to dispatch aid.

“I don’t think that was something the first responders were prepared for,” he said.

Mr. Botos hopes that, by February or March, The Peconic Institute will have trained enough people to help coordinate a regional plan for elected officials.

He said one of the most important lessons to be learned from Sandy is the importance of planning ahead.

“I was with my family in Oceanside when Sandy hit,” he said. “We didn’t think we’d go one month without power, and people didn’t anticipate the gas lines.”

“One of the most important things is knowing it’s ok to leave your area. People are reluctant to evacuate, but you’re not going to be able to guard your house against the ocean. You’re not Superman,” he said. “Property can be rebuilt, but the most important thing is to save lives.”

One year on, and still rebuilding…

Sandy still lives here….

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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