Leaner government storm response one year after Irene

An Astoria, Queens, hurricane shelter for New Yorkers fleeing Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo: Parapolitical/Flickr

Hurricane Sandy will likely hit New York City with greater force than Irene, the tropical storm that walloped the area in late August 2011.

But a review of published reports and statements shows that in advance of Sandy’s arrival, city and state officials have given residents less time to evacuate from their homes, opened fewer shelters, mobilized fewer National Guard troops and left more senior citizens and hospital patients in areas at risk of flooding.

In 2011, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced his executive order mandating evacuation of residents living in Zone A — the city’s lowest-lying areas — around 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26. That was roughly 36 hours before the arrival of Irene, which blew in early on a Sunday morning.

With Sandy, Bloomberg issued his evacuation order at an 11:30 a.m. press conference on Sunday — some 27 hours before the weather is predicted to turn severe.

Asked whether he should have mandated evacuations earlier, Bloomberg responded: “Absolutely not,” adding that he preferred to wait until it was clear that the move was necessary.

“When the conditions don’t warrant it, we’re not going to do just to give you a story,” Bloomberg said to reporters. “It’s dangerous, it’s expensive, and it’s inconvenient for people.”

In advance of Irene, the city also required evacuations of all hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers located in Zone A, unless managers negotiated an alternative plan with city Health Commissioner Tom Farley, in consultation with state health officials.

That evacuation, Bloomberg said later, took place over two days and moved some 9,000 people.

This year, his administration took a different approach, citing the risks associated with moving elderly people.

Hospitals and other health facilities in Zone A are remaining open, Bloomberg said Friday, with some patients transferred to upper floors. He added that the city had ordered boosts to staffing levels, and said that city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene employees had been testing emergency generators and fuel supplies.

“On balance, we think they’ll be fine,” Bloomberg said. “We’re satisfied that it’s an intelligent decision to leave them in place.”

In 2011, the city said it planned to open 91 emergency shelters before Irene’s arrival. Ultimately, only 81 were set up, Bloomberg said afterward.

Still, that’s five more than the 76 evacuation shelters that the city has set up to cope with Sandy.

The state has also mobilized fewer National Guard members than it did before last year’s storm.

As Irene bore down on New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo first mustered some 900 troops, then raised that number to 1,900 as the storm got closer. Ultimately, more than 4,400 guardsmen responded to the damage caused by Irene and a tropical storm that arrived roughly two weeks later.

Cuomo has mobilized just 1,175 troops in advance of Sandy.

The mayor’s and governor’s offices were not immediately available for comment.

The two storms do have a few things in common. Cuomo announced a state of emergency before both, while at the city level, officials halted all construction and shut down elevators at public housing projects in Zone A to avoid leaving residents trapped during a power outage.

The required evacuation area is also the same.

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