Before the devastating appearance of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey this past month, 2014’s “Frankenstorm” Sandy was the second costliest disaster (after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina) in U.S. history. It was certainly the worst disaster in modern New York City history. The 2014 storm caused 14-foot water surges that flooded downtown Manhattan and the shores of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, and wreaked havoc on the city’s electrical and transit systems.
Sandy trapped many ICS members in high-rises with no electricity, rendering them dependent on neighbors for bringing food, water and medications. Home care workers were unable to cross the city to get to their jobs. Even if members were able to leave their homes, too many city shelters were inadequately accessible to wheelchairs or able to care for people who rely on ventilators while sleeping.
In the wake of Sandy, a lawsuit on behalf of New Yorkers with disabilities charged that the city was woefully unprepared. The plaintiffs won, forcing the city to work with people with disabilities, advocates and organizations to come up with a plan to keep the city’s most vulnerable as safe as possible when future disaster strikes.
Updating the Plan
Even before Sandy, ICS was contractually obligated by New York State to have an emergency plan of its own. Some things, however, you cannot plan for until experience teaches you what to watch for. During Sandy, for example, when all of Manhattan south of 34th Street went dark following an explosion at a midtown power station, ICS servers, which were stationed at the Park Avenue South office just below East 21st Street, were down for days. This meant that access to the data management platform that care managers use to track their cases, among many other functions performed by computer, was also down.
Most members may not have noticed any serious glitches in their ICS services because ICS staff and providers went above and beyond to compensate for the failures of the city’s transportation and electrical systems. But ICS leadership learned that the organization needed a better plan so they would not be quite as hobbled when the next big storm hit.
One of the first orders of business was securing the ICS servers. Director of Information Technology Felix Castro looked for a way to back up the servers on a second system that could take over in case of disaster. They had to be in a space that was physically secure—able to withstand virtually all extreme weather conditions and even earthquakes—as well as able to generate its own electricity and stay connected with the internet. Felix found that the TekPark Disaster Recovery Data Center in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, met these criteria.
With space leased at the state-of-the-art facility, ICS care managers will have almost immediate access to email, records and other data that enable them to serve members, even if power goes down in midtown Manhattan and Breiningsville at the same time. Even if severe transportation outages force Member Services staff to work from home, they will be able to field member calls and answer questions as they always do, having complete access to their call management platform in addition to ICS’s electronic data.
In Case of Emergency: The Plan
ICS Senior Vice President of Management Information Services Kerri O’Neill and Project Manager Christine Vida were charged with tweaking the organization’s state-mandated “business continuity plan” to reflect the lessons learned during Hurricane Sandy.
“We knew we needed to update the plan,” Christine says. “We used the opportunity to improve it, not just to organize staff and ensure coverage in the event of an emergency, but also to improve communication and service to members.”
The new plan outlines on an Excel spreadsheet the various actions ICS staff need to take before, during and after an emergency, ordering them logically and sequentially and assigning responsibility for each one.
When leadership has determined the offices will be closed, for example, staff are alerted to notify members, providers and ICS partners. Con Ed is notified about members whose lives depend on working electronic equipment like ventilators. Staff who can cover for their teams are identified, and an alert goes out to all staff to bring home tablets, phones and any other materials to enable them to work from home.
When a member is enrolled in ICS, they are assigned a priority number based on how much care they need, from 1 (highest need) to 4 (lowest). These numbers give ICS staff an idea of which members require immediate attention during an emergency. Members assigned Priority 1, not surprisingly, get top priority during an emergency.
Hurricanes Sandy and Irene (which hit the city a year before Sandy) alerted city emergency management experts to a new level of risk: hurricane evacuation zones. High winds and water surges hit low-lying areas, like those in lower Manhattan and along the shores of the boroughs, especially hard. For this reason, members in these areas also need to be among the first to be checked on before, during and after a storm.
The city has six hurricane evacuation zones, ranked from 1 (most at risk) to 6, each of which has designated shelters to be evacuated to. (Most of the city is high enough that it does not need to be evacuated.) During an emergency where the lowlands are threatened, the city will determine how many of the zones will be affected—that is, how many of the zones will need to be evacuated.
ICS has now incorporated these zones into its emergency plan so that we know not only which members are highest priority in terms of care, but also which members live in zones that are being evacuated.
Members need to be aware of their own plans to weather emergencies. But they can rest assured that ICS is planning to make their care seamless, even in the worst of situations.