Safety a top priority in Hurricane Sandy response

Published May 1, 2013
The first Safety & Occupational Health professionals at the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Field Office (RFO) and established the safety culture that has lasted to this day in the New York RFO. Their names are from left to right: William "Brian" Johnson; Jeff McCrery; Garry "Dean" Magee; Victor Taylor; Patrick Morris; Ricky Brown; Jonathan Foster; and Dave Stanton.

The first Safety & Occupational Health professionals at the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Field Office (RFO) and established the safety culture that has lasted to this day in the New York RFO. Their names are from left to right: William "Brian" Johnson; Jeff McCrery; Garry "Dean" Magee; Victor Taylor; Patrick Morris; Ricky Brown; Jonathan Foster; and Dave Stanton.

What happens behind the scenes is often as important as what happens on the big screen.  The safety operations integrated into the Hurricane Sandy response and recovery actions are an example.


America watched Hurricane Sandy unfold on the evening news.  On Oct. 29 the hurricane made landfall along the northeast coast causing electrical outages for more than 8.5 million people, flooding seven subway tunnels, two wastewater treatment plants and the World Trade Center site in New York City.  It caused fires in Breezy Point, N.Y., and Mantoloking, N.J., that destroyed dozens of homes.  Hundreds of shelters opened for the thousands of people driven from their homes.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) responded immediately.  Under Emergency Support Function #3 (Public Works & Engineering) of the National Response Framework, USACE provides bottled water, ice, temporary emergency power, debris removal, temporary housing, technical assistance and infrastructure assessments.


The Corps’ priorities during the Hurricane Sandy response were:

- Safety and accountability of personnel,

- Technical support to the New York City unwatering mission,

- Temporary emergency power for critical infrastructure in New York and New Jersey,

- Post-event damage assessments of USACE projects and associated infrastructure,

- Alert and posture response capability for debris and technical assistance missions,

- Identify mission shortfalls and share operational information vertically and horizontally.


“Our first mission is to integrate safety into our response and recovery actions,” said Richard Wright, chief of the Office of Safety and Occupational Health.  “All of our disaster response and recovery missions are vital, and safety is a mission multiplier that assists our team members in performing their jobs effectively.  It’s our mission to make sure everyone goes home as healthy, or healthier, as they arrived for work.”


USACE has more than 40 Planning and Response Teams (PRT) throughout the U.S. for the ESF #3 missions, including nine Safety & Occupational Health (SOH) PRTs. The SOH PRTs include safety professionals from the eight USACE divisions, plus one PRT of personnel from USACE centers, laboratories and field operating agencies.


SOH preparations for potential Hurricane Sandy missions began pre-landfall on Oct. 25.  Jim Woodey, the USACE national program manager for Safety & Occupational Health Emergency Planning & Response, called and e-mailed Jonathan Foster, chief of Safety and Occupational Health in North Atlantic Division, to place NAD’s PRT on alert.  On Oct. 26, SOH PRTs at Northwestern Division, Great Lakes & Ohio River Division, Southwestern Division, and the Mississippi Valley Division were also alerted.


Oct. 31 was a big day.  SOH professionals from NAD started to integrate with USACE activities in New York and New Jersey.  Deployment SOH briefings were established based on the Corps’ “SOH Field Tool Box” for emergency operations.  The first conference call was held between Wright, NAD safety professionals and Woodey.  The main issues were ensuring appropriate personal protective equipment, cold weather clothing, and evaluation of potential hazards in the unwatering mission and waste water treatment plants such as animal or human remains, ventilation hazards and personnel accountability.


On the evening of Oct. 31, FEMA’s Safety Health and Medical Readiness Office contacted USACE to request direct support from USACE for the FEMA safety mission.  FEMA requested 20 USACE SOH professionals to deploy for up to 30 days.

On Nov. 4, USACE started establishing Recovery Field Offices (RFO) in New York and New Jersey to execute FEMA mission assignments.  Each RFO was staffed with one SOH Planning and Response Team consisting of one manager, one specialist, one industrial hygienist and one occupational health nurse.


New Jersey RFO

The New Jersey RFO was in Lincroft, N.J., collocated with the Joint Field Office.  The challenges and hazards they dealt with included coastal roads closed due to bridges washed out, downed power lines and trees, hanging branches and trees that blocked roads with little or no warning, and timely procurement of rubber boots or overshoes for workers in wet areas.

The SOH manager was part of the temporary housing assessment team at Fort Monmouth, N.J., to provide 45 apartments after remodeling for three bedrooms and handicapped access requirements for displaced families.


New York RFO

The New York RFO was in Queens, and Emergency Field Offices were also established in Riis Park and Fresh Kills.


By Nov. 6, the unwatering and temporary power missions were almost complete.  Then USACE received a $95 million debris removal mission to collect debris in affected communities and temporary storage sites in Fresh Kills I & II, Father Cappadano, Riis Park and Albany, all in New York.

The advance contract initiative contractor, Environmental Chemical Corporation (ECC), was under contract by USACE to accomplish the debris mission.  ECC used barges at Fresh Kills to barge debris to Albany where it was offloaded and then reloaded on long-haul trucks for final disposal at Seneca Meadows, N.Y.


Riis Park debris was trucked to the Seneca Meadows Landfill in N.Y., and the Father Cappadano debris was trucked to Grows Levittown Landfill, Penn.


USACE was directed to have ECC go to round-the-clock operations on Nov. 12, which lasted until Nov. 30.  Because of the 24/7 contractor operations, USACE deployed more SOH PRT professionals to the New York RFO.


Safety concerns included adequate barge/crane operations safety, dust control, cold weather clothing, high-visibility gear, truck traffic patterns at debris collection sites, adequate light sets for nighttime operations, air curtain incinerator operations and fatigue management.



On Nov. 22, FEMA notified USACE that additional safety professionals would no longer be needed.  The mission assignment (FRAGO 32) was canceled.

This marked the first time under the National Response Framework that FEMA requested assistance from USACE concerning safety and occupational health.  The mission assignment process for SOH support is now better understood by both organizations and may be used in the future as part of a total Federal Family Concept of Operation concerning SOH support for response and recovery emergency operations.


As of April 6, the results of the safety operations are told in the accident statistics:

- Government employee – About 280,000 hours worked, with two lost time injuries.

- Debris removal contractor – Almost 575,000 hours worked, with four lost-time accidents.

- Emergency power generator contractor -- 250,892 hours worked, with no lost time accidents.

These statistics are admirable given the hazardous nature of the work performed.


“We’re pleased with the safety record during Hurricane Sandy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements,” Wright said. “Our goal is to ensure safety is integrated into all operations seamlessly, truly becoming a mission multiplier. Our accident rate history shows that we are focused on doing that, but we can always do better.  All levels of leadership throughout this response have maintained a strong focus on safety, and that has been critical to our success.


“The lessons that we learned during Hurricane Sandy are already being written into the USACE plans for future disaster responses,” Wright said.