Daily News Takes You Inside Unfolding Crisis as Hurricane Sandy Batters New York

NY Daily News - November 25, 2012

by Rich Schapiro

How city officials faced down the superstorm and learned hard lessons in the process

It was 8:37 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, and Cas Holloway's BlackBerry started to ring. Superstorm Sandy was reaching full fury and Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations, was helping to quarterback the city's response. Already, a damaged crane 90 stories above W. 57th St. was threatening to topple. A building had partially collapsed in Chelsea. And now seawater was cascading into the city -- swallowing up homes, then streets, then entire neighborhoods.

On the other end of the line was Chuck Dowd, who runs the NYPD's 911 system.

Dowd told Holloway the system was being inundated with 10,000 calls every 30 minutes -- 10 times the average -- and most were for downed trees. Dowd was concerned people with life-threatening emergencies weren't getting through quickly enough.

"Okay. I'll get on it," Holloway said.

Seconds after he hung up, Holloway's phone rang again. It was Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano. Firefighters needed to rescue hundreds of people trapped by floodwaters in Staten Island and the Rockaways. Cars, many of them floating, were impeding their way. People needed to get off the road.

"I'll get on it," Holloway said.

He was about to hang up when, like a bad dream, a call-waiting beep rang in his ear. Con Edison CEO Kevin Burke was calling. "We just lost (power to) half of Manhattan," Burke said. In just 90 seconds, the city seemed to be coming undone.

* * * Sandy triggered severe flooding in lower Manhattan, South Brooklyn and Staten Island; unleashed a wind-whipped fire that incinerated half of Breezy Point, Queens; crippled the subway system and knocked out power to more than 1 million people. Large swaths of the city were left in ruins; 43 people died.

Nearly a month later, the lives of thousands of New Yorkers remain upended. Yet, there is a sense that it could have been much worse.

Through interviews with top city officials, the Daily News has pieced together the first behind-the-scenes look at New York City's night of reckoning. The accounts from those who oversaw the storm response suggest the city withstood Sandy thanks to steely nerves, exhaustive preparation and the extraordinary skill and bravery of cops, firefighters and other first responders.

The storm posed a series of unprecedented challenges. And though a full analysis of the city's response is months away, officials have begun grappling with questions the storm laid bare: What's the best way to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes?

Should hospitals and clinics remain in flood-prone neighborhoods? How do you care for people living for days without heat or hot water?

* * * Holloway had been receiving regular updates on the slow-moving storm from Emergency Management chief Joe Bruno. By Wednesday, forecasters were warning it could collide with two weather systems along the East Coast, forming a monstrous freak of nature.

At 8:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, Bloomberg strode into the Blue Room on the first floor of City Hall and sat at the head of a rectangular wooden table. To his right was Holloway; to his left was NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. All the other agency heads were there as well, along with the mayor's top aides, busily tapping on their iPads.

The meeting opened with an update from a National Weather Service meteorologist via speakerphone. Bloomberg, a weather buff who regularly consults a storm-tracking app on his iPhone, asked highly technical questions about Sandy's size and projected path.

Zero Hour is the term used to describe the time when a storm strikes. Officials work backward from that time to determine a deadline for crucial decisions. The mayor bombarded his staff with questions, quizzing them on whether preparations were ready in the event of a subway shutdown or evacuation order.

"He expected to have an answer for all possible scenarios," one Bloomberg staffer recalled later.

One of the key decisions centered on whether to evacuate people in hospitals and nursing homes -- a time-consuming undertaking that can endanger the very patients the responders are trying to save. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley argued that the risks of moving them outweighed the dangers they faced by staying.

The mayor and his top lieutenants had already decided to "activate the stockpile," ensuring the various goods and staffers needed to run evacuation shelters were in place. They reviewed steps they would take to help evacuate residents of public housing, which proved especially challenging during Hurricane Irene: robocalls, door-knocking residents, ordering up buses to move people to shelters, sending in patrol cars blaring evacuation orders from loudspeakers.

Over the next 24 hours, Sandy churned up the Atlantic, gathering strength. The mayor's briefings were shifted to Emergency Management's Brooklyn headquarters.

In the Situation Room, Office of Emergency Management's glass-paneled nerve center, a meteorologist presented the latest computer models on a massive screen. The projected storm path was narrowing. The meteorologist, with prodding from the mayor, harped on the dangers of the storm surge, which he feared could reach up to 10 feet.

At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28, Holloway was awoken by a phone call from Farley. The forecast was growing more ominous. Farley said they might have to consider targeted evacuations of critical care patients in vulnerable areas.

By day's end, the MTA had decided to shut down the subways, and Bloomberg ordered an evacuation of the city's most flood-prone areas. Before the mayor made the announcement, Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor for communications, peered over the shoulder of a speechwriter and insisted the words "mandatory evacuation" be repeated. Hurricane Irene revealed the difficulty of convincing people to leave.

Now the city government was going at full tilt. Buses were sent into evacuation zones. Food and medical supplies were loaded into shelters. Officials were inspecting hospitals and their generators.

The NYPD relocated its 60 flat-bottom boats to the most vulnerable neighborhoods, and moved its helicopters and other equipment to higher ground. The FDNY was also putting boats in place, and Cassano made preparations to decentralize his units, making it easier for borough commanders to shift resources.

Con Edison fortified its power stations with sand bags.

* * *

On the morning of Monday, Oct. 29, as the wind picked up speed and whitecaps filled the harbor, Bloomberg convened another emergency meeting. The latest storm surge projection map for the Battery flashed onto the bottom left quadrant of the screen, and what it showed was terrifying. The wiggly line marked "ACTUAL" was hovering well above the "PROJECTED" storm surge line of 11 feet. Worst fears were being realized.

Anyone left in low-lying Zone A needed to get out immediately.

As the mayor and his lieutenants filed out of the room and headed for a noon press conference, Holloway received an email about flooding on the FDR Drive. It appeared to Holloway the flooding was similar to the levels seen at the peak of Tropical Storm Irene -- and Zero Hour was eight hours away.

Holloway nudged Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and asked, in a whisper, if the levels were in fact the same as Irene. "Yes," she replied.

Afterwards, the mayor and his staff huddled upstairs and decided he would next address the public when it was too dangerous to be outside.

Six hours later, Bloomberg stood before the cameras again. The sea was beginning to surge. "The time for relocation or evacuation is over," he said. * * *

Ray Kelly's office at 1 Police Plaza had become his bedroom. The night before, he slept on a brown leather couch, using a blue graduation gown as a blanket. Now, he was heading to a TV interview where Chambers St. meets the East River. While he was answering questions, Kelly noticed the water was inches from breaching the barrier. Kelly left quickly to see what other parts of the city looked like. His four-wheel drive van headed north on the West Side Highway, but didn't get far. Water rushed over the road, rising fast. "It started getting very deep, very quickly," Kelly said. "We would've been going under if we had gone any further."

With water threatening to rise above the vehicle's wheels, Kelly's driver threw the vehicle into reverse and turned around.

At NYPD headquarters, Kelly learned some of his men weren't so lucky. Three stationhouses were taking on water. Between updates on rescue operations -- his officers saved more than 1,000 people -- Kelly watched video of water swamping patrol cars in Coney Island. A police officer was seen wading away from the facility in chest-high water.

* * *

About 30 minutes after the mayor spoke, at 6:37 p.m., Cassano received his second batch of really bad news: The façade of a building along Eighth Ave. in Chelsea had crumbled. Cassano was hunkered down in the FDNY Operation Headquarters in Brooklyn. The dissonant chatter of multiple emergency radios played around him. In front of him were screens showing the various FDNY operations broken down by borough.

High tide was a couple of hours away, and the commissioner was dealing with two crises in one of the last places he was expecting them: the middle of Manhattan. As firefighters descended on the Chelsea building, hundreds more massed along W. 57th St., where the crane boom damaged by high winds dangled in the sky.

Over and over, Cassano wrestled with the same thought: Little rain had fallen, and already havoc was breaking out.

Twenty minutes later, he learned of the first boat rescue in the Rockaways. The sea was swallowing parts of south Brooklyn and Staten Island; soon dozens of boat rescues were being carried out simultaneously.

Then, the boroughs started to burn. Huge fires erupted in the Rockaways within 30 minutes and 15 blocks of each other. Firefighters struggled to reach the blazes. Several roads were fast-moving rivers, and cars floated everywhere.

Cassano called Holloway. A blaze had also broken out on City Island in the Bronx. The department was stretched so thin the available units had winnowed down to 9%.

Cassano was inching closer to panic mode. "If we get one more fire, I'm going to have nobody to respond," he said to himself. * * *

MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota reached Bowling Green subway station not long after the Chelsea building collapse. Water advanced from the south, west and east. The Hudson River, New York Harbor and East River were on the march, converging.

It was pitch black and the acrid smell of smoke hung in the air. Lhota knew that meant underground electrical wires were burning. The sea had invaded the subway. He trudged west to the Manhattan entrance of the Battery tunnel, where he ran into Gov. Cuomo.

Lhota stared in awe. The tunnel's general manager had previously told him it had "never had a puddle in it." The tunnel was now home to a roaring river. * * * At 8:20 p.m., Con Ed CEO Kevin Burke was still feeling pretty good.

Parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn were without power, but that was largely expected. As the bottom of the island filled with water, Burke preemptively shut down three power stations.

But then a fourth network, powering Manhattan's tip west of Broadway, was knocked out. The tide was reaching its peak, and Burke grew concerned. He headed from the Con Ed emergency response center on the 19th floor to his office three floors below. Burke picked up the phone and dialed Holloway.

Suddenly, the room went black. He looked out the window, and saw the Chrysler Building twinkling over a city that had seemingly disappeared.

From 39th St. south, Manhattan was dark. Flood waters had knocked out the crucial power station at E. 13th St. near the East River. * * * After Holloway hung up with Burke, he grabbed press secretary Marc LaVorgna. "We have to put the mayor on right now," Holloway said. Bloomberg needed to tell New Yorkers to stop calling 911 for anything but a life-threatening emergency.

LaVorgna and a deputy, Julie Wood, furiously typed out a few paragraphs, and Bloomberg was back in front of the cameras. The press officers, knowing thousands were now without power, also harnessed social media, dispatching messages via Twitter.

With the power out, the chief concern was the hospitals. At 11 p.m., bad news arrived on that front as well. NYU Medical Center's generators had failed, and the hospital was forced to conduct a full evacuation.

Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Farley delivered the news to the mayor. Bloomberg was apoplectic, angrily pointing out that while he led his namesake media company, he tested his generators once a month.

For the next two hours, Bloomberg received updates on the evacuation, which resulted in no deaths.

Then came another emergency. Fire was racing through Breezy Point. Cassano had units available to fight the blaze, but he knew extinguishing it was unlikely. Firefighters focused on saving the surrounding houses -- battling the fire with water funneled from the flooded streets, a technique known as drafting.

Then, finally, some good news: the water was receding. The worst of the storm had passed. About 1 a.m., Bloomberg instructed his staffers to go home. He knew the next few days were likely to be just as taxing. But sleep, and home, were still far away for some officials.

Kelly, between touring the hardest hit sections of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and directing NYPD operations, would spend the next six nights on his office couch. Cassano didn't make it back to his Staten Island home until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30, having gotten only 60 minutes of shut-eye in 48 hours. Burke spent three nights on a cot in his office before returning to his upper East Side home Nov. 1.

Holloway arrived at his Brooklyn home about 3 a.m. and slept for 90 minutes.

The next day, he received an email from his predecessor, Ed Skyler. "You know things are bad when a tower crane dangling in Manhattan isn't your biggest problem," it read. * * * City officials say that as well as New York handled the storm, they have come away with some important lessons.

The Fire Department is looking into obtaining more small boats and vehicles designed to operate amid flooded streets.

The NYPD, which lost more than 200 vehicles and apparatus, expects to review where it keeps equipment during big storms.

Gibbs believes the city needs to devise a plan for weather events that could force people to go for days living in shelters or without heat and hot water.

Farley said the city might have to rethink building hospitals and nursing homes in flood zones -- and consider moving or strengthening those already susceptible to powerful storms.

And officials say they're hoping to find an answer to the question of how to successfully persuade more people to evacuate. "It's very difficult to get people to leave," Wolfson said.

Holloway knows he'll spend weeks reviewing the storm, but nearly a month later, he can't stop thinking about those crazy 90 seconds. "At that moment, I already had a sense that the aftermath of this was going to be very significant," he said. "And I knew it was going to be a very long night."

With Pete Donohue