November 29, 2012
1. Find someone who listens, or pass along this info to someone in need
Right after the storm, a lot of people who lived and volunteered in totally ruined parts of the city went into a sort of survival-mode-meets-shock as they scrambled to make sure people could survive. Food. Water. Flashlights. Blankets. Absorbing and processing the actual trauma of the situation took a back seat to creating a support system that would keep everyone alive.
But weeks have passed and the mental and emotional weight of losing a home, living in totally inhumane conditions, seeing neighbors struggle… it can be overwhelming and scary.
Team Rubicon’s Marvin Avilez is GI Joe meets tech entrepreneur. Avilez is a San Francisco native who lives in NYC and recently launched (then sold) a company called Social Amp. He joined the Marine Corps in 1989, was part of the first Iraq war, and went on to specialize in counter intelligence and interrogation. (Counter intel.. Scary right? And sort of intriguing in a Homeland sorta way…) As if those resume points aren’t impressive enough, Avilez and his Rubicon teammate Peter Meijer rescued a man and his dog who were trapped in an attic as Sandy ripped along the coastline. Real American Hero stuff.
This is how Avilez, 42, describes that rescue at Gerritsen Beah: “My partner and I had gone to the shelter at FDR High School to respond to a call, and while we were there a woman got word from her husband that water in their house was up to his ankles. She asked what to do, and I thought 9-1-1; but then he called back and said the water was up to his thighs. And then it was up to his waist. She started crying and said, ‘He’s in the attic with the dog. He has a new hip.” My partner said let’s go, but I wasn’t sure if we should deviate from our mission. Then he said, we have to. There was a NY1 reporter standing there because she was reporting on the shelter, and I thought, this is bad. I don’t want this to spiral out of control. So I agreed to check it out. We couldn’t even drive onto the street because the water was so high and we were still 15 blocks away. But we got lucky and ran into another vet who was out checking his dad’s house with a boat. We were able to get in and get our guy out.”
Avilez, a former sergeant in the Marines, was the first guy to show up at New York City’s Emergency Operations Center as representatives from different aid groups gathered to prepare for the storm. I got a chance to catch up with him and learn about the city’s response to the disaster, lessons that could be learned, and the tech company he wants to start before the next crisis.
How did you prep for Sandy?
The Saturday before the storm I got an email during lunch from Team Rubicon. It said, We need people. Get your gear ready.
Your gear should always be ready, right?
I was the first to arrive at the OEC from Rubicon, and the first to arrive from VOAD, which stands for Volunteers Organized for Action Disaster. It’s a group of 30 or so organizations that New York City has accepted as assistants during disaster, and it includes names you’ve probably heard like the Red Cross and New York Cares.
VOAD deals with all things human services, meaning mental and physical health, shelter, food, water, pets, all of those things that help humans deal with trauma. Among other things we focused on ensuring that the shelters were safe and secure.
I was there as the groups planned for the storm; and my mission was to coordinate what we call “jump teams,” meaning teams that respond to problems as they happen. If a shelter needed help, if people needed to be moved, if someone needed medical attention, a jump team would be called. The team would act as eyes and ears, try to fix problems, and send intel back to HQ so that smart decisions could be made.
As the hurricane swept into NYC, what was life like inside the EOC?
Well, there was a lot of hurry up and wait. We had no idea when we’d be called to act, or what we’d have to do. We had to be prepared for everything.
There was still debate over whether to shut down the subway. People were still debating just how bad it would be, since it is incredibly difficult and expensive in New York City to store and prepare emergency food and water. I determined that the jump teams would be relied upon heavily, and I called back to my chain of command and requested a lot of bodies.
The city planned for displaced people in Zone A only, and created a shelter system that would be adequate for a 92-hour period.
In the weeks that followed the storm, the housing situation moved from a short-term crisis situation to a long-term standard of living situation. There wasn’t preparation for that. Shelters are schools and schools need to more forward.
But in reality, no one was prepared for the unique pattern and structure of the storms that converged, the angle of the weather pattern swept over the coast, and the way it was timed with the tide. This is what made Sandy so destructive. No one knew how bad it would be.
Did you think the storm would be this destructive?
I was saying that this thing was going to be bad, that there needed to be more prep, that we had to start preparing for a disaster. But I always prepare for the absolute worst. I was calling friends in Zone B areas like Sheepshead Bay and Mill Basin and telling them to get out.
You’re also an entrepreneur, with businesses including a startup called SocialAmp, which was acquired by Merkle this year. Will you continue to work in tech? Or will the Sandy recovery take up most of your time?
I have a company called Visual Ops, which helps organize and bring together teams and tries to understand why teams fail. The work I want to do with the Sandy recovery is related to this interest, which means creating an information management system for the five boroughs that coordinates all of the NGOs — a system that helps people to work together and that systematically deals with issues. Successful teams, successful leaders, can gather information, share it, study it, and make good decisions.
Admittedly, I’m used to a different type of information management and communications system with the military, which has a standard for operations centers that few others can match on a day-to-day basis. People radio back information to a central command, that information can put into an action request that gets ticketed, and that ticket can be taken care of.
Information management is what allows you to effectively prepare for and during an emergency. Take the shelters for example. We had no idea who would show up, so we had no way to adequately prepare.
One possible solution would be to create a way for people to sign up before they arrive, and have that information centralized and accessible to all the aid groups. That would help alleviate the strain on the logistics chain and help determine the right amount of food and water to have on hand. It would give an idea of how many people were staying at home who might need help later.
That said, I think that an effective communications system is centralized; and I believe that one lesson for the city is to incorporate the idea of a single point of command during a crisis.
That point of command shouldn’t necessarily come from the top. It should come from the bottom, from the ground where the action is happening, because emergency management happens from the bottom up.
EaterNY took a tour of Brighton Beach to see what was up post-Sandy. Definitely click on the story for photos and details. The short version: By the water, not so good. A few blocks inland, much better.
The big problem, it seems, is lack of customers. If you have an uncontrollable, or even just strong-ish, desire for some vareniki, get on the Q train and head to Café Glechik.
A Hurricane Sandy Small Business Recovery Center has opened up at the College of Staten Island to offer assistance and answer any questions business owners may have. The center is located at:
College of Staten Island
(The City University of New York)
Main Admin Building in Bldg 1A-102
2800 Victory Boulevard
Staten Island, NY 10314
SBA can also be contacted via phone at 1-800-827-5722
Tonight at 7:30pm, Anthology Film Archives is hosting NY Surf Stories, an evening of locally produced movies about New York’s surfing community.
All proceeds will go to Waves for Water, a non-profit where 100% of the fund go to those effected by Hurricane Sandy. Raffle prizes include a free stay at Casa de Olas in Nicaragua, camera equipment, and surfing gear.
The event will be co-hosted by local professional surfer Mikey DeTemple and Waves for Water’s Jon Rose. More info can be found here.
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue New York, NY 10003