By Rich Jacques
"It's like a war zone."
Those were the words used by Town of North Hempstead Department of Public Safety Commissioner Andrew DeMartin in the early morning hours of Oct. 30 after getting his first view of the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy outside the newly-opened Yes We Can Community Center in Westbury, where town officials had hunkered down to monitor the storm at the emergency command center there.
Just back from a trip to transfer a group of 311 call operators from the crippled Westbury phone bank to the Town Hall center as the storm began to weaken outside, DeMartin described a scene of exploding transformers, snapped trees, downed poles, and trees, many of which landed on homes and cars.
"It was pretty unbelievable," said DeMartin, a seasoned former firefighter, on the night of the storm.
After opening less than two months before Sandy, the Yes We Can Community Center — like most everything else in Sandy's path — was tested.
Exactly one year later, much progress has been made in North Hempstead as the battle to recover continues. Results of that fateful test are still being measured.
"We're just going to keep learning and educating ourselves better," said DeMartin, speaking to Patch from the state's emergency management preparedness seminar in Albany on Monday.
As a result of the devastation caused by Sandy, North Hempstead crews have collected and disposed of more 55,000 tons of tree and landscape material and 12,000 tons of construction and demolition material from cleanup efforts.
Town officials estimate more than 5,000 downed trees post-Sandy — 2,000 of which were reported through the North Hempstead's 311 call center by residents. Many of those trees were re-planted this past summer, with that effort expected to go forward in the coming months.
Continuing to rebuild and learn while working to improve facilities through federal grants and other funding, DeMartin and other town officials say the town will be more resilient the next time around.
"That money is coming in just shy of about $20 million, said Tom Devaney, the town's grant manager.
To date, North Hempstead has recouped $7.3 million from FEMA public assistance grants for reimbursement costs for debris removal, emergency protective measures, overtime pay for workers who manned the 24-hour 311 call center, damages to the park systems, street signs and sidewalks.
Through a Department of Labor National Emergency Grant Program, North Hempstead was able to hire part-time laborers, thrown out of work by the storm, to supplement the town's workforce.
"It gave us about $560,000 to hire part-time, out of work laborers to come in and help clean up the parks help supplement the work being done by the highway department," said Devaney.
All debris removal and emergency protective measures have been 100 percent completed by the town, according to Devaney.
Final restoration is expected this month to approximately 5,000 feet of damaged North Hempstead sidewalks, curbs and gutters at 300 different locations.
Additionally, the town is currently applying for $86 million in grants through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program in order to rebuild crucial infrastructure including shoreline reconstruction, the rebuilding of storm basins and seawalls, and upgrades to Town Dock in Port Washington.
North Hempstead's parks system and shoreline erosion could reap as much as $10 million in FEMA funding, according to town officials.
The storm began as a tropical storm on Oct. 22 in the Caribbean. On Oct. 29, Sandy made landfall near Brigantine, N.J., near Atlantic City as a Category 2 hurricane before advancing northward toward New York.
On Long Island, an evacuation was in effect for the South Shore, south of Sunrise Highway, and in elevations of less than 16 feet above sea level on the North Shore, including parts of Port Washington and Great Neck.
On the evening of the storm on Oct. 29, the Yes We Can Community Center lost power early on, quickly switching to generator power by 5 p.m. Internet service and video feeds from cameras at numerous town locations were cut to the command center as winds began to pick up.
Town officials say, emergency communications improvement is one of their top priorities moving forward.
Specifically, the town is working to create a wireless network to connect its three primary emergency management locations — Town Hall, the Department of Public Works Yard in New Hyde Park and the Community Center in Westbury. The network, which would overlap the town’s current wired system, would provide voice and data services, ensuring that the town never loses connection or its ability to contact constituents, even in the event of a power failure.
During Sandy, town officials communicated with residents through daily robo-calls with cleanup and restoration effort status updates. Despite difficult circumstances, the 311 call center took in more than 37,000 calls during the two weeks following the storm, according to town officials.
Recently appointed as special advisor by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to spearhead Sandy rebuilding efforts, former North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, who recently resigned, remains heavily involved in recovery efforts.
Interim North Hempstead Supervisor John Riordan said neighboring municipalities and organizations have visited North Hempstead's facilities in recent months to potentially use them as a model for their own.
“The North Hempstead command center at the ‘Yes We Can’ Community Center in Westbury is one of the most technologically advanced emergency management hubs in the region," said Riordan. "With communications being of utmost importance during a natural disaster, the command center is the main conduit for dispersing information to residents and receiving information from officials in all levels of government during a storm. Its proximity to the Town’s 311 call center makes information sharing all the more convenient.”
Nationally, damage to have been estimated at more than $68 billion, a total surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina.
North Hempstead Emergency Management Director Tom McDonough said there were no surprises during Sandy, but he was happy Sandy's storm surge came at high tide.
"There would have been a lot more damage, a lot more work for us to do had we hit the surge on high tide," said McDonough.
At least 286 people were killed along the path of the storm which stretched through seven countries.
McDonough says the most important lesson residents need to learn from Sandy is preparedness.
"They need to get their go kits ready. They need to be ready to move at a moments notice," said McDonough. "What we learned from last year is that we need to be more prepared than ever."