AHP1404:            Hurricane Sandy:  A Complex Environmental Health Communications Challenge

Speaker:              Michele Samarya-Timm, MA, HO, MCHES, REHS/RS, DAAS

During widespread power and internet outages, disaster responders cannot always assume their sophisticated communications gear--radios, pagers, cellphones and computers--will work.   Alternate plans need to be ready for deployment to assure continuity and efficiency of the public health response. 


In this presentation, follow the Somerset County experience during Hurricane Sandy to identify gaps and develop solutions to bridge them in your preparedness plans.




Hurricane Sandy came charging through NJ in 2012 just before Halloween.  Although spared ravages of flooding,  hurricane force winds caused equally devastating  damages in the form of downed trees, power lines, and cell towers, resulting in county-wide property destruction,  blocked roads, and major community disruptions.

Communications hurdles were many during the weeks that followed impact.   Without electricity, residents who normally use television, radio, or computers for updated information were at a loss.   Damages to routing centers interrupted internet accessibility.   Downed cell towers prevented mobile phone users from contacting loved ones or reaching essential services.   Among responders, all of these issues negatively affected situational awareness and rapid communication to emergency operations centers.     EH had to react to prevent miscommunication among responders - or worse, no communication at all. 

Along with other industries, EH has marveled at modern technology, and took advantage of the ease and cheapness of electronic media to spread education and important messages - perhaps at a loss of continuing to reach communities in non- technological ways.    Many communities were isolated by the power loss and obstructions.   With no existing plans to provide citizens with non-technology based info - by messenger, bullhorn, or other method --  many were unaware of the location/existence of emergency shelters, MRE’s, support services - and later, warming and charging centers.

Ironically, the technology that makes most day-to-day public health activities run smoothly can turn into an Achilles’ heel in a disaster. During widespread power and internet outages, responders cannot always assume that their sophisticated communications gear (radios, pagers, cellphones and computers) will work in a disaster.   Alternate plans need to be developed rapidly - in advance of a disaster - to assure the continuity and efficiency of   EH response.

EH still has a lot of work to do to prepare our communities - the public, and their civic agencies - to be better situated, and to make response plans for when technology is interrupted.

In this presentation, Somerset County shares communications experiences, illuminates gaps to be addressed, and discusses future considerations to assure enhanced communications preparedness and response protocols for our communities.