Right after Hurricane Irma, I flew down to St. Thomas as part of the advance team for All Hands Volunteers to help set up their disaster response relief effort.
I have been involved with AHV since 2005, when I volunteered with them in Biloxi, Miss., after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. I became so passionate about the work they do I joined their board.
Later, when Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island, I helped start Project Long Island to help Long Beach recover.
What I have learned through AHV has me very concerned about the well being of Nassau residents if we were to be hit with a Hurricane similar to Harvey, Irma, Jose, or Maria.
When a disaster, similar to the recent spate of Hurricanes, hits communication systems, power and transportation, then available information on government services quickly falls into a time warp.
Lose the internet and we are back to communicating as if it were the 1980’s (the only problem is there aren’t any more payphones around).
If cell service and telephone lines go down, like what we’re seeing throughout Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, communications will be set back to roughly 1900, when the telephone was in it’s infancy and a novelty.
Loss of electricity, along with roads being washed out, which is currently the status of most of the Caribbean islands that received direct hits from the recent wave of hurricanes, sets us back to living like it’s the 1700’s.
When I was in St. Thomas, and briefly Puerto Rico, I spoke at length with FEMA, the Marines and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
I learned the best form of disaster communication to disseminate information during a hurricane is currently AM radio. St Thomas has an AM radio station called WSTA 1340, that FEMA storm-hardened, and made sure was able to broadcast throughout Hurricane’s Irma and Maria.
It was a lifeline to help first responders find those in danger and report live wires from down electricity poles.
Since a large part of St. Thomas’ electric grid is powered by solar, many downed power lines were still live and one man got electrocuted. WSTA 1340 helped educate locals not to touch any wires, which helped to save additional lives.
If the 50 inches of rain in Houston, or sustained Saffir-Simpson Scale Category 3 winds of 111+ mph winds from the recent string of hurricanes hit Nassau County, it would be a disaster of epic proportion.
We need to create several storm-hardened AM radio transmitters with a broadcast signal of a roughly five-mile radius throughout the County.
Emergency information, reports of problems and calls for help are local, as emergency information varies just a few miles apart. What residents need to do to be safe could be vastly different depending on whether you are in Bayville or Long Beach.
Trees could cause the most damage in one part of Nassau while flooding or a major environmental issue could be the problem somewhere else.
What I did learn from FEMA is FM radio receivers, which don’t need an internet connection, are already embedded in most cell phones and still work when cell service is out.
Currently the FM receivers aren’t activated in all Smartphones because cell phone carriers have little financial incentive to do so (because they profit handsomely from streaming data).
Legislation pushing cell phone carriers to activate emergency FM radio receivers in all cell phones during times of duress is necessary, and will save lives in a natural disaster.
Another issue is properly coordinating evacuation ahead of a massive hurricane. Every community should have access to an active list of emergency shelters, all stocked with at least a three-day water supply.
A similar chaotic situation to the nightmare in Florida, when over 6 million residents were simultaneously told to evacuate before Hurricane Irma, would be mitigated if people knew where to go ahead of time.
Saving lives in any natural disaster takes proactive planning. Right now Nassau County has no viable coordinated plan to protect our community. One needs to be put in place and shared with residents immediately.