Panic in the streets? There’s an app for that

During the Cold War, the city built a flurry of fallout shelters, and kids learned to duck-and-cover.  Today’s disaster preparedness is all about packing a “go bag” — an easy to grab backpack with water, food, flashlight, copies of important documents, etc. — and has taken on a decidedly more high-tech feel with city agencies seizing social media to encourage planning for emergencies.  

Even technology may not convince New Yorkers.

“Americans have never gotten into personal preparedness. We’re into the drama of the response,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Stocking up on food and water has never held much interest, he said, not even during the Cold War when only 2 percent of Americans built their own shelters.

The city’s Office of Emergency Management’s “My Meeting Place” app launched last month mined municipal data to come up with easily recognizable public places that families could text each other as possible meet-up spots should something happen. So far, only 700 New Yorkers have used the mobile phone application, according to OEM officials.

Though experts have yet to find the “ticket” to “convince people they need to take their own responsibility for a major disaster,” Redlener said, “I don’t think we should give up because it is really important.” People erroneously believe that help would be on the way hours after calling 911 during a major disaster, when, in fact, it could be “days to never,” he said.

Evacuation plans

The city maintains a network of 65 evacuation centers — which you can find on the OEM’s website by checking the “Hurricane Zone Finder” — to help dispatch people to its 509 shelters in the event of a major hurricane storm surge.  Researchers from Columbia/NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies believe a rising sea level by the 2050s, combined with a Category 3 hurricane, could leave much of the city underwater. OEM officials estimate 2.3-million New Yorkers live in storm-surge zones in worst-case scenarios.


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