False expectations add to East Coast disaster angst

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3 2012 1:23 p.m. MDT

Chris Briggs, a volunteer for the American Red Cross, cleans his truck at the American Red Cross in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. Briggs was headed east to help superstorm Sandy victims.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Flood waters are starting to recede and cleanup efforts are under way along the superstorm Sandy-ravaged East Coast. But many residents are still waiting for power and fresh water, and long lines for gasoline have formed, if gasoline can be found at all.

The battle against the storm and push for cleanup has also become a battle of managing expectations. And those giving aid say many impacted by the storm do not have a true understanding of how quickly (or slowly) help will arrive.

Normal in a storm-damaged area — even 5 or 6 days after a disaster strikes, means isolation and caring for your self by drawing from whatever preparations have been made, preferably with a full tank of gas and a 72-hour preparedness kit.

"Emergency preparedness is not just a Utah thing," said Utah's Division of Emergency Management spokesman Joe Dougherty.

Across the country, there is no minimum standard of time by which a government must respond following a disaster, but they always do, Dougherty said.

"It could be a week before you get help," he said, adding that the division has been telling residents in Utah for years to be prepared for any situation. It advises having both an emergency kit that can be grabbed quickly, in case of evacuation, as well as a stock of longer term resources at home.

"At the very minimum, you should have a week's worth of food and water storage, as well as other necessities," Dougherty said.

Additional instructions can be found online at www.BeReadyUtah.gov or at the federal site, www.Ready.gov.

"In emergency planning, the government will do all that it can do," Dougherty said, adding that response coordination is often impeded by limited access to telephone and Internet, as well as the fact that some first responders may be impacted themselves.

Saturday, the troubles on the East Coast were ever-present. Just under 6,000 people in Manhattan remained without power and whole communities on Long Island and New Jersey remained cut off from power, building a sense of isolation.

Identifying what and where the needs are without open communication lines can also be difficult, Dougherty said.

"We are all in the life safety business, and government's goal is to protect the lives of the people and take away any harm that is happening," Dougherty said.

Oftentimes, he said, the size of a community's first responder pool pales in comparison to its population.

"Government has a huge task, especially when you have a catastrophic event," he said.

Federal, state and local response teams have rolled into at least eight states affected by Sandy, some more quickly than others, as they encounter various situations along the way.

But troops with the U.S. Department of Defense, Army and Air National Guard have made restoration of power to vital facilities and mass transit resumption a priority, according to statement provided to media.

Hundreds of thousands of meals and bottled water have been dispensed to residents in areas of the greatest need, as dispatched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates services in an area declared a federal disaster zone.

FEMA issued a warning to states along the East Coast on May 24, before storms started brewing. It urged "individuals and businesses to take action to prepare themselves in advance of severe weather and hurricanes." The statement also asked people to pledge to prepare, fill out a family communications plan, assemble emergency kits and get involved in their communities to spread the word about preparedness.

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