The View from Belmar: Sandy, Disaster Response, Social Media, and Limiting Future Events

May 09, 2014

My wife and I live in Belmar, New Jersey, and from our home we can see the beach and the ocean. It is hard to find a more pleasant place to be. That is, except when those same waters bring disaster. Like in October, 2012 when Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy smashed into our community, and many others in New Jersey and New York, causing death and destruction.

What happened in Belmar in advance of, and in the wake of Sandy, provides a prime lesson of how to communicate to citizens, customers, and employees when disasters threaten and strike. It was with these memories, and seeing and hearing the reconstruction outside of our home, that I wrote the Frost & Sullivan reports, "Confronting the Unpredictable in the World of Customer Contact: Strategies for Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BC/DR)" and “Using Social Media in Disaster Planning and Response”.

We weren’t here when Sandy hit as we had heeded the mandatory evacuation order tweeted by Belmar Mayor Matthew Doherty on Sunday Oct. 28, and posted on the borough’s Web site. We followed the posted coastal evacuation routes to the Garden State Parkway and to the Outerbridge crossing to Staten Island, where my late sister-in-law has a small apartment, on high ground. She was recuperating from an illness in a local hospital and she said we could stay there until she was released. The winds were picking up and we feared that the bridge’s owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, would close it. The agency did close that bridge and all others from New Jersey on Monday Oct.29.

My wife and I began planning for the “event” when we first learned that Sandy could hit us. We bought bottled water and canned food. I began alerting clients, notably Aspect with whom I had a webinar on cloud computing in the contact center, planned for Tuesday Oct.30. Ironically, one of the key points I was to make in support of moving to the cloud was “bolstered business continuity/disaster recovery.”

I also alerted my colleagues. I was on Frost & Sullivan’s instant messaging with Principal Analyst Nancy Jamison when the mayor’s order came down, and told her that I had to go…

One of the key recommendations in the Frost & Sullivan BC/DR report is a layered approach to communications response through using multiple channels and technologies. Recipients would receive vital messages and they, in turn, would be able to contact organizations to obtain important information. Because during disasters it is inevitable that one channel or method will not work.

Belmar used a multi-layered information system akin to what the Frost & Sullivan report later recommended. The borough deployed Code RED, which is a reverse 9-1-1 outbound voice notification system that delivers urgent messages whether an individual answers them or they go into voicemail. And, noting that IP telephony, whether on cable or DSL, is dependent on the local power grid, the borough urges residents who sign up for Code RED to also include the cell numbers.

But also before, and in the wake of Sandy, the borough staff and Mayor Doherty also posted alerts and new information on the borough’s site, social media, and through email, even in the face of having to help the victims as well as protect their own families. We were on the site constantly.

The Frost & Sullivan social media case study outlines how Belmar developed its use of social media as a BC/DR tool, having had a trial run with it during Hurricane Irene in 2011, and then revamping its Web site and its social media strategy in June 2012.  The site has both a very moving slide deck about Hurricane Sandy. It also has Mayor Doherty’s rolling and scary tweet/post-by tweet/post of Sandy crashing into the community.  One of the unexpected outcomes from Belmar’s use of social media is that it helped drive in over $750,000 in donations and supplies.

In the run-up to, during, and after Sandy, Belmar had 4,200 Code RED calls, 1,600 emails, and 1,400 texts. To put these numbers into context, Belmar has nearly 6,000 year-round residents. In the days after the storm the borough had least one code red a day for over a month, sometimes two a day if needed.

From safety, with heat and power, we watched the TV cameras fly over our home. To our difficult-to-exaggerate relief, we didn’t see any damage or flooding to our home. But the boardwalk and the iconic pavilions on it across the street were destroyed, while two blocks away there were people paddling kayaks on the streets.

While on Staten Island, I relied on my cellphone’s hotspot to connect to the Web as my sister-in-law lacked Internet access. The bandwidth veered from 4G to 1X and sometimes I lost the connection as a result of the storm. Commuting to our Broad Street office was out of the question as it was closed because of power outages in lower Manhattan.

When my sister-in-law was released, we had to go back home, and as it turned out, on Election Day. Everything appeared almost as it was, until we took our exit and it was then that we saw the downed trees, wrecked power poles, and dead traffic lights. When we crossed the bridge that led into Belmar we faced an eerie silence except for the hum of generators, and saw only a few cars and lights. When we turned onto our darkened street we had to stop at a barricade and show our IDs to the National Guard troops that were standing by their Humvee. There was a curfew in place and it had been pushed back to 8:30pm to allow for voting, but otherwise we had to be back inside our home by 6pm.

Now I was faced with how to work. Our NJ Transit commuter rail line had been wrecked, with boats tossed upon the tracks, so I shuttled between Wi-Fi equipped Starbucks on Route 35 and at the Barnes and Noble in Monmouth Mall, allowing for enough time to get back for the curfew. And on top of it all, literally, was a snowstorm that added pain to injury. To say that concentration was “challenging” under these conditions would be a gross understatement… Luckily I have the best team of understanding and supportive colleagues that I could ever hope to work with and to whom I am beholden in my gratitude.

But there have also been missed opportunities to provide adequate communications. There was a lack of information about where to go before the storm hit, and on when the power would be restored. Our complex went beyond the call of duty to make sure we had heat and hot water by equipping us with a backup generator, when many other Belmar residents were without both. But after Sandy I suggested to the management that they should inform us in the event on a disaster or other such major disruption, like on a resident-only-accessible part of the site, supplemented by outbound proactive customer contact.

But life gradually returned to a semblance of normalcy. We finally got our power and FiOS back some weeks later, and the curfews were lifted, but it would be many months until the unstaffed residents-only barricades would be lifted in our area, along with all of the debris from the severely damaged homes. My webinar with Aspect was rescheduled to Jan.30, with added insights on how the cloud enables BC/DR strategies. The rail line was put back into service and our office reopened. The boardwalk was replaced in time for the 2013 summer season, stronger and better than ever, and plans are underway to bring back two of the four pavilions lost.  My sister in law got to see Belmar’s progress last year before she passed away in January of this year.

And yes the hums of the generators ended, no longer needed until the next time…

Even so, all of us are more wary of disasters. We weren’t the only ones affected by “weird weather”, as witnessed by the severe hurricane-like storm that recently smacked into the U.K., and the flooding in Calgary, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario Canada. Locally we were told to expect rising sea levels, and more such “events” like Sandy. Now there’s talk about hardening the infrastructure, with plenty of blame to go around like utilities locating substations in low-lying areas. Meanwhile Belmar and adjacent communities are proceeding with or are looking at plans to limit or prevent flooding from local lakes that feed into the Atlantic Ocean. I have been advocating reviving the long-dormant Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex (M-O-M) inland commuter rail project. And all around us homes are being lifted and permanent backup generators are being installed.

The key culprit of many of these recent and future events appears to be climate change. And for that we are largely responsible.

When we drive instead of walking, riding a bike or taking mass transit; build on farmland, greenspace, and wetlands, and build "monster homes"; have employees commute to offices instead of from home; and locate in misnamed “office parks” with poor transit access we are setting ourselves up for another Sandy. We are also contributors to painful illnesses and excruciating deaths suffered by others, including our loved ones and ourselves, caused by air pollution from vehicles and from transportation infrastructure construction and upkeep.

The environment is not free. But we have been treating it that way. That is because the cost of the damage we incur when we make choices on energy, land use, buildings, technology, and transportation have not been incorporated in their pricetags. But until they are, to encourage us to make the right decisions, we will continue to pay an even more terrible price in disasters, in hardening the infrastructure, in our health and well-being, and in our quality of life.

Brendan Read


Brendan Read is Senior Industry Analyst with over 25 years’ experience covering business, communications, staffing, and technology. He has worked in, prepared reports, and blogged on a wide range of topics including customer contact, CX, CRM, IoT, social media, supply chain, and BC/DR. He also has backgrounds in construction, manufacturing, materials, resource extraction, site selection, and transportation. He examines the broad economic, environmental, innovation, political, and social mega trends, and their impacts on businesses, markets, and society.

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