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Tornadoes Get New York City All Spun Up

On Thursday, September 16, shortly after 5 PM, thousands of Notify NYC subscribers in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens received an urgent message from OEM: “Tornado Warning issued until 6 PM. Take shelter on lower floors. Stay away from windows.”  Moments later a fast moving line of thunderstorms ripped through the city producing two tornadoes and a mile-wide downdraft with 125-mph winds.

The storm caused the worst weather damage New York City has seen in decades. Many commuters who left work under calm skies emerged from subways to find their neighborhoods in ruins. Thousands of trees and large limbs were brought down by the winds, causing enormous damage to sidewalks, power lines, homes, businesses and cars. Sadly, a driver in Queens was also killed when a tree fell on her car on the Grand Central Parkway.

At OEM headquarters in downtown Brooklyn, City agencies sprung into action.  Representatives from OEM and the Parks, Sanitation, Police, Fire, Transportation, Buildings, and Design and Construction Departments assembled in the City’s Emergency Operations Center to assess the damage and address immediate threats to people’s safety. In many places, live power lines were down in the streets and emergency vehicles could not pass because of downed trees. About 45,000 Con Ed customers also lost electricity.

By Saturday, September 18, all the major roadways had been cleared and 95% of Con Ed customers who lost power had their electricity restored. With immediate threats to public safety addressed, City agencies shifted their focus to removing the thousands of tons of debris that lined the streets and to cutting limbs that were damaged by the storm. More than 9,000 New Yorkers helped the City determine where to focus its efforts by reporting storm damage to 311.

To hasten clean-up, the City called in crews from Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties, the New York State Transportation and Parks Departments, State Office of Emergency Management (NYS OEM), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Army National Guard, and the US Forest Service. The City also called upon dozens of volunteers from OEM’s Community Emergency Response Teams and the City’s NYC Service initiative. For the next three weeks, as many as 1,200 people from 20 different City, county, state, and federal agencies worked daily to remove hanging limbs and debris and identify damage to City-owned property, particularly sidewalks.

On September 22, NYS OEM, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) were also dispatched to begin surveying the damage and determine if New York City qualified to apply for a federal disaster declaration. After visiting more nearly 650 locations damaged by the storm, FEMA found that Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens all met the threshold to apply for major disaster declarations and public assistance. If the president issues a major disaster declaration, FEMA will reimburse public agencies and eligible not-for-profits for a large percentage of the cost of the clean-up and repairs to damaged sidewalks, parks, playground, and other public infrastructure.  

In the three weeks since the storm, the City has removed more tree debris than the Parks Department typically removes in a year. The Department of Design and Construction has already repaired more than 50 sidewalks damaged by the storm and issued work orders to repair nearly 800 more. There is still a lot of work to be done to rebuild sidewalks and replant trees, and in the coming months OEM will work with Parks and Design and Construction Departments to restore the neighborhoods damaged by the storm.