The Challenge of Developing Situational Awareness During Hurricane Disasters—Part Three: Understanding the Impact (or the “What’s Next?”)

Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City on October 29, 2012, at approximately 8 p.m. The 933-kilometer-wide storm produced 158 kph winds as it moved northwest toward the New Jersey coast as a Category 1 hurricane. A new state record was set for the lowest recorded barometric pressure (an indicator of storm strength), which was measured at 27.94 inches at landfall.

Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on New Jersey included high winds with hurricane-force gusts, storm surge, and significant rainfall. Surge heights were considered major to record-level—i.e., in the 6- to 9-foot range—along the coast, resulting in major inundation of coastal areas and flooding of barrier islands. Rainfall levels totaled up to 7 inches for most locations in New Jersey.

Once the storm passed, the task of the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center (with support from FEMA) was to determine the extent of damage to the state, what resources and processes would be required to support basic human needs, and what would be required for recovery and reconstruction. The process of developing situational awareness after the disaster was more challenging due to several factors, including power and communications losses, overwhelmed local governments, and an overload of incomplete data. FEMA established Disaster Recovery Offices where people and businesses could seek support and emergency loans. The process of collecting this data was slow and was often impeded by conditions created by the disaster.

Power outages affected nearly 2.7 million customers, and restoration of service was a high priority in the initial and ongoing responses. The loss of power created significant issues that hampered communications and the delivery of essential services. Not only did a large proportion of residents in affected states lose power, but also businesses and schools were closed and major facilities, such as water and wastewater treatment facilities, hospitals, and police stations, had to use generators—if they had them—to function. Service stations were also closed due to lack of power, exacerbating the demand for generators and the requirement for fuel. The resulting fuel shortage led to crisis situations that impeded the provision of basic human services; in many municipalities, for example, police, fire, EMS, and public works departments ran out of fuel for their own vehicles.

These issues required the need to acquire generators capable of supporting large facilities as well as fuel to not only support generators but to also sustain emergency services and provide homeowners with fuel for their personal generators. The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management had to locate fuel from out of state and prioritize where fuel and generators should be placed.

When large areas of a state suffer from these issues and resources shortages ensue, how do managers prioritize the distribution of scant resources? Again, the what, the so what, and the what’s next highlighted in this series come into play.

Answering these questions requires the compilation of data for analysis. Ultimately, the process requires making music out of the noise. While we previously discussed the importance of developing essential elements of information, we did not discuss who has the responsibility for conducting this analysis. Although the process is a collective mission of all who staff an emergency operations center, the group with the primary responsibility for collection and analysis of information is the Planning Section, which is established through the Incident Command System (ICS).

ICS was first developed in the United States in the late 1970s in response to managing large wildland and forest fires in California. ICS is a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of the emergency response to incidents that provides a common process under which responders from multiple agencies can work together effectively. All incident response efforts in the United States are required to follow ICS tenets, and ICS has been accepted as a best practice around the world, including in various forms throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.

The Planning Section collects and analyzes information, which is instrumental in the proper management of an incident. Analysis performed by the Planning Section assists senior leadership in making informed decisions that translate into plans of action to be used by all responders. The Planning Section works to establish communications connections with local governments to acquire community damage assessments, including the extent of damage to residences, commercial properties, and critical infrastructure. Using GIS technologies, such as standardized information collection tools on tablets and smart phones, provides uniformity and adds speed to the data collection process. In addition, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can identify the exact locations where damage assessments were conducted, providing the ability to map the locations and determine the extent of incident damage. This then translates into an understanding of the mass care needs of the population and the type of response and recovery resources required.

More than 100,000 homes were damaged in the State of New Jersey, and 94 percent of reported damage was from 129 municipalities in the state. More than 11,600 Small Business Administration loan applications were filed, totaling more than US$758 million, and more than 78,000 residents filed National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) claims for flood damage, totaling more than US$3.1 billion. Ninety-six percent of NFIP-reported flood damage originated within 68 municipalities. While most of New Jersey was not impacted by Hurricane Sandy, those areas that were hit suffered severe damage.[1]

Hurricanes can cause significant death and destruction. Populations need to be properly warned of the dangers of an impending disaster. And once an incident has occurred, communities must receive rapid assistance to survive and recover. The most effective and efficient means for providing this assistance is through proper planning for quick development of situational awareness and through the training of a cadre of staff who can determine the what, the so what, and the what’s next long before such an incident occurs.


Author: Jim Weldin, Senior Emergency Planner

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on hurricane analysis. Part 1, “Determining the What,” dealt with anticipating the impact of a tropical system and Part 2, “Consequences (Or the ‘So What?’)” focused on consequence management. 

About the Author

Jim Weldin is a Senior Emergency Planner for IEM, a global security consulting firm headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina. Mr. Weldin is a retired police officer and has more than 12 years of experience in emergency management. For 5 years, he was stationed in the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, where he wrote emergency response plans and served in activations of the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center for various disasters, including Hurricane Sandy. Most recently, Mr. Weldin worked with the IEM team in Kuwait to assist the GCC in developing its Emergency Management Center.


[1] New Jersey Office of Emergency Management Situation Reports