In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I witnessed two Long Island communities, Long Beach and Oceanside, located just 1.5 miles from one another, experience very different fates. Both communities have populations hovering around 33,000 residents, and both faced unprecedented damage during the storm.
However, the main difference between the two is that Long Beach is a city, with its own government and resources, whereas Oceanside is what New York State defines as a hamlet, an unincorporated area with no mayor, no police department, and no other essential services that would be useful in times of crisis. It is simply a part of the greater Town of Hempstead, which is itself a collection of 37 hamlets and 22 villages. The Town of Hempstead's total population is 760,000 according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau reports.
When disaster struck, Oceanside, where I grew up, had few resources to rely on: We have an all-volunteer fire department made up of amazing men and women who went without sleep for weeks after Sandy, constantly putting their lives on the line as calls came in non-stop (despite half of the firehouses and trucks flooding, rendering them useless). We have our own U.S. Post Office (unhelpful post-Sandy), a school board with a long-standing and well-respected superintendent of schools (though half of our schools were also seriously damaged), and a public library (that emerged unscathed).
Not only is there no police department in Oceanside, as we rely on Nassau County police officers, there is not even a police station. For sanitation, we rely on the Oceanside branch of the Town of Hempstead's refuse collection operations, a group of heavily unionized folks who have proved to be inept and unwilling to pick up the mess in this rare time of crisis. There is no mayor, no city council, and of course no professional city management staff.
Long Beach, on the other hand, has 300 city employees. Of these, it has approximately 75 police officers and 30 firefighters, as well as its own Department of Public Works that handles sanitation and sewage issues.
Prior to Sandy, the City of Long Beach distributed over 19,000 sandbags to residents, while also updating its website to keep people up-to-date with the latest information. This was in addition to distributing hurricane preparedness pamphlets to all residents during the summer and organizing a de-facto emergency management office headed by its mayor and Kennedy School of Government-educated city manager.
Yes, like Oceanside, Long Beach relies on LIPA, the beleaguered and bumbling soon-to-be former power holding company, but the failures of LIPA seem to be one of the few commonalities between the two cities (and Oceanside, as it turns out, suffered far longer in total darkness).
In the days after Sandy, Long Beach established its indoor ice rink as a collection point for relief supplies, also making it a distribution center for its residents. Emergency generators were brought in for power. The ice rink was as well-organized as a Target store, with specified loading docks and hundreds of volunteers flocking in from around the country to assist. There were New York State Troopers on site, National Guardsmen, and other federal employees in addition to Long Beach's own. Things were civilized, and it became clear to residents where they had to go for supplies and information, even when most of the city appeared to be in shambles. FEMA and insurance companies set up shop around the ice rink (also located a short walk from City Hall), where any necessary information or services could be found.
Oceanside, meanwhile, had a host of tired firefighters and community leaders, many of whom lost their own homes, trying to wrap their head around the crisis without being physically able to take much action, because, without power, they still had other responsibilities to their families, employers, and in many cases, the schools or fire department.
Oceanside's collection efforts were meager in comparison to Long Beach, because there were no individuals able to organize large-scale collection sites and manage the distribution of relief supplies.
There was little outside help. FEMA decided to set up shop in Oceanside Park, located at an edge of town that the thousands of people with flooded cars would never be able to get to, and thousands more, stuck without power, never even knew that this help existed.
The Town of Hempstead was useless. Nassau County was useless. New York State was useless. FEMA was useless. It then fell on the Oceanside diaspora, family, and friends, to convey information. I and others not terribly impacted by the storm set up websites and Facebook pages to provide information to fellow citizens (if and when they could even check these resources), as Oceanside has no web resources of its own. It was old high school friends and acquaintances whom I counted on to get relief directly to Oceanside, because it seemed like our community was not one featured on the news like others (until Oceansiders turned a school press conference into a rally dedicated to venting frustrations with our unreachable power company, as well as our do-nothing Town of Hempstead, Nassau County, and Congressional elected officials...).
As for aid management, Oceanside is now relying on Oceanside Community Service, a small non-profit set up in 1949 to help poor members of the community. This organization is led by the same civic-minded folks who are also members of the school board, fire department, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, etc. And it's usually this time of year that the organization feeds, clothes, and delivers toys to the needy. Whereas the Long Beach ice rink is now, to their credit, filled to the brim with supplies and a never-ending flow of vehicles dropping off more needed items, Oceanside Community Service was overjoyed that a single tractor trailer recently arrived from Vestal, New York, bringing much-needed supplies.
My call to action is that Oceanside immediately incorporate as a village. In times of crisis, all areas need police departments, management professionals, and full-time leaders. Unincorporated areas cannot and should not rely on incompetent bureaucrats at the county or township levels. Incidents like Sandy may not happen often, but when they do, citizens should know that they will be looked after, and that disaster management on the local level will never again be such a debacle because a hyperlocal government is not in place.