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New York modifies storm response system

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Photo from Karen Dewitt
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As the fourth anniversary of the devastating storms Irene and Lee approaches, the Cuomo Administration says it’s more ready than ever for hurricanes, floods, and other adverse weather events.

Since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011, there’s been a succession of severe storms, including hurricanes Irene and Lee that brought massive flooding to upstate; Super storm Sandy in 2012 that flooded beach front communities on Long Island and submerged portions of the New York City subway system in corrosive salt water.

Just last fall, some portions of Buffalo received more than 8 feet of snow in a very short time period.

At a conference on emergency preparedness,Kevin Wisely, the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management, says it’s a given now that frequent severe weather is the new normal.

“Given severity and the frequency of these major events that we experience here in New York State, it’s time for our response protocols to evolve into the 21st Century,” Wisely said.

Wisely says the state is employing technologies including installing GPS on nearly 2000 emergency vehicles, to get a better picture of crisis areas when a storm hits.  Global positioning systems will also be used to quickly locate stockpiles of generators and emergency lighting.  The state will be better able to quickly pin point power outages and traffic jams.

The director of emergency management says by the end of the year, the state should have in place its own weather monitoring system with 125 separate sites that will feed data to the National Weather Service.

State officials are also readying $50 million worth of extra snow plows, snow loaders and more high- axle vehicles in anticipation of another potential blizzard. Last year’s Buffalo storm caused confusion over Thruway closures. At one point Governor Cuomo blamed stranded motorists for ignoring Thruway closure signs. The motorists said the Thruway was open when they entered. State officials say they hope the new plans can give everyone a clearer picture of a weather event and responses in the future .  

In addition, for the first time, every county in the state will be connected by a new digital system. Governor Cuomo’s director of state operations, Jim Malatras says more than half of the counties in the state were not on any formal or unified system at all.

“Most counties didn’t even use an online system , there was no communication between the state and the local governments on a real time basis,” Malatras said. “This will do all of that.”

The state is picking up the $1.5 million dollars in initial expenses as well as over $400,000 in early costs for counties, who are restricted on how much they can spend due to a property tax cap.

The conference held this week also includes training for emergency officials, along with clear new protocols of steps to take when a storm strikes.

Cuomo has been reluctant to directly attribute the increased severe weather to global warming, saying instead that, whatever the reason, climate change is here and we need to deal with it.

His chief of operations, Jim  Malatras, says he’s focused on being prepared for the next big weather event, and cautiously optimistic that the improvements will help meet the challenges.

“We hope so,” Malatras said. “We are ready.”

Governor Cuomo did not attend the event.  His long time partner ,celebrity chef Sandra Lee, is recovering from surgery relating to complications from her double mastectomy earlier this year

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.