In the days before, during and after Superstorm Sandy, many residents found comfort in messages from Peter Forman. As commissioner of Port Washington-Manhasset Office of Emergency Management, Forman calmly provided critical information, so residents knew how to prepare, where to find resources, including shelter. Patch caught up with Forman to learn more about his work as commissioner, which is a volunteer position.
Patch: What is your background in emergency management that enables you to step up to the plate?
Peter Forman: By way of background, I am an innovator. I build things. Companies. Systems. And, in this case, an Office of Emergency Management.
I have founded and run public companies. And run and built many other things. I founded the PWM OEM just a few years ago with the support of all the incorporated villages on the peninsula, north of Northern Blvd, as well as the town for the unincorporated areas of Port Washington.
By way of history, I was an appointed emergency manager with the Village of Sands Point and after going with Trustee Marc Silbert to meetings with Nassau County and other villages for a couple of years, I realized that no village could be very successful at emergency management alone. So I approached all of the Boards of Trustees on the peninsula and the police and fire departments and we all agreed to work together for our common good. Today the PWM OEM is the municipalities that support it.
Patch: This is a volunteer position – what drives your dedication?
PF: A few things: Firstly, serving a real need. This community needed an emergency management organization to assist. Secondly, as I said earlier, I like building things. The payoff is the thanks and appreciation that the residents and my friends offer. There is no better feeling. I also believe that the model of emergency management we have created on the peninsula is a model for many other communities on Long Island and nationally.
Patch: What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting information to the public?
PF: Not all residents had access to the same communication technologies—or any at all. Some residents had cell phone and no landline. Some had landline and no cell. Some email and not phone. And some, nothing at all. So we used the “all modalities” approach. We sent all alerts to all points of contact that we had for each resident: cell, landlines, text, and email. And for those residents who may not have had any access we asked for a new modality: particularly for the elderly and infirmed, we asked the residents to “adopt” a neighbor and check in on them to ask them what they needed and to let them know of shelters and other updates.
But this raises an important point for residents. The mass-communication service we offer is pre-populated with publicly listed landlines. Therefore, many residents get calls from us even if they have never registered at NorthShoreAlert.org. But if their landline is down or we send a message by just email, then they won’t receive it. So it’s critical that residents register all of their contact info at NorthShoreAlert.org – for themselves and their household members. For residents who don’t have access to a computer, they can leave a message on 516-883-0000, and we will assist them.
Patch: How did you manage to operate despite the lack of power, internet, phone service?
PF: Innovation. The municipal offices out of which we would normally operate were on generator but had no internet – which was a crucial need. My own home, which can function as a backup EOC [Emergency Operations Center], lost power and the generator failed to turnover, or was damaged in the storm. So we were prepared to move the EOC wherever we needed to. And in this case, the Village of Sands Point came through with a public works building that was on generator and had internet and phones. We are very appreciative to them and to the village leadership for the support and help they always show the PWM OEM—which benefits the whole community.
Patch: Many have said that it was your voice that gave them comfort pre, during and post Sandy. How are you able to stay calm amid seeming chaos, whether it was the storm itself or the barrage of information?
PF: Great question. I don’t feel too much stress in events like this. I guess that’s one of the reasons others tell me I make a good emergency manager and why I have chosen to spend my time doing this. I see these events merely as challenges or problems to be solved or mitigated. The biggest stress I had is that my personal home was at threat of substantial flood damage. The water rose within 6 inches of flooding my basement and ground floor – I have the seaweed line that left its mark. I didn’t know until after the storm that we had dodged a bullet. But as for the community, I do feel empathy and an understanding of what they are going through. I know that I can help them and was focused on working with our member municipalities and staff to do whatever we could to do so. Half of what we do doesn’t happen during a storm. It takes place the rest of the year when we are planning, coordinating, and preparing for emergencies and other events that warrant our intervention. The other half takes place during an event. The visible part is the messaging to the community. But the real work is what I would call “MacGyver’ing” – what we do behind the scenes immediately before, during, and after an event to adapt to that specific event to serve the community, the local municipalities, and special districts.
Patch: What is the biggest lesson you'd like the public to grasp?
PF: Before this storm I would tell other emergency managers and residents that a direct hit hurricane could result in loss of power for two to three weeks.
Well, Sandy wasn’t technically a hurricane, although it was a superstorm, and we remain at risk of recurrence. Residents must accept the fact that there are simply limits to how much government can protect them in an emergency and the more they self-prepare to take care of themselves and the more the local community prepares itself, the better off they will be.
Patch: Surely there are lessons learned after any big crises. What do you think was one of the biggest takeaways from an OEM standpoint?
PF: The Port Washington-Manhasset community is a great one. The residents and businesses are willing to help one another in an emergency. We must build on that and learn to depend on one another with support from the town and from the county. We know our needs. We are willing to help one another. And we need these other entities to support us. But in many ways we need to be on our own front line. What we did here was unique on Long Island. No other community had the level of communication that we did.
While there are too many people and businesses to thank in this interview, I can say I am very, very proud of the many who extended themselves in so many ways. And lastly, a personal thank you to the literally hundreds who took the time to write us sincere thank you notes and letters-to-the-editor. Keep them coming. As I said earlier, we thrive on helping others and the positive feedback.
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