Members of the U.S. National Guard assist residents displaced by Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, N.J., on Wednesday. Thousands of federal employees remain displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as the cost of damage to government facilities appears likely to climb into the millions of dollars. (AFP)
Thousands of federal employees remain displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as the cost of damage to government facilities appears likely to climb into the millions of dollars.
“This is unprecedented in my 15 years,” said Linda Stagno, a Social Security Administration administrative law judge whose New York City office — along with more than 40 other SSA facilities throughout the city and surrounding suburbs — is closed because of widespread power outages and a crippled mass transportation system.
Also shuttered until Monday is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s regional office in lower Manhattan, where some 270 employees work. And the Veterans Affairs Department medical center in Manhattan is closed indefinitely after the storm flooded its basement and sub-basement, knocking out power and damaging medical equipment. More than 100 patients were evacuated to other VA hospitals in the area before Sandy struck late Oct. 29. More than three dozen VA outpatient clinics in the region were also closed for part of the week.
Although Defense Department installations in the storm’s path from Virginia to Rhode Island generally suffered only minor damage, the impact was more severe for New York-area Coast Guard facilities, where Sandy swept away boat docks, demolished outdoor structures and caused extensive flooding. As was true at other agencies, Coast Guard officials did not yet have a dollar estimate for total damages.
By comparison, the storm largely spared the Washington area. As a precaution, the Office of Personnel Management closed federal offices in the Washington region agencies Oct. 29 and 30, affecting some 300,000 federal employees.
Many of those employees teleworked, such as those at the Agriculture Department. Mika Cross, program manager for work/life wellness at Agriculture, said many employees have smartphones and iPads and were able to stay connected to their offices by email, which was moved to a Microsoft cloud solution last year.
At some agencies, lessons learned from past natural disasters prompted upgrades and reforms that proved instrumental in keeping operations running through this latest storm. When Hurricane Irene slammed the East Coast in August 2011, regional SEC employees couldn’t even get BlackBerry service, said Thomas Bayer, the agency’s chief information officer. Afterward, the agency invested in technology upgrades that included backing up systems and capabilities at multiple sites. This week, SEC employees were fully connected to email and had continuous access to agency enforcement and investigations systems, Bayer said.
Throughout the storm, he said, “we were fully operational.”
Other agencies dispatched staff to aid in relief efforts. The Health and Human Services Department, for example, deployed hundreds of employees from as far away as Texas to provide medical care in shelters.
Companies that provide Internet and cloud services to agencies in the storm-affected region worked round-the-clock to ensure no disruption in network operations and mission-critical services.
Amazon Web Services, Verizon’s Terremark and CGI said they maintained uninterrupted service.
“A weather event should never affect the availability of critical IT systems,” said Norm Laudermilch, chief operating officer for Terremark Federal.
Verizon had more than 30 engineers, facility maintenance personnel, electricians and other staff on site over a 48-hour period at its 150,000-square-foot data center in Culpeper, Va., Laudermilch said. “They lived there through the duration of the storm,” he said.
The company’s emergency preparedness team set up cots and stocked the on-campus cafeteria with food, drinks and plenty of coffee.
“Even if the earth were to open up and swallow the entire data center, access to data would never be lost,” Laudermilch said.
Some government business, however, can only be done in person. For Social Security Administration employees, office closings mean that hundreds of disability appeals hearings will have to be rescheduled, said Stagno, who stressed that she was not speaking for the agency, but rather as a regional vice president for the Association of Administrative Law Judges union.
“It’s going to be a giant workload,” she said.
Staff writers Nicole Blake Johnson, Andy Medici and Sean Reilly contributed to this report.