9 November 2012
Secretary-General
SG/SM/14619
GA/11309

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

While Storm Damage to UN Facilities ‘Contained’, Secretary-General Acknowledges

 

Secretariat ‘Fell Short’ on Communicating with Staff, Permanent Missions

 


Following is the text of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s briefing to the General Assembly on the impact of Hurricane Sandy, in New York, 9 November:


I know that several senior officials have come before you in various forums to share information about the storm.  But I wanted to be here myself because I understand the concerns you have raised and believe these matters are best discussed together, frankly, face to face.  In that spirit, I look forward to a productive and much-needed discussion with you.


Storms and emergencies pose great tests and challenges.  They may bring out the best in people who work beyond the call of duty in trying and even in heroic circumstances.  But emergency situations can also lay bare where we may have been operating on flawed assumptions and must do better.


Such was the case over the past two weeks.  The United Nations continued to provide its vital global services despite major disruptions.  At the same time, where there were mistakes — there must be lessons.  We are determined to work with all of you to learn and move forward.


Hurricane Sandy affected all of us — the staff of your missions and their families, and the staff of the United Nations.  Moreover, the storm and its aftermath are still with us.  Here in the New York metropolitan area and along the East Coast of the United States, more than 100 people lost their lives and many families remain without power and water.


In the Caribbean, 5 million people were affected and 72 people died.  Fifty-four people died in Haiti alone, and hundreds of thousands of people were hit by floods and heavy winds.  In Cuba, 20 per cent of the country's population was affected.  There were also significant impacts in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.


I have spoken to the Presidents of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the Prime Minister of Jamaica.  I have written a condolence letter to President [Barack] Obama and have spoken with New Jersey Governor [Chris] Christie, New York Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg of New York City, and American Red Cross Chairman [Bonnie] McElveen-Hunter.


I expressed my solidarity to each, and pledged the full support of the United Nations for the recovery effort.  Immediately after the storm, we allocated money from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) — $5 million to Cuba and $4 million for Haiti. 


Jamaica will receive an emergency grant for health and food security support.  The United Nations is working closely with national authorities, donors and emergency organizations to ensure the strongest possible support for national efforts to see to their needs today and to strengthen disaster risk reduction for the future.


Excellencies, Let me turn now to the damage here at United Nations Headquarters.  Throughout the crisis, my overriding concerns, and that of senior management, were to ensure the safety of delegates and staff, and to resume normal operations as early as possible.


Let me underscore that even though I was away from Headquarters when the storm struck, as the situation unfolded, I was in constant touch with the Deputy Secretary-General [Jan Eliasson], who was directing the response from Headquarters.  I arrived back in New York on Wednesday evening, and immediately joined the discussions and efforts being carried out on the ground.


I am pleased to inform you that there have been no reports of injuries to staff members and their dependants.  However, several staff members have suffered damage to property and experienced other difficulties.  I have reached out to convey my sympathy and support.  I know you join me in these expressions of concern.


Despite the severity of the storm, material damages in the United Nations compound are relatively contained.  I will not go into details, since senior officials have already updated you and will continue to do so.


Suffice to say that the most serious damage occurred when flooding in the basement caused the shutdown of the cooling system and then, in turn, of the Primary Data Centre of our ICT [information and communications technology] infrastructure. 


Due to the rapidity of the shutdown, there were difficulties in the migration to the Secondary Data Centre in New Jersey.  Some communications systems — both data and phones — were severely affected.  But the Secondary Data Centre did allow us to maintain critical IT [information technology] systems and communication continuity, with no data lost.


Let me also stress that our global services were provided without interruption.  Many staff worked around the clock.  The Situation Centre was always in touch with our field missions.  The Security Council was able to meet in this building on Wednesday, with full television and webcast coverage, and took innovative steps to continue its work; various plenary and committee meetings took place on Thursday; and the Secretariat was fully functioning on Friday.


However, it is clear that in focusing so much on operations and infrastructure, we fell short when it came to communications.  The Secretariat made efforts to reach out to staff and delegations, including through the emergency information Website and the telephone hotline, and by e-mail to Permanent Missions.  But we learned that too many e-mail addresses were out of date or otherwise incorrect.  And in the broadest sense, we should have done much more to update Member States, staff and the wider audience at large about the impact and implications of the storm.


I fully understand the frustration of many delegates and staff members hoping for guidance, critical information or even just a reassuring word during the disaster.  We are looking closely into what worked and what did not work during the response, and are determined to fix whatever went wrong.


This stock-taking exercise is being led by the Chef de Cabinet.  It encompasses crisis governance, infrastructure, technology, staff support and communications, both internal and external.  We expect this effort to generate practical recommendations for strengthening business continuity and filling the gaps that became evident during the crisis.


As an initial quick adjustment, we have created the United Nations Headquarters Emergency Information Website, which will serve all of us who work in the United Nations compound — delegates, staff, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), journalists and others.  But of course, much more is likely to be necessary.


To show our solidarity with the United Nations great and generous host country and city, United Nations staff and I have launched a donation drive.  We are also supporting our own staff who have suffered losses and damage.


Finally, let me say that we all know the difficulties in attributing any single storm to climate change.  But we also know this: extreme weather due to climate change is the new normal.  This may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is one we ignore at our peril.  The world’s best scientists have been sounding the alarm for many years.


Our own eyes can see what is happening.  There can be no looking away, no persisting with business as usual, no hoping the threat will diminish or disappear.


Our challenge remains, clear and urgent:  to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to strengthen adaptation to the even larger climate shocks we know are on the way no matter what we do; and to reach a legally binding climate agreement by 2015, as States agreed to do last year in Durban.


This is an opportunity, not just a burden.  It is a chance to steer the world on a more sustainable path — creating the jobs and energy systems and other foundations for long-term prosperity and stability for all.  This should be one of the main lessons of Hurricane Sandy.  Let us make this wise investment in our common future.


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For information media • not an official record