Press Conference on Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on United Nations Headquarters in New York

1 November 2012

Press Conference on Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on United Nations Headquarters in New York

1 November 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Hurricane Sandy’s Impact

 

on United Nations Headquarters in New York

 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has tapped a team of senior United Nations officials to carry out an impact assessment in the aftermath of the unprecedented hurricane which earlier this week had upended millions of lives and crippled the Organization’s facilities and operations across a nearly thousand mile area that stretched from the north-eastern United States to the Caribbean.

The move was announced during a Headquarters press conference by Secretary-General Ban’s Chef de Cabinet, Susanna Malcorra, who would lead the team.  She said that the officials were tasked with assessing the performance of United Nations systems, protocols and procedures in addressing the many challenges that had arisen in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and to make necessary recommendations for the future.  The team included Gregory B. Starr, Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security and Yukio Takasu, Under-Secretary-General for Management, both of whom joined Ms. Malcorra today..

“It is important to take stock of what had happened not only to the UN, but to the many people that were affected by this unprecedented storm,” Ms. Malcorra said, and added in that regard that the Secretary-General had already been in contact with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and had spoken on the phone with the Governors of the states coping with the devastation.  He had also been in touch with the presidents of the Caribbean countries that had been affected. 

She said that the Secretary-General was very concerned about Hurricane Sandy’s impact in the Caribbean and had tasked the United Nations family in the region, in particular the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the relevant country teams and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), to redouble their efforts to support affected populations and make sure that the Organization’s systems operated to the best of their ability.

As for the Organization’s presence in storm-paralyzed New York, she said the United Nations had been reaching out to the many people that had been affected, some of whom were staff.  It had been more than 100 years since the city had experienced a storm of such unprecedented strength and size, and the United Nations Headquarters compound, located on edge of the East River, had taken the full brunt the hurricane’s wrath when it had slammed into New York on Monday. 

She said Secretary-General Ban had returned to New York yesterday from Seoul, but he had nevertheless been following the developments from the Republic of Korea, and had been regularly apprised on the situation by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, Mr. Starr, as leader of the New York Emergency Response team, and Mr. Takasu, who is responsible for the Headquarters compound facilities.

Senior United Nations officials were “exceptionally proud” of the many staff, security personnel and contractors that had worked tirelessly over the past few days even though some of them were impacted by the storm themselves.  Their extraordinary efforts, she said, had made it possible for staff that had been able, to return to work today (Thursday).  Moreover, Headquarters had actually been operational by Wednesday, with the Security Council holding its first meeting that afternoon in the North Lawn Building.  In the meantime, on Monday and Tuesday, those that were required to do maintenance, assessment and duties required to normalize operations had also been on the premises, she explained.

For his part, Mr. Starr pointed out that it was not just the Organization’s employees that had been impacted by the crisis.  Indeed, the employees of Member States’ Permanent Missions in New York, the citizens of the host city, as well as of New Jersey and Connecticut had also been affected.  “We are also acutely aware that we have problems all the way down into the Caribbean and the UN is mobilizing to work on those issues as well,” he said, outlining some of the steps the team had taken prior to, during and after the storm, including through liaising with local host country and city officials.

He said by Tuesday morning, it had become evident that Headquarters had suffered “major damage”, especially the lower levels of the United Nations complex, causing electrical problems that had led to both the main and temporary chillers to be taken off line.  That in turn caused the loss of some communications capabilities.  He added that the plastic sheath covering the roof of the General Assembly building had been blown off by the high winds and that the building’s front entrance was also damaged.  Refuting reports that the Security Council had been forced to move off the campus, Mr. Starr explained that the 15-nation body had held meetings in the North Lawn Building.

Meetings scheduled for Thursday, including in the General Assembly Hall and the North Lawn Building had also proceeded as scheduled, he said.  Operations in the Secretariat Building, including the Dag Hammarskjöld Library were also back.  “We are not back to full operations, but given the fact that this hurricane ended on Tuesday morning I think we’ve made some remarkable efforts to get back on operation for the Security Council on Wednesday and to have the amount of operations that we have today,” he said, adding that clearly some difficulties remained in terms of the communications systems.

Those difficulties needed to be looked at closely and would be a major component of the work of the assessment team led by Ms. Malcorra to see how things could be made and done better in the future.  The team would also look at the Organization’s overall response to the crisis.

On facilities and infrastructure, Mr. Takasu joined the other panellists in praising the hard work of those that had put in long hours, “even working day and night”, to ensure that normalcy returned to Headquarters as soon as possible.  He was especially grateful that so far, no United Nations staff members had suffered any physical injury, though many faced damage to their homes and property.

He said that overall, the Organization’s emergency management framework had functioned “reasonably well” given the unprecedented scope of the event.  While the overriding concern had always been to ensure the safety of staff, delegations and everyone present on the United Nations compound, his Office had also remained fully aware of the importance of ensuring resumption of normal operations as soon as possible with minimum disruption of work.

He outlined for correspondents some of the preventive and mitigation measures taken before the hurricane hit, including the checking of drains and generators and the sand-bagging of all areas.  All crews, including contractors that were actively involved in the operation, had also prepared ahead of time.  As a result of such coordinated efforts, the damage had largely been mitigated.

Nevertheless, Mr. Takasu said, in addition to the damage to the roof tarp covering the General Assembly and to that building’s entrance, the third basement had also been partially flooded and all structures located there and below had been affected.  They included the service loading station, printing plant, some of the Facilities Management Office equipment, and the garage, where a number of vehicles had been partially flooded.  By far the most important equipment to be affected there were the main and temporary chiller systems, which had been totally inundated and had to be shut down, he explained.

Additionally, as a result of the shutting down those systems, a small fire had broken out in the switchboard area.  To prevent its spread, a decision was taken to shut down the power in the Secretariat building.  All systems however, were fully functional as of today, and the few that were still not fully operational, like the blackberry and Internet services, were expected to be normalized by later today.  He said that as of this morning, and after checking and testing the fire safety system, water pumping capability and elevators, 17 floors of the Secretariat Building had been reopened.

According to Ms. Malcorra, beyond the efforts that the Department of Safety and Security and the Department of Management had made, the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) had been actively trying to make sure that the work of the Member States could be carried out as normally as possible and as soon as possible.

Asked about the financial cost of Sandy to the United Nations, Mr. Takasu said the major cost at this point was the damaged chiller systems, which was fully insured, and discussions were already underway with the insurers on the matter.  With regard to other damage, he explained that it was too early at this stage to put an estimate on every single item affected, but he believed that addressing issues such as the sheath over the General Assembly Hall roof and the entrance to the General Assembly would not incur “major” costs.

Responding to a question on problems of communications, Ms. Malcorra explained that one of the lessons already learned from the crisis was that communication, including, among other means, the Internet and hand-helds, was a key element.  “We are looking into how we prioritize that.  Clearly we were focusing more on the traditional side — the e-mail and desk-top approach.  This [is an area] that we need to refocus,” she said.

When asked what impact the hurricane would have on the scheduled for completion of the Capital Master Plan to refurbish the historic Headquarters building, the officials agreed the storm had not impacted the project in any substantial way. The completion schedule remained on course.  At most, the storm had delayed the project only for the three days Headquarters was closed, they explained.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.