A Reflection on Then & Now

Distant Mirror: RIOC & Hurricane Irene

Updated 7 weeks ago David Stone
Tropical Storm Irene sent a tree crashing into an Eastwood garden apartment along the East Promenade.
Tropical Storm Irene sent a tree crashing into an Eastwood garden apartment along the East Promenade.
File photo

When Hurricane Irene, downgraded to "tropical storm," just like Isaias, slammed Roosevelt Island in August, 2011, RIOC managed it differently, much differently. With some of the same personnel as today, the state handled Irene well.

At the strangest press briefing I've ever attended after the storm and with cleanup over, RIOC vice president Fernando Martinez, "...spoke with pride about the performance of his staff, citing especially the efforts of IT Director Mike Moreo and Director of Community Planning Erica Wilder in managing communications with residents before and during the storm."

That's from an article I wrote at the time. And for the record, Erica Wilder is now Erica Spencer-EL; so, the talent remains on staff, however unused. Mike Moreo was one of RIOC's most effective managers but ended up being pushed out in a conflict with public safety chief Keith Guerra.

Then, as now, RIOC was hostile to media reports not glowing with praise for its efforts. But then, the difference was that, under president/CEO Leslie Torres, they made no bones about it.

Some still familiar faces glowering at Roosevelt Island's two-person press corp in a briefing after Irene.
Some still familiar faces glowering at Roosevelt Island's two-person press corp in a briefing after Irene.
© David Stone/Roosevelt Island Daily

Irene and Isaias, the Same but Different

Like Irene, Isaias lessened from hurricane to tropical storm before making landfall in New York, but it's impact was more forceful. 

On Roosevelt Island, trees fell all along the east side, one crashing into a garden apartment in Eastwood, now known as Roosevelt Landings. A pair of old growth beauties laid destroyed across Capobianco Field, and PSD stood guard as crews sawed them into manageable pieces to be carted away.

Lighthouse Park was flooded in the storm surge.

Although Isaias proved far less powerful, the stories differ in other significant ways.

Most significantly, the Irene stories focused on the absence of evacuation plans for Roosevelt Island. None existed, and even after Superstorm Sandy, that didn't change. And today, the community is just as vulnerable and maybe worse after RIOC, prompted by activist Frank Farance, failed to follow through on plans for tiger dams to protect against floods.

(There are plans, however, for a Palace of Versailles Bike Ramp, costing over $10 million in taxpayer money and adding significantly to widely acknowledged existing hazards.)

A more immediate issue has how much better even a media hostile RIOC of 2011 handled its responsibilities. 

RIOC Communications, Circa 2011

To begin with, other than evacuation concerns, there was nary a visible complaint about RIOC's handling of Irene, its advance preparations or its cleanup.

There was even praise from frequent critic Frank Farance.

"If the corporation thought Mr. Martinez could handle it, then I think he was the right person to do so. Everyone who needed to participate was directly under Mr. Martinez's command," he told me for my report.

(Another item of controversy was Torres's absence before, during and after Irene, but the RIOC team did so well under Martinez, that became irrelevant.)

Media hostility popped up as Irene approached. A pre-storm meeting was called, then cancelled on short notice, presaging a peculiar dance of evasion post-storm.

On Friday after the Labor Day weekend storm, RIOC called a press briefing for 11:00 a.m., intending to show off cleanup efforts in Lighthouse Park. But an hour and a half before that, we got an email from Karline Jean at RIOC: "As per Mr. Martinez the meeting will be pushed back to noon and held at 591 Main Street."

That wasn't true. The Lighthouse Park gathering went off at 11:00. On hand were "two RIOC directors, RIOC managers, RIRA President Matthew Katz, RIRA Council Member Frank Farance, historian Judith Berdy, and Robert Atterbury (representing state assembly member Micah Kellner.)"

The press was effectively uninvited.

And that's when the weirdness went full throttle.

RIOC's Strangest Press Briefing

Arriving for the noon meeting, the Roosevelt Island media community of exactly two was "welcomed" into a conference room with table surrounded by glaring men, all from the management team.

From the right, transportation director Cy Opperman and PSD chief Keith Guerra, scowling apparently on orders from the top.
From the right, transportation director Cy Opperman and PSD chief Keith Guerra, scowling apparently on orders from the top.
© David Stone/Roosevelt Island Daily

"That session was informative, but awkward," I reported at the time, "as the combined Roosevelt Island press corps of exactly two entered a room in which 10 RIOC managers were already seated around an oblong table. Two chairs were empty. The managers were not introduced, and none but Martinez and Chief Financial Officer Steve Chironis spoke. None responded with a nod or a smile, even when praised."

The Roosevelt Islander posted the whole thing on YouTube.

 

You can contrast that with RIOC circa 2020's mangling of communications concerning Tropical Storm Isaias. Residents were barely in the loop as the storm bore down, and followups were as sketchy as they were inadequate.

It's hard to escape an awareness of the state agency tumbling far downhill over the last nine years. 

But now, being about as close to the bottom as they can get in engaging with and talking to the community, maybe they can start the long climb back to acceptable responsibility. 

Media hostility notwithstanding.

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