University of Vermont

Food Systems Initiative

On the Storm Front

Alumni take key roles in Sandy emergency efforts

flooded New York street
New York City's Office of Emergency Management facilitated critical inter-agency cooperation during and after Hurricane Sandy. Team member Leon Heyward says, "With everyone together, you were able to say, 'I need you to do this' or 'I need your help' or 'I need you to get out of my way so I can do this.'" (Photo: AP Photo)

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City on Oct. 27, several hundred municipal, state, and federal staffers began to gather at the city’s Office of Emergency Management Command Center in downtown Brooklyn. It’s understandable Leon Heyward ’81 was pre-occupied that Saturday morning as he set to work on storm preparations. A deputy commissioner for the NYC Department of Transportation, his duties include leading the department’s emergency response team.

Heading up the stairs at the Brooklyn headquarters, he met another man, about his age, coming down. He gave Heyward a friendly hello and a hearty handshake. Heyward walked away with that nagging, “I should know who that is, but I can’t quite place him,” sense. But there were flood plans to activate — sweeping streets, clearing catch basins of debris, moving equipment to low-lying areas. Heyward put the mystery of who that guy was in the back of his mind.

That guy, Trevor Jackson ’83, also got down to business a few work-stations away from Heyward. A National Guardsman since his days as a UVM undergraduate, Jackson is commander of the 53rd Army Liaison Team, a Manhattan-based unit of the Guard. A third UVM alum, Nancy Barthold ’83, was focused on her own Sandy issues, representing the city’s Parks Department in the emergency management operation.

Heyward, long active in leadership roles with the UVM Alumni Association, knew Barthold from university events in the city. Though he hadn’t realized it yet, he also shared an alumni bond with the man who had greeted him on the stairs. A day later, when things quieted a bit on Sunday evening, it dawned on him. “I put together that he was in uniform… Jackson… then I said to myself, ‘No way!’” I went over and asked him his first name. Trevor.”

They’d known each other as UVM undergrads, but hadn’t crossed paths since. “I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you,” Heyward said.

Jackson joked, “I thought maybe I owed you money or something.” Weeks later, Heyward laughs at the memory, an unlikely college reunion in the relative calm before a colossal storm.

Trees, streets, troops 

Heyward and Barthold are both NYC natives and current residents; Jackson was born in Jamaica, but came to New York as a child and now lives north of the city. They all care deeply about the place and its people and have served through times of crisis before, most notably the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Barthold is assistant commissioner for recreation and programming with the New York City Parks Department. She currently oversees 35 public recreation centers and programs, but most of her career has been focused on maintenance operations and forestry. That experience led to her role with the city’s Emergency Management Operation.

Pulling shifts from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. became the norm from the days leading up to Sandy until Thanksgiving for Barthold, much the same for Jackson and Heyward. Working from the office in Brooklyn and in the field, Barthold coordinated the myriad teams dealing with downed trees. The task was greatly aided, she notes, by a recently developed GIS/tablet-based system that seamlessly coordinated complaint calls and tree inspections on the streets. 

Trevor Jackson is a claims manager for the state insurance fund in New York, but as Sandy approached he left his desk job at the office in White Plains, called into active duty with the National Guard. His initial mission was to act as a liaison officer, but for the first three days of the storm, Jackson stepped into the role of ground commander for several units involved with search and rescue efforts. Work in the field took him to the Guard’s staging area at Fort Bennett Field, Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, and Staten Island.

“It was painful to see all the destruction,” Jackson says. “These are our fellow citizens, and looking out and seeing the water at eye-level, just very daunting to see all the sand barriers being washed away.”

Even on the sunniest of days, Leon Heyward’s job sounds rather intimidating when you consider that New York City has 13,000 miles of sidewalks and overseeing their maintenance is just one aspect of his work. Post-storm, he set to work helping to lead and coordinate efforts to inspect and identify blocked roads and flooded tunnels and begin restoring traffic flow in one of the world’s busiest cities.

On top of the storm recovery effort, Heyward and his staff were immediately on the ground from Tuesday to Friday assessing sidewalk damage and what would need to be done before the weekend’s New York City Marathon. Ultimately, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his call to run the race as planned and cancelled this year’s event.

After the flood

All three of the UVM alumni are grateful to have escaped damage to their own property. Jackson, who lives in Rockland County north of the city, lost power at home for a few days. Heyward, who lives in the Bronx, lost power for a week and had some downed trees in his yard, one across a fence that he’ll have to get fixed when things slow down. And Barthold, who lives in a Queens neighborhood that sustained significant damage to large, old trees, was fortunate not to lose any in her own yard.

All are united by their impressions of the storm’s impact and the fact that they, like so many, had not seen such fury coming. “It was unbelievable,” Heyward says. “There’s the old saying that TV and the newspapers can’t do justice to what you see out there. That was so true. The houses in different stages of devastation — chunks taken out of them, pushed off their foundations, or swept away. And with no power, once it got dark it was very ominous being out there.”

A triathlete and open-water swimmer, Barthold has long told friends that the best views of Manhattan are to be had while swimming in the Hudson River. She’ll always love the water and the city’s waterfront, but has an even deeper respect now for its power. “I’m definitely humbled,” she says. “The water by Staten Island is now so calm and bay-like. It’s hard to believe it came in and took people’s lives.”

Barthold, Jackson, and Heyward, all express gratitude to have had roles that put them in positions to help immediately and tangibly during the storm and in its wake. It’s an emotion they mutually connect to their experience after 9/11.

Though they’re keenly aware of the loss of life and property and the challenges ahead — put in stark numbers by NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent request for $42 billion in federal support for relief and preparation for the next storm — all of the alumni trio were heartened by the cooperation of diverse agencies and individuals that was critical to the emergency efforts. And they are impressed by the strength of New Yorkers, something that Barthold suggests can be as difficult for the media to convey as the devastation of a neighborhood.

Jackson agrees. “No one’s spirit was dampened,” he says. “That’s what was so awesome about the resiliency of everyone out there — even in the Rockaways — everyone was peaceful, grateful for the support, with an attitude of, ‘OK, it happened. We’ll pick ourselves up and move on.’”