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Hurricane Sandy: DLA Brought Relief to Millions Following Historic Storm

Navy Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek was guardedly confident when Pentagon officials called him in the fall of 2012 with a question from the president. Could the Defense Logistics Agency give gas to local stations after Hurricane Sandy had cut power and flooded swaths of New York and New Jersey.

A service member pumps gas into a parked, snow-spattered car.
Fueling Soldier
After Hurricane Sandy, a soldier fuels a car using components moved on short notice to New York by Defense Logistics Agency Distribution in Susquehanna, Penn.
Photo By: Defense Logistics Agency, Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 110812-D-D0441-1001C

"Everybody who'd evacuated had sucked all the gas out of the gas stations, and the only stations that did have fuel didn’t have power. I wasn't quite sure we could do it — it’s a lot different from just supplying first responders — but I had a pretty good sense that we were capable," the former DLA director said one month before Sandy's 10-year anniversary. 

After 10 minutes of weighing uncertainties and with his "supreme confidence" in employees' know-how, Harnitchek called back with a bold "yes." The agency went on to provide over 9 million gallons of fuel to first responders, state and local governments, hospitals, gas stations and survivors during relief efforts. 

DLA's speed and proficiency in fuel support became evident so quickly that the president, via executive order, directed the agency to distribute over 5 million gallons of Department of Energy-owned ultra-low sulfur diesel. DLA Energy contractors moved the fuel by barge from storage facilities in Groton, Connecticut, to sites in New York city's five boroughs and Long Island. It powered everything from generators at high-rise apartment buildings to dewatering systems. 

A man drives a forklift in a warehouse beside another man near a pallet of supplies.
Distribution Center
A distribution process worker at Defense Logistics Agency Distribution in Susquehanna, Penn., moves pallets of blankets destined for New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy, October 2012. DLA Distribution coordinated the movement of supplies during the relief effort.
Photo By: Beth Reece, Defense Logistics Agency
VIRIN: 120101-D-D0441-1001C

More Than Fuel 

Employees throughout DLA showed the nation just how abundantly they could support Americans in need after Sandy, a storm so potent National Geographic called it "a raging freak of nature." The agency also supplied meals, bottled water, blankets, cots, lighting kits, maps, medical supplies, generators and removal of over 75 million pounds of trash and debris. 

"All of the things we didn't do well in Hurricane Katrina, we did extraordinarily well in Sandy," Harnitchek said. 

DLA Chief of Staff Eric Smith was the assistant administrator of logistics for the Federal Emergency Management Agency then, and he, too, saw the night-and-day difference in DLA's response. The former Army colonel had a front-row seat to DLA’s support after Katrina as head of DLA's operations center in 2005 and 2006. 

A satellite photo shows a large spiral cloud formation.
Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy is seen from space before it made landfall in October 2012.
Photo By: Defense Logistics Agency, Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 121028-D-D0441-001C

"One of the lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita was that the need for this type of support was only going to grow. The federal government was going to continue to come to the Defense Department and DLA for assistance, and we needed to be ready for it," Smith said. 

"By the time Sandy rolled around, we had proofed out a lot of concepts together and put practices in place, things like deployable distribution teams and the fuel support agreement we still have today," Smith said. 

Sandy also marked the first time DLA sent a senior liaison officer to FEMA to attend on-site meetings and relay information between the two agencies as new requirements emerged. 

"I thought it was a good call on DLA's part, especially in a larger disaster like that," Smith added. 

Liaison officers often knew what supplies were needed and where before formal requests could be submitted by FEMA, which allocates disaster funds. Those advance preparations with first responders allowed DLA to assess stocks and be ready so trucks could roll at the word "go." 

"In any disaster, you're going to have rapidly changing circumstances and you’re not going to have great information, but you’re going to have incredible time constraints and political pressure to do things," Harnitchek said. "If you understand that's the environment you're operating in, there are a couple of guiding principles you want to hold dear."

Service members pass boxes of supplies toward the back of a large military truck.
Emergency Supplies
Army National Guard soldiers team up with New York City emergency management and the Red Cross to provide food, water and cleaning supplies to Hurricane Sandy survivors at distribution sites in Far Rockaway, New York, in November 2012. DLA Troop Support provided more than 6.3 million meals to the storm’s survivors.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Julian Olivari
VIRIN: 121119-N-LX571-025

Responsiveness is No. 1, he said, adding that every hour responders wait is an hour lost in providing relief. The second principle: Think big. 

"These disasters often affect huge populations and infrastructure," he said. "That means you've got to think in the millions, not thousands, when it comes to support." 

Making a Difference 

Harnitchek credited DLA's success in Sandy to employees' ingenuity. When the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command needed help getting New Jersey workers across the Hudson River to their offices in New York City because of damaged ferry boats, DLA’s acquisition team contracted for tugboats, barges and pier repair in just three hours. 

And sensing a gap in coordination among those working to turn the lights back on in four apartment buildings in Queens, Navy Capt. Joe Vitelli, former director of the construction and equipment supply chain for DLA Troop Support, hopped a train to Penn Station and then got a cab to Queens. 

"He got everybody in a room — the Army Corps of Engineers, the New York City Housing Authority and local electric companies — talking to one another, and within a few hours, the lights were on," Harnitchek said. In the early evening, a picture of Vitelli standing with his arms outstretched in front of a lit apartment building popped into the admiral's email. 

"That's just one example of hundreds of occurrences of DLA individuals making a huge difference because they care about stuff," he said. "It's not just a job to them. They care deeply and want to help."

Debris fills the area in front of a house.
Sandy Damage
A home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 is covered with debris in the Breezy Point neighborhood in Queens, New York. Generators provided by DLA Troop Support helped restore power to the hard-hit area.
Photo By: Army Sgt. William Adams
VIRIN: 121108-A-EY655-005C

But he admitted DLA's support to Sandy could've been even better, and Smith agreed. Support elements, such as embedded liaison officers, remain a cornerstone of the agency's disaster support, the chief of staff said, but the agency learned that mission assignments are a critical part of coordinating disaster assistance among federal, state and local agencies. 

"FEMA issues a mission assignment, which is a funding document that says, 'I need you to do X.' They're prefunded to certain levels, but [that] can be adjusted for additional support," Smith said, adding that mission assignments are often created in anticipation of or in response to an emergency or major disaster. 

The secretary of defense awarded DLA a Joint Meritorious Unit Award for relief efforts during Sandy, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a letter thanking Harnitchek for the agency's efforts. 

"Many New Yorkers across the city were impacted by this severe storm, and your rapid response was invaluable to helping our residents through this very challenging time," Bloomberg wrote. "Many thanks for stepping into action when New York City needed you most." 

Editor's note: This four-minute video highlights DLA’s response and the appreciation of first responders. 

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