Lillie Ng has been very active over the last few years. Her job as an IT architect for IBM in the United States has kept her busy, yet she has managed to mentor a high school student, engage children using IBM activity kits, give inspirational talks about careers in science, technology, engineering and math, and be selected for assignment on an IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) team in the Philippines.
Then in 2012, adding to her considerable volunteer activities, Lillie received her certification as a member of New York City’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)— volunteers trained in disaster preparedness and emergency response to support first responders and emergency service personnel. CERT members are taught basic response skills for fire safety, light search and rescue, community disaster support, disaster medical operations and traffic control.
“I find CERT to be extremely rewarding,” says Lillie. “It allows me to help my community prepare against known hazards with disaster preparedness education, and support the city’s first responder agencies in emergencies.”
An assignment abroad in preparation for a storm at home
IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) is a leadership development program that places selected employees in strategic emerging and developing markets to address core societal, environmental and educational challenges. In 2010, Lillie was part of a CSC team assigned to the Philippines, where in the aftermath of storms flooding metro Manila the previous year, IBM had committed technology, service and expertise for disaster preparedness and rehabilitation.
“I worked closely with Red Cross staff in their operations center and recommended ways to use technology to improve information sharing during emergencies for their disaster management services team,” says Lillie. “I saw first-hand how information is communicated and collected to create situational awareness during emergencies.”
After returning to the United States, she started CERT training, and joined a team that supports a large community where she lives in New York City that includes Greenwich Village, the campus of New York University, SoHo and parts of Little Italy and Chinatown.
When super storm Sandy hit, Lillie and her CERT team were deployed to support evacuation center operations at a local high school. The storm did not cause much physical damage where Lillie was assigned, but most of the community was without electricity, heat, hot water and reliable landline and cellular phone service. If evacuation wasn’t mandatory, a lack of electricity for elevators, refrigerators or telephones made it compelling as grocery stores, pharmacies, and transportation were all shut down.
Without electricity there was very little information about when services and power might return to the area. People who took shelter at the evacuation center wanted to go home, but out of concern for the cold and without power and with no means of transportation, many had little choice but to stay. CERT members worked closely with employees from various city agencies and other volunteers from the community to help wherever they could.
“I translated between English and Chinese,” says Lillie, helping residents understand the latest updates and how to get help. “This was particularly handy when the disaster medical response teams went door to door checking on people's needs.”
One lesson remembered from her time in the Philippines is that during disasters you can’t always rely on technology to capture and log information, some of which may be vital to survival or urgent care. Evacuation center staff and volunteer training must continue to emphasize key data points to capture on paper to communicate resource needs and provide situational updates.
CERT members helped with food, water and blanket distribution at city resource sites and coordinated activities across the various government and relief organizations, while also setting up a fuel distribution center to supply first responders during the gas shortage.
Kindness of the heart
Lillie recalls an elderly woman unable to get anyone’s attention walking with a cane through the dimly lit evacuation center. “I stepped over to her and asked her in Chinese what was wrong. She was so relieved to hear own her language.” The woman wanted someone to check on a young man elsewhere in the shelter who hadn’t moved in quite a while. Translating, Lillie had the medical team check on him, and all was fine.
“This kind woman was so thoughtful and attentive,” says Lillie. “She tried desperately to communicate with anyone who would listen, but she did not give up until someone stopped to listen. The goodness of people and their kind intent truly show during these times.”
Lillie says that “The most satisfying aspect for me is to enable more people to help themselves and to help those around them.” She adds, “You truly see the goodness of human nature, the kindness of the heart when people help one another.”
New York City Council Member Margaret Chin and New York State Senator Daniel L. Squadron recognized Lillie’s CERT members for their response during Sandy. At the post-Sandy disaster operations review, the city’s Director for Community Recovery for Manhattan and Bronx, described the team as “indispensible in assisting the community.”