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NEW YORK – The United Nations, often relied upon to respond to worldwide disasters, found itself a victim of Hurricane Sandy.
The 40-acre complex straddles the East River alongside mid-town Manhattan. More than 9,000 people work within the compound daily.
The area took a severe hit Monday evening as the East River rose, sending waves as high as 14 feet over FDR Drive and into the U.N.’s underground garage.
According to Chief of Security Gregory Starr, several key facilities sustained substantial damage.
“We lost our loading docks, our mailroom and printing facilities,” explained the U.N. official. “We also sustained major damage to the front entrance to the General Assembly.”
That entrance, the delegates entrance, was flooded out and considered a total loss.
Many a VIP has arrived there, including Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Fidel Castro, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.
Many priceless gifts are in the halls just inside. A rare model of the Russian Sputnik, an Apollo 11 moon rock and a collection of stained glass windows by the French artist Marc Chagall sit nearby. Their fate was not revealed.
The U.N.’s main switchboard was destroyed, forcing the world body to fall back on an ad-hoc patch job of personal cell phones.
Critical satellite communications had to be re-routed to a backup facility in New Jersey.
“At no time did we lose contact with our peacekeeping operations,” explained Starr.
While the U.N. kept in contact with its various international operations, its in-house headquarters communications was another matter. Not only was its main switchboard off-line, so was much of the in-house telephone system.
Communications between personnel took a system of personal cell phones. Electronic locks guarding some sensitive offices were sporadically knocked out.
The U.N.’s website and much of its computer operations were taken offline when the system used to cool the computers was knocked.out. Internal email capability was greatly reduced.
The U.N.’s printing operations became a total loss when the East River waves flooded out the numerous presses.
One bright spot at the U.N. was the fact that much of the complex was in the middle stages of a massive $2 billion renovation project known as the Capital Master Plan.
Not due for completion till 2014, the project already is $400 million over budget.
The 38-story Secretariat building was slated to be re-occupied in late January 2013, but whether that schedule remains intact is not yet known.
According to Michael Adlerstein, who has been directing the renovations, the schedule, at least for now, has not changed.
“We don’t anticipate any changes to the schedule,” he told reporters.
However, he did point out that only 17 of the Secretariat’s 38 stories had been inspected by safety personnel.
Starr said some brief meetings of the Security Council and General Assembly did take place. But some ambassadors who had become accustomed to their chauffeur-driven limos were not in attendance.
Many reside in nearby Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut and had their own personal disasters to solve.
Flooded mansions, collapsed roofs and no electric power brought the disaster right to their front doors.
Ironically, the newly completed U.S.-U.N. mission office building, located just across the street, sustained only minor damage. It was constructed to withstand a terrorist attack similar to 9/11 and mockingly is called “the bunker.”
Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff Susan Malcora summed it up: “This (hurricane) is something we will not forget in 100 years.”