5 Questions with Vanthon Keo, Manager of Parkwide Support, on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy

October 2022 marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the “once-in-a-century” superstorm that devastated New York City’s coastal communities, transit systems, power grids, and public spaces. Central Park was no exception.

The unprecedented cancellation of the New York City Marathon, which typically concludes in the Park, became a national symbol of the storm’s lasting damage as well as the City’s resilience. It was a catastrophic weather event that woke the City up to the threats of a rapidly warming planet. And for so many, it put climate action front and center.

Vanthon Keo, who manages Parkwide Support at the Central Park Conservancy, volunteered to stay in the Park and assess the damage as the storm ravaged parts of NYC. As such, he was one of the first staff members to respond to Hurricane Sandy and begin the arduous process of cleaning up the Park.

With initiatives like the Central Park Climate Lab, the Conservancy is working hard to understand climate change’s impact on urban parks like Central Park. Yet landscape management staff like Vanthon bring a unique—and vital—perspective to how extreme weather events are impacting this greenspace. We spoke to him about his experience during the storm, what he’s learned since, and what needs to be done to prepare for the next one.

Let’s first talk about your work for the Conservancy. How did you get to the role you have now?

My family were farmers in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. I lived through four years in a forced-labor camp. You ate a little piece of food once a day, then you worked 12 hours a day.

When we left Cambodia, we first moved to California, in the Central Valley. It was a small town, maybe 20 blocks total. And then we came here, to New York.

I came from a poor family, so I couldn’t afford to go to college. When I graduated from high school in the mid-'80s, I came to work in the Park for a couple of years and saved up money. Then I went back to college and studied computer science. As a computer scientist, I was sitting in a little cubicle, but that didn’t work for me, especially as a child of a farmer. So, I came back to work for the Conservancy. Now I’ve been here 30 years!

When I first joined the Conservancy, our team was small: We only had 15 to 20 people. Now we have almost 150 people, just on the operations side alone. When we started zone management in the 1990s, that’s when I became a manager for section one [the area near 59th Street]. I did that for 20 years, and after that I became a park manager, supporting our various maintenance teams throughout the Park.

As we’re approaching the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, what comes to mind when you think about that day?

It was scary! At the beginning of the workday, we had approximately 30 to 40 staff members in the Park from the operations department. By 11:00 am, the management team decided to send everybody home before the subways were shut down in preparation for the storm. But we needed someone to stay on site during the hurricane to monitor what happened throughout the night and update the crew after the storm passed, so I volunteered.

I stayed in the 79th Street Maintenance Yard throughout the night. The Central Park Police Precinct called me every time they got a report that a tree branch came down or blocked the road. I went out at midnight by myself, to try to see what was going on. Every time the wind came up, I’d try to find an open spot. I’m used to tough conditions… Thankfully, we didn’t lose any power in the Park.

Problems Hurricane Sandy 2 2012 DSC 4450 Problems Hurricane Sandy 2 2012 DSC 4309

Hurricane Sandy toppled and broke numerous trees in Central Park. As Vanthon points out, making the Park’s landscapes more resilient to extreme weather events requires taking trees’ various strengths and weaknesses into account. For instance, a strong tree with shallow roots might not break during a storm, but it can be easily knocked over.

It sounds like you’re no stranger to extreme weather events. Any others that come to mind?

The year before, on October 30, 2011, I called our old boss and told him, “There’s a snowstorm coming in.” He said, “A snowstorm in October?” I asked for backup. Then within an hour, the trees started coming down.

October is the worst time of year for a storm like this: The snow is so heavy, and because there were still a lot of leaves on the trees, the weight of the snow snapped trees in half. It was like a tornado touching down—the winds were like what you’d find in a category 2 or 3 hurricane. [A similar “microburst” occurred in 2009.]

We lost 150 to 200 large trees in the Park, all within an hour, hour and a half. The cleanup... it was messy there for a while.

But the storm especially affected the area south of 72nd Street—it completely changed the landscape there. Grand Army Plaza hasn’t been the same since. It used to be all Bradford pears. Now it’s mostly London plane trees.

Problems Storm Damage Halloween Storm 2011 DSC 2546

In October 2011, a storm caused considerable damage in Grand Army Plaza and the Park’s southern end. High winds snapped trunks and sliced the tops off trees. And when snow fell on trees that were still covered with leaves, the combined weight broke branches.

That October 30 nor’easter really destroyed us. And then Sandy a year later… That’s when I started to notice these weather events. I’ve never experienced anything like that. Now every year on October 30, I take the day off. [Laughs]

How did those events shape your team’s operations?

It really affects how we do the work here. Some of the damage, you can still see it, especially along 59th Street and Central Park South. But elsewhere, too: If you stood in the middle of the Great Hill, there were areas where trees completely blocked your view to the north and south. But now you can see the buildings at either end of the Park, because the storm knocked down so many trees.

With the landscape, we have to really study what’s susceptible to extreme weather events and what might be better able to withstand these storms. This affects all elements of our work. For instance: What kinds of tree are we going to plant? If we plant the same tree that was there before, it might just get destroyed again. So, we must look for something that can tolerate these storms. And the solution isn’t always obvious. Oaks and elms are strong trees, for instance, but they are easily uprooted. We have to start paying attention to patterns. You might not notice the wind on any given day, but year after year, this wind damages the Park.

NPI Pruning Vanthon DSC 0006

"We have to start paying attention to patterns. You might not notice the wind on any given day, but year after year, this wind damages the Park."

Vanthon and his team address every aspect of landscape care in the Park, from the annual pruning of crape myrtles (pictured here) to cleaning up after major weather events. They also provide Park planners with crucial feedback about how extreme weather affects the Park—and what it takes to keep the Park safe and healthy.

When it comes to urban park management, and in general, is the climate something being talked about enough?

We need more awareness. We need to let staff and our visitors know that climate change is real—it’s happening, and it’s impacting our Park. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about it because they think it’s about politics. But for me, climate change isn’t politics. It affects everyone at the end of the day. We have to let people know and be mindful of what we’re doing.

John Surico is the Scholar-in-Residence at the Conservancy’s Institute for Urban Parks, which provides critical assistance and support to parks throughout New York City and across the globe.

Michelle Mueller-Gamez is the Manager of the Central Park Climate Lab, which is developing research and new tools to help urban parks navigate the effects of climate change.