Superstorm Sandy: Déjà Vu All Over Again

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, public and private officials, as well as the media have gone to great lengths to describe how unprecedented the weather conditions were.

Yes, for a good portion of the Mid Atlantic and much of the Northeast, the damage was epic. Flooded subways, inaccessible roads, entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, thousands shivering in the dark for weeks afterward. Not to mention a roller coaster turned into a seagoing sculpture off a New Jersey barrier island.

In the aftermath, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed a common viewpoint. “We had never seen a storm like this. So it is very hard to anticipate something that you have never experienced.”

Like a lot of people born in the late 1950’s, Governor Cuomo can be forgiven for a lack of short term memory, but not for a lack of historical research. Some cases in point:

  • The Great September Gale of 1815 hit New York City directly as a Category 3 hurricane, and separated the Long Island resort towns of the Rockaways and Long Beach into two separate barrier islands.
  • The 1821 Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, a Category 4 storm, made four separate landfalls in Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and southern New England. The storm created the highest recorded storm surge in Manhattan of nearly 13 feet and severely impacted the farming regions of Long Island and southern New England.
  • The 1893 New York hurricane, a Category 2 storm, directly hit the city itself, causing a great storm surge that pummeled the coastline, completely removing the Long Island resort town of Hog Island.
  • The New England Hurricane of 1938 (aka The Yankee Clipper, Long Island Express, or simply the Great Hurricane) made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Long Island on September 21. It killed as many as 800 people and damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes. More than 20 years later, damaged trees and buildings were still seen in the affected areas.
  • Hurricane Hazel’s northeast quadrant produced 113 mph wind gusts in Battery Park in 1954, the highest wind speed ever recorded within the municipal boundaries of New York City; at least Hazel spared the City from the kind of flooding seen from Sandy or previous storms.

And then of course, there was Irene. Is it climate change? Maybe. But when it comes to future scenarios, we’ll take meteorological history any day.

Given such a history of destruction, it is little wonder that New York created a state Disaster Preparedness Commission in 1978, charged with regularly updating disaster planning documents. In 2006, the state Assembly issued a report that concluded, “It’s not a question of whether a strong hurricane will hit New York City. It’s just a question of when.” In 2010, a task force report to the Legislature concluded that rising sea levels, climate change and more development in high-risk areas has raised the level of the city’s vulnerability to coastal storms.

Planners and regulators in other states have taken similar steps to better prepare for rescue, response, restoration and recovery. And that has had a domino effect on utilities, with calls for greater scrutiny of restoration plans, staffing and execution.

Are there messages here for utility emergency preparedness professionals across the country to heed? Perhaps, in at least four areas:

Document

After every emergency event of any magnitude, regulators are bound to ask for proof that you prepared and executed prudently. An efficient system for recording everything from crew deployments to Twitter posts can help you prove your case. So take a second look at how well everybody records their actions. And when in doubt, digitize.

Debrief

Superstorm Sandy provided a wealth of lessons that must be learned in order to do a better job. That same opportunity exists after every storm or emergency event. Do not waste this opportunity. If previous debriefs have been less than instructive, seek the help of disinterested parties to facilitate the process.

Mitigate

There is no shortage of ideas for mitigating the damages of future storms. We hear a lot about hardening the infrastructure: elevating transformers and substations against floods in low lying areas; burying key power lines; even better tree trimming. They all have costs and the struggle for funding will be daunting, but in the long run, a reasonable degree of preventive investment is bound to pay dividends.

Advocate

New York’s officials have been criticized for not paying more attention to the warnings of their own Disaster Preparedness Commission. We’ve written about similar situations before (see EPP’s archive for “The Cassandra Complex,” November 2010). It is nerve-wracking, unpopular and perhaps even career-limiting to advocate for the staff, the funding, or the preventive investments you know are necessary to keep the next emergency from becoming a disaster. So make the business case for effective preparedness before the next Superstorm Sandy strikes. Difficult as it may be, you’ll be protecting your company as well as your customers.

Info sources

  1. “1938 New England Hurricane” Wikipedia
  2. The Lessons Learned From Hurricane Sandy – Popular Mechanics online

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