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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Learning the Hard Way

Despair. Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. Sadness. Disappointment.

This is just a brief list of the emotions that folks impacted by Hurricane Sandy are feeling. It is impossible to understand what the citizens of the hard-hit areas are feeling. Many have lost everything - homes, belongings, businesses, and likely along with this - optimism.

While Hurricane Sandy occurred a little over a week ago, the east coast was blasted again today with a nor'easter. Normally a nor'easter does not garner much attention, but when people are still without power, heat, housing, gas, and jobs - the impact of such a storm only escalates.

The questions that many people are asking now are: did it have to be this bad? Were there any warning signs? Could the city of New York and state of New Jersey been better prepared? What do we do now - how do we rebuild?

Of course there are no easy answers to these questions and already there has been much finger pointing. Yes, there were missteps, miscommunications, and action plans that were not executed. Consider this summary of the 2009 meeting of American Society of Civil Engineers (held in New York City):

  • These engineers emphasized that a devastating storm would be likely to hit the city. Using computer simulations of an expected storm, these engineers showed city officials what could happen if safety and disaster recovery measures were not taken.
  • The engineers provided city officials with detailed plans showing how New York City could be protected from an impending hurricane or similar storm.
  • Recommendations were made to install surge barriers or tide gates in New York Harbor.
  • Admittedly these barriers would not have been installed in time to protect the city from the most recent natural disaster.
  • City officials blanched at the estimated cost of such protective measures.
  • Such technology has been installed in London, England and in the Netherlands.
Today, there are still no decisions or action plans on what to do to protect the city and outlying areas...
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it's the citizens who end up suffering the most when city executives cannot agree and/or fail to recognize the value in being prepared for a natural disaster.
The New York Times is full of stories about people who have lost everything. The couple who had spent thousands on renovating a building in Red Hook in preparation for moving their business - now everything is gone. Of restaurant owners who had to throw away thousands of dollars in food and now have to work to rebuild their restaurants. Or the patients admitted to NYU hospital who were evacuated when the hospital's generator was flooded and all power was lost.
The list goes on of people who have been pushed to the brink. Could such stories have been prevented? Yes. 
So who is to blame? Essentially no one person is to blame. Rather this is a systemic attitude towards threats, natural disaster, and disaster recovery. Everyone likes to think it won't happen to them. And when it does, it is often too late to right the wrong decisions. Time will tell if city and government officials have learned their lessons the hard way - or if they're willing to take risks on behalf of their citizens again.
(It should be noted that through-out these rather terrible times, there have been some amazing stories of good deeds and community spirit. Many many thanks to those who have stepped forward from through-out the country to help those most deeply affected by Hurricane Sandy. It is during the hardest times that we often see the good come out in people. )
To read more about how New York and other cities can be prepared for the next natural disaster, read this Fast Company article.