Learning Lessons from Sandy

This storm and aftermath has been one of those times when our own frailty and the immense power of nature has been made painfully clear. This is no reason to lose heart, since we humans have proven to be pretty resilient in the face of all sorts of disasters. Part of this resilience is due to our ability to figure out how to change the world we live in. This disaster provides an opportunity to better understand how to cope with future disasters of this kind, and it will benefit those who come after if we can really learn from Superstorm Sandy.

In an effort to [perhaps selfishly] make sense of the post-Sandy world, I wanted to share those things that I have seen and heard over the past week that are still rattling about in my brain, sometimes these are little things and they are not ranked in terms of importance. I hope that those of you readers who also have such morsels will share yours as well…

  • Technology. This blog post discusses a pretty cool tool (from tech and disaster management standpoints). I love that it allows everyone who has internet to help FEMA direct resources, plus the images are occasionally astounding.
  • New Jersey. Since my grandfather indoctrinated me well as a child, I love diners and Taylor ham and the beautiful farms and shore of New Jersey.  So the impacts along the Jersey coast especially make me tear up. This before and after imagery shows the breach at Mantoloking that has connected the bay and ocean which is apparently compounding problems.
  • Rescuers. I can’t help but contemplate that the areas which traditionally have been homes to first responders are some of the areas hardest hit in NYC (Breezy Point, Staten Island). These areas were pleasant but affordable for public sector employees who don’t make much money, but part of the reason they are so cost effective is that they are also hard to get to (especially in emergency situations)! This reminded me of the riots during the blackout in 1977, when there was a similar distribution of where police lived, and Mayor Beame made the mistake of asking police to report to their nearest station. So during that disaster Staten Island had tons of cops sitting around, and the few that were in places Bushwick were inundated (Read this amazing book for more on 1977). Fortunately mayors know better now! However, this still seems like a pretty good argument for affordable housing that is desirable for emergency personnel and more evenly spread throughout the five boroughs. [So, any ideas on how we do that? Charrettes for cops maybe?]
  • Old folks. The beach areas in Queens are also where lots of elderly live. While I wouldn’t want to deny the elderly access to ocean views, I can’t think of a population segment, other than hospital patients, that is more at risk and harder to evacuate in emergency situations. With the baby boomers aging and climate change occurring, elder care during disasters and facility siting policies may increasingly become prominent issues for municipalities and planners in the short term.
  • Gasoline. My sister informed me that standard operating procedure in New Orleans when a hurricane is imminent is to fill gas tanks before the hurricane, not immediately after. Hopefully we can learn from this experience!
  • Oysters. <- This article was pretty amazing. Seeing the limitations of singular engineering feats (think Katrina and the levees), I generally agree with the Mayor and others that multiple, redundant and perhaps imperfect-on-their-own-but-collectively-effective interventions are the way to handle issues like storm surge. Oysters seem to be a good example of a low-cost, high-impact intervention to help address storm surge, as well as the contamination after storm surge. [Bronx River Alliance should be like “No duh, we have already been working on this!”] There may very well be some middle ground between, “Everybody out, no more people may live here!” and “We must build a massive and expensive piece of infrastructure [that will likely fail for some unanticipated reason]!” That middle ground likely involves oysters, stilts and freeboarding, maybe some aquatecture, perhaps some new wetlands, sensible decision-making, and lots of mold resistant building materials. I hope we find it.
  • Home. I am encouraged [unfortunately, once again] by how well most New Yorkers can handle a crisis. But as with most disasters, those with the least resources always fare the worst. Ensuring that citizens are healthy and have enough resources, education and support systems to sustain them during and after disasters is probably the most vital emergency preparation a society can undertake. I hope that everyone who was impacted by the storm is able to find a warm dry place to call home very, very soon.

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