Thanks to an extraordinary…perhaps historic…weather forecast, millions of Americans living along the entire length of the east-coast United States had a week to prepare for Hurricane Sandy. Those along the southern tier of states knew early on they’d feel only minimal impact. Those north of Norfolk, Virginia were warned that Sandy would not veer harmlessly out into the Atlantic. Instead, they were told, somewhere between Washington, DC and New York City, Sandy would almost certainly take a stutter-step inland and intensify, and that heavy rain, high winds, coastal inundation, and inland riverine flooding would exact a terrible toll as it came ashore and re-formed as an extra-tropical cyclone. They were even warned to expect deep snowfall and blizzard conditions in areas just to the west.
That prediction has verified, in spectacular fashion. Its success pays tribute to the hard work and dedication of NOAA and National Weather Service employees from the leadership on down to the shift meteorologist, the scientist on the bench, and even to the admin support – not just for a few days but for decades. Its success derives from bi-partisan Congressional funding support for the Earth observations, science, and services over that same period. Finally, its success stems from partnerships: between NOAA/NWS and (1) more than a dozen other federal agencies; (2) state and local government; (3) academic researchers; and (4) an extensive private-sector comprising aerospace companies building and operating the weather satellites, radars, and other observing platforms; and private-sector service providers developing and communicating forecasts to private users and the public through broadcast and social media.
[Hopefully this singular success will not just celebrate past accomplishment but herald a continuing commitment to improvement of weather services and their use.]
That accurate forecast was matched by an effective emergency response at federal, state, and local levels.
The coming days and weeks will no doubt provide critiques of this response, highlighting opportunities for improvement.
But there was much to like. Emergency managers at every level acted on the forecast; nowhere was it disregarded. They pre-positioned emergency supplies throughout the area at risk to speed their distribution once Sandy had passed. Journalists and broadcasters got out the forecast, but they went further. They stressed impacts: property damage, but also disruption: utility outages and difficulties getting around that could last for days. They highlighted options for individual action: evacuation as well as shelter in place. They emphasized the need to stock up on food, drinking water, batteries, etc.; to clear away as much outside debris as possible; and much more.
Top officials at every level…the president himself, governors, and mayors…were personally engaged; they didn’t leave the messaging and emergency action solely in the hands of surrogates. Across the board, their message was consistent: heed your local emergency managers.
The private sector was also ahead of the curve. Corporate emergency managers pre-positioned merchandise and emergency generators for their stores. Nationally, thousands of flights were cancelled or rerouted; trains and mass transit systems were sheltered, all making the reboot that much quicker. Even the two presidential campaigns stood down. And the bottom line? Most people in harm’s way took all these admonitions to heart.
As for those aspects that could be improved?
The fact of the matter is that a storm like Sandy has quite a different impact on an 1812 America with 3 million people living largely on individual, self-sufficient farms, essentially independent of each other over time frames of a few days; and on a 2012 America with 300 million people living largely in urban areas, reliant on all forms of critical infrastructure and dependent upon each other virtually moment-to-moment. All 300 million of us are on a massive national learning curve about our evolving individual needs and responsibilities in the face of natural hazards. We’ll get better with practice.
Speaking of practice, a small positive footnote. Over the past 24 hours, millions of people kept in touch with families and loved ones through social media, and, when and where the electricity and communications went down, through…gasp!…direct social contact with neighbors.
[Please pause a moment, before continuing, to contemplate once more what the news might have been like this morning had this event not been forecast and anticipated…both in general and with respect to its particulars. Perhaps a few dozen have died. That’s a few dozen too many…each life story ended prematurely, each leaving behind unbearable suffering and pain on family and friends. But without the preparations of the past several days, fatalities and injuries resulting from the storm and the flooding could easily have been substantially higher. And the figure would still be rising. People would be pouring into shelters, each with a personal horror story to tell about being caught unawares. Emergency responders would be overwhelmed. Confusion and fear would be rampant. In their wake: anger.]
The recovery will be the hard part. The eastern coast of the United States is waking up this morning to find millions of people without electrical power, flood and wind damage along hundreds of miles of shoreline. Early estimates of economic loss fall in the $20B range; this figure will almost certainly rise as the full implications of the New York City flooding sink in. The total cost of Katrina was something more like $100B; expect losses from this event to be comparable. A key uncertainty; what will be the impact on operations of New York City’s financial sector?
Repairing the storm damage to streets, schools, hospitals, cell towers, sewage systems, the electrical grid, power stations, the New York Subway system, the 9/11 building site, small businesses, commercial aviation and much more? Standing up each of these systems that make our complicated society hum? Each of these jobs requires myriad preliminary actions. Planning is the first step. What’s the order in which things can and need to be accomplished? Who are the responsible actors? What tools are needed? Are they at hand? What can be repaired or cleaned up? What needs to be replaced? And what about replacement parts? Which tasks require a quick fix for now and a better solution later? Where’s the money coming from? And don’t forget…each of the workers carrying out these tasks must at the same time be getting his/her life and family back to normal.
Fact is, every one of the 60 million people in harm’s way is thinking about and doing something different from his/her business-as-usual task today. For some, the return to normal will be quick, a matter of a day or two. Others will need weeks or months. For a relative few, but for far too many, who have lost a loved one or a home or a business, there will be no return to life-as-before; there is instead a return to a “new normal.”
For each East Coast resident, the scale of the individual task ahead…what needs to be done today…is daunting. Adding it all up, across the millions who are involved, and looking at what needs to be done each day of the coming months, is truly staggering. The challenge is not just economic or physical. It is psychological. Spiritual.
This reality carries an important message. As a nation, we are getting better at responding to and managing emergencies of ever-increasing scope and complexity. But that by itself is not enough.
More in the next post.
 Back in 1812, the Erie Canal, which would come to symbolize the new-fangled critical infrastructure of its time, was still five years from the start of construction and more than a decade from completion; ironically it too was closed yesterday because of hurricane Sandy.