Hurricane Sandy’s Real Lesson…will we learn it?

Viewed narrowly, Hurricane Sandy is a success story. Start with the forecast. Americans were given a week’s heads-up that Hurricane Sandy would track north, and then, instead of veering safely out to the Atlantic, would come ashore somewhere near New Jersey and slowly work inland before reorganizing and heading north through Canada. Social media gurus like Nate Silver and Andrew Sullivan took notice. Our own community’s Mike Smith called it “(forecasters’) finest hour.”

Then there’s the emergency response. Emergency managers took fullest advantage of their week to prepare. We saw a remarkable mobilization at federal, state, and local levels, accompanied by private-sector collaboration with respect to critical infrastructure: the power grid, communications, gas and water utilities, sewage, and much more. There was some roughness around the edges. The normal emergency procedures were overwhelmed by the severity of events at a number of points. There was some political-level friction across state boundaries and between state- and local levels. But still and all, the response maintained remarkable focus, combining with media coverage to keep the US death toll as low as fifty.

Now the recovery is already underway. The utilities are out in force, bringing back power to the eight million or so people who lack it. The Corp of Engineers is bringing in its National Unwatering SWAT Team to help NYC get all those millions of gallons of water out of miles of subway track. [Our country has a National Unwatering SWAT Team? Who knew? Kudos to USACE.] Thousands of companies, agencies, NGO’s and individuals are mobilizing to get the East Coast back to normal. New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christy said it well: “(Tuesday) was a day to mourn the losses; (Wednesday) we start to rebuild.”

Add it all up? America is growing more skilled – and getting better fast – at emergency response to disasters of growing geographical reach, cost, and complexity.

But we can and should do more. Fifty lives lost to Sandy, though smaller than the seventy deaths reported from the Caribbean, nevertheless represents too much grief and suffering. That early estimate of $10-$20B in losses has already escalated to $5-10B insured losses and overall costs of $30-50B. Any final accounting will probably show the cost of this disaster to be more comparable to Hurricane Katrina than Hurricane Irene. A big hit even for the U.S. $14T-dollar economy just as it’s finally starting to recover from the financial-sector meltdown of 2008. The prospect of a continuing stream of such events in the future of ever-greater magnitude? Unacceptable. In short…

America needs a comparable national effort and accompanying long-term investment in reducing the need for emergency response on such a grand scale.

The need for emergency response will never go away. But we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that emergencies will necessarily continue to grow in scope, number and impact, just because our society is growing in numbers, in property exposure, and in economic activity. We can grow our society’s resilience to such events. We can reduce the geographical extent and the population adversely affected by future events.

We actually have a shining example, one we can build on:

Commercial aviation. I’ve blogged on this before. Over the past fifty years, property loss to natural hazards has been growing exponentially. Experts (e.g., Roger Pielke, Jr. and his collaborators) have shown this to be the result of growing population and property exposure in hazardous areas. [See, for example, this link, or posts sprinkled among the entries in his blog, and the references therein.]

But it’s also the result of a failure to learn from experience; an insistence on “rebuilding as before.” By contrast, commercial air travel as measured by takeoffs and landings has quadrupled over the same half-century, but the number of flight-related accidents has remained constant over that period or even declined. That’s because of a remarkable public-private partnership on the part of the airlines and the FAA, and because of the catalytic role played by a small but vital independent federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB mantra is not “the wing fell off this airplane, but we’re going to rebuild it as before”, but rather “What called this accident? We have to make sure it never happens again.”

We need an analog to the NTSB for natural hazards. Each catastrophe should trigger a national conversation, not just at the federal but also state and local levels along the lines of “what can our community here learn from what happened (over there)?” And that conversation should lead to a set of mutually-supportive private- and public-sector actions to build resilience at the community level and reduce future risk.

So that’s one step we can take. Here’s a second one.

Today we routinely file environmental impact statements detailing the implications for the environment of this or that undertaking (a new strip mine, an agricultural start-up, another airport, a landfill…you can supply any one of thousands of examples). We should similarly file statements indicating the impact of real estate development; the construction of buildings, dams, and levees; and other major projects – on the increased vulnerability to hazards they will impose on others. In this politically polarized climate, this will seem to many like another unwanted federal “taking,” but why should my freedom extend to building a levee to protect my property that will increase the risk to your property downstream on that same river? Shouldn’t I have to consult you? The requirement for Environmental Impact Statements prompted numerous complaints at the time, but today, we’ve internalized the process. It’s an accepted part of doing business. And it’s the right thing to do. That’s the similar intent of the No-Adverse-Impact policy advice of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

A third step? Let’s get the public- and private-sectors to the table to talk strategically about how they can continue to work together to reduce disaster losses in this country. Many companies these days have business continuity plans. They know what they have to do to keep their doors open in the face of disasters. And they take those actions as best they can. But the companies can’t execute those plans if as result of the disaster their employees lose homes and either can’t make it to work or are preoccupied with domestic problems. And those open stores won’t do any business if their customers’ communities have been disrupted.  Companies need a forum for partnering with local-, state-, and national government to reduce community vulnerability. [Time was, we had such a forum, under the name of Project Impact, a FEMA program dating back to the Clinton years, which was ended in the first year of the Bush Administration. We should bring back this program, or something like it.]

Insurance companies might provide a useful starting point. It’s likely that Sandy’s impact along all that built-up shoreline will once again highlight opportunities for improving the National Flood Insurance Program. The insurance companies, DoC and DHS, and the publics they all serve have skin in the game. Such discussions are needed at the federal, state and local levels. The Department of Commerce could provide a natural venue to start such a dialog.

Here’s a final action. We can keep score. The National Academy of Sciences recommended over a decade ago that the U.S. Department of Commerce add this input to its collection of economic statistics. That recommendation should be implemented. It’s human nature to improve performance with respect to what we measure. Figures would be noisy year-to-year, but like those commercial aviation figures, but over time, we would all see the rise of those dollar losses first begin to slow and then level off, even as our economy continues to grow.

It would be inspiring. It would show we had learned Hurricane Sandy’s real lesson.

And right now? Digging ourselves out from under two feet of snow in West Virginia, three feet of sand along the New Jersey coast, slogging through four feet of water, sludge, and debris in New York…absent electrical power and communication? We could use a little inspiration.

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13 Responses to Hurricane Sandy’s Real Lesson…will we learn it?

  1. Inna says:

    Even though we can’t prevent natural disasters, I’m appauled at the level of electric power lost — why is America living 2 centuries ago and not putting all its electric wires underground?! Almost ALL developed countries don’t have this issue, and yet every year we have massive outages because of damaged wires!

  2. Tracy Rouleau says:

    Great ideas Bill – and I’d add one to the list (you could group it under your second step). As a nation we’ve lost much of the natural (or green) infrastructure that previously shielded us from the worst rampages of mother nature, absorbing coastal impacts and lessening their destructionn on the built environment. We can be proactive about restoring those ecosystem services provided by coastal wetlands, oyster and coral reefs, and even sea grass beds, but more importantly get those involved in coastal restoration together with those in emergency management in support of our shared objectives.

  3. John Plodinec says:

    Bill:-

    As a start, let’s have a national catalog of why people died, a la NTSB.

    However, I must temper your laudatory comments – a real test of how much we’ve learned is how fast will our communities recover after the news crews leave. We clearly have taught the heroes of response how to be more effective. But have the saints of long-term recovery learned their lessons as well? We can only hope.

    • Thanks, John. You’re right on point. The quality of a recovery can be evaluated only after a considerable time. That’s the reason yesterday’s post, in describing the recovery, was entitled “now for the hard part.” And I confess in my down moments to seeing “recovery” as a bit of an oxymoron. An observer who averts his/her eyes for a period of time, then looks back might see that where people, homes, buildings, community had once been prior to the disaster, there are once again people, homes, buildings, community…but it’s different people, different homes, different buildings, different community. The larger society has recovered…but not necessarily the same people who’d once been there. There’s simply a “new normal.”

  4. Mike Smith says:

    Long time readers of my blog (at http://www.mikesmithenterprises.com ), know that I have been calling for a national disaster board ala the NTSB. It should NOT be part of the NWS (or any other federal agency) nor should be solely comprised of meteorologists. Like the NTSB, it should be independent.

    Your aviation example is right on the money.

    The National Weather Service’s “service assessments” (disaster reports) are badly broken (Joplin as an example) and this is one of the reasons we and the broader society are not learning these lessons fast enough.

    • Thanks, Mike:

      You make some good additional points about an NTSB-analog…particularly the importance of independence and breadth. On that idea, any chance you can supply our readers a link to one or more of your earlier posts on the notion? They’d surely find it helpful.

      I remember some of your reflections on Joplin and the NWS Joplin assessment. Have you had a chance to look at the NWS Hurricane Irene assessment? It’s available on-line here: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/assessments/pdfs/Irene2012.pdf
      I’d welcome your thoughts. (Full disclosure: I served in a small way on that assessment team.) Best wishes!

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  7. Ryan Colker says:

    Thank you for bringing up the importance of mitigation in preparing communities to respond effectively to natural (and man-made) hazards. You also highlight the importance of engaging participants from both the public and private sector to identify and implement such mitigation activities. The National Institute of Building Sciences was established by the U.S. Congress in 1974 to undertake just the type of assessments you mention. Through our Building Seismic Safety Council, lessons learned from earthquakes and seismic research are developed into improvements in building codes and standards. Our Multihazard Mitigation Council also focuses on the numerous hazards faced by communities and hosts the dialogue to develop best practices for mitigation. MMC is responsible for the oft cited statistic that $1 invested in mitigation results in $4 in avoided losses. These Councils and others naturally work with relevant federal agencies like FEMA and NIST to develop the tools and practices that support mitigation. However, funding for mitigation (and research for that matter) never reaches the same priority level as the short-term response and recovery from hazards. Until investment in mitigation matches the level of benefits (and costs avoided) achievable, the nation will be unable to implement the policies, programs and practices necessary to achieve resilience. Finally, it is important to note that there is no national database of hazard events, lessons learned, and community impacts. This is an important piece in the development of best practices for hazard mitigation.

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  9. Rusureuwant2know says:

    Not sure what’s meant by “opportunities for improving the National Flood Insurance Program” – there shouldn’t be one. People who build on flood plains should have to bear the responsibility for such action themselves as those areas are guaranteed to flood – John Stossel said himself he benefited from the insurance, but lost his house twice – and finally learned his lesson. We shouldn’t have to deal with that – either forbid people to build on flood plains to mitigate the damages/losses or let those who do bear their own responsibility for building there. Enough already. I could not get over the fact that they actually built amusement parks on piers. How (I’m sorry, but it is) idiotic. What were they thinking???

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