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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