New York Recovery By the Numbers: Hurricane Sandy

New York Recovery By the Numbers

Release date: February 22, 2013.

Release Number: NR-177.

NEW YORK — Disaster assistance to New York survivors of Hurricane Sandy:
•$2.4 billion in National Flood Insurance Program payments made to policy holders
•Nearly $909.9 million in FEMA grants approved for individuals and households•$788.5 million for housing assistance
•$121.4 million for other needs

•$1.07 billion in SBA disaster loans approved for homeowners, renters and businesses
•$669 million approved in FEMA Public Assistance grants to communities and some nonprofit organizations that serve the public
•5.3 million cubic yards of debris removed (95 percent)
•268,290 people contacted FEMA for help or information
•179,516 housing inspections completed
•160,131 visits to Disaster Recovery Centers
•More than 500 voluntary agencies involved in recovery
•25 languages used to communicate assistance information to survivors

Hurricane Sandy was a Surprise?

The second to last paragraph of this ABC News article contains a pretty shocking statement made by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “The city was not expecting Sandy.”  Really?  I think Mayor Bloomberg should have spoken to the good folks in his Emergency Management agency.  Or read one of the several reports cited in this article.  Or spoken to Michael Balboni who has been involved in emergency management and homeland security in New York State for many years.  Or looked at a map.

Optimistically, I think the Mayor’s intent here was to say that the chances of something like Hurricane Sandy happening were so low that there wasn’t much focus on it.  I’m still not thrilled with that, either, but I think that’s where he was going.

Folks, while the chance of such a strong system making landfall in the greater New York City area was pretty slim, it was still a possibility – and a very dangerous one.  A possibility, in fact, that a great deal of discussion and preparation had gone into.  The preparations that were done were good, but clearly not enough.  There needed to be massive investments of resilient, disaster mitigating infrastructure that would protect against the impacts of a storm such as this.  But we’re not too late.  We can still do these things.  Sadly, there isn’t a lot of money behind it, but we need to engage the political momentum behind this storm – just as we’ve seen in the aftermath of other major disasters such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina – which have funded massive projects.  We’ve seen ideas like a giant sea wall, which I’ve previously blogged about.  Or the mitigation projects engineered in, under, and around the city of Hong Kong, which I’ve also recently blogged about.  All these things are possible and very much necessary for the City of New York and other high risk coastal areas.

It’s time for our elected officials to take emergency management seriously.  The investments made in preparedness and mitigation can drastically reduce the loss of lives and property.

Disaster Preparedness – Hong Kong

Seal of Hong Kong

Seal of Hong Kong

I’m interrupting my series on exercise program management (which I’m sure I’ll do several more times) to highlight a news spot I first saw on last night’s NBC News.  The segment was about Storm Preparedness in Hong Kong.  In it they briefly outline the threats to Hong Kong, including being struck by a cyclone seven times a year on average, and they highlight the preparations they’ve taken.  These preparations include underground reservoirs to contain flood waters and runoff and a system of barrier fences to mitigate against landslides.  I always like to see how other people around the world are prepared for their hazards.  Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and other places around the globe have come up with innovative ways to protect themselves from natural disasters.  Comparisons were made in this brief segment between NYC and Hong Kong – with the silent inference that if these measures are already being taken elsewhere, then certainly the City of New York can do it.

One thing I noticed wasn’t actually discussed in the video – they showed a brief clip of a Hong Kong area news broadcast which was alerting citizens. Broadcasts are the cornerstone of their notification and alert system and use levels of ‘signals’ to communicate the severity of the threat (the Hong Kong broadcast clip that NBC includes shows them issuing a Signal 10, their most serious).  An easy internet search led me to the Hong Kong Security Bureau which handles emergency management.  This preparedness guide explains their signal system and shows how they color code other hazards based on level of severity such as wild fires and storms.  Their documents are in both Chinese and English.

A little more poking around their website found versions of their contingency plans.  I quickly perused their contingency plan for natural disasters which seemed to include all the right elements.  Certainly, with an average of seven cyclones annually along with the threat of wild fires and landslides all around the city, Hong Kong is well versed in preparedness.  While a quick search for any studies on citizen preparedness didn’t come up with much, I’m hopeful that the preparedness message is getting to them as well.  The broadcast indicated that Hong Kong had recently suffered through a storm event of similar strength as Hurricane Sandy, and survived with no fatalities.  Based on this alone, it would seem to me that the citizens of Hong Kong do take this seriously.

We can always learn from others – especially those who haven’t been jaded by our way of doing things, which I think more often than not holds us all back.  We need to look beyond our borders and share ideas.  It seems to be done in many other fields, but not so much in emergency management.

NYC Transportation Post Hurricane Sandy

This study – Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy – was brought to my attention by Claire Rubin by way of her blog.  Thank you Claire!

This is a great study and very timely.  Having worked with these transportation entities in the past, I can attest that what they have accomplished is not easily done.  The variety of agencies that cover the array of transportation systems and modes in the greater NYC area creates challenges – City agencies, State agencies, and multi-state authorities.  Each owns not only their own modes, but their own infrastructure as well.  They also have their own reporting chain, making coordinated decision-making a challenge.  Additionally, any decisions made that impact transportation systems must also consider evacuations.  Systems and infrastructure can’t be shut down until evacuations have been effected.  The folks on Long Island have to move to higher ground or out of the area completely before bridges are shut down around NYC.

They have come a long way through the last several years.  The study mentions some significant flooding in 2004 and 2007 in which lessons were learned.  We also conducted an exercise, the largest of its kind at the time, in the summer of 2008 simulating landfall of a hurricane in the NYC metro area.  This exercise provided great feedback and spurred changes to both state and local plans.  In 2011, Irene came up the coast, eerily following a track very similar to our simulated hurricane in 2008.  Plan improvements were made again, and they will be yet again in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

A significant item that was barely touched upon in this paper is the role of the private sector.  Much of the impact of private sector policy is demonstrated on page 25 of the study, where we see that prior to the hurricane only 2% of New Yorkers telecommuted, whereas following the hurricane (November 1-2) 22% telecommuted.  It’s great to see that so many companies saw the sense in allowing employees to telecommute instead of contributing to the transportation nightmare that occurred on these days.  I would challenge more private entities to do the same!  The best way to implement this, of course, is to include it in your business continuity plan.

In Emergency Management it is not only important that we improvise, adapt, and overcome; we must also learn and change.  We must turn lessons observed into lessons learned by creating a corrective action plan and actually implementing these changes.  It’s positive to see these types of documents, all After Action Reports (AARs) in their own right, which use facts and observations to highlight what went well and what needs to be improved upon.  The challenge is making these changes.  Change, good or bad, is stressful and counterintuitive to us.  We default to what is comfortable (i.e. ‘the way we’ve always done things’).  Change may require funding – sometimes vast amounts of it.  Some change is drastic, some subtle, some long-term, some immediate.  Nonetheless, with the ultimate goal of saving lives, we must change.  That, if anything, is our burden.

Protecting NYC

This NBC News article brings about some great discussion and ideas on what can be done to protect areas like New York City from storm surge.  If you link to the article, be sure to watch the video.

Gates of a fictional seawall protecting NYC

First, I’ll put out there that I don’t completely agree with all the statements made in the article or the video.  I’m not completely sold on global climate change, but the fact of the matter is that near or below sea level areas on the coast, especially those with high populations, need better protection.  I also don’t agree with the scientist in the video that states there would have been no damage in NYC had these sea walls been in place… hurricane force winds and torrential rains cause plenty of damage all on their own.

The concept of these sea walls amazes me.  I’m certainly familiar with the smaller cousins of these structures, breakwaters, such as the one in my college town of Oswego, NY.  These sea walls, however, particularly the more high-tech versions such as the one illustrated for use around New York City in the video, appear to be extremely versatile and suitable for long-term use.  Just like we protect our infrastructure from acts of terrorism, we need to protect our infrastructure, and our people, from natural disasters.  If this project sees the light of day, it may very well be one of the largest hazard mitigation projects ever created.