Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New York City Proposals For Change After Sandy

In the wake of Sandy, the New York City Council is considering sweeping changes to zoning laws, building codes, and other regulatory initiatives to prevent the disruption caused by this storm.  In the weeks and months ahead there will be hearings and proposed legislation to make changes to how buildings are built in NYC. 

As reported in Law360, Council members made several suggestions for new legislation to determine the feasibility of relocating power lines underground, adopt the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood elevation maps and strengthen flood-proofing requirements for buildings in vulnerable areas and health care facilities.

One suggested bill, proposed by Council Member Sara Gonzalez, would change the city's building code to match with those at the national and state levels when it comes to construction requirements meant to deter flooding.  Gonzalez's bill would raise elevation requirements for buildings in flood zones, requiring that their boilers and other critical equipment be kept above ground level. It would also create stricter construction standards for buildings in Zone A, the area closest to the waterfront where property is most vulnerable to flooding.  Other suggestions include locating power lines underground (this would help in the outlining boroughs where power lines were felled when trees came down) and requiring hospitals to have critical systems on floors above ground level.

Many of these suggestions mirror suggestions made in Florida and Louisiana and other Gulf states over the years.  By making changes like these, disruption can be lessened and insurable losses will be less.  It will be interesting to see how the debate goes and whether the will to make significant changes in light of Sandy stands firm in the face of what surely will be opposition to these changes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Personal Thoughts on Sandy and Its Aftermath

It's now been almost seven weeks since Superstorm Sandy.  I thought I would give some personal reflections on the storm and its aftermath and some of the preparedness and response lessons we can learn and are still learning.  I live on the south shore of Long Island.  As you know, virtually all coastal communities on Long Island, New Jersey, New York City, and Connecticut suffered catastrophic damage.  My brother lives in Long Beach.  Long Beach is a war zone.  Still.  Numerous houses were destroyed, there is no boardwalk, businesses are just starting to reopen, cars are still being towed out, and thousands still have no place to live.  My mother lived in Rockaway Beach (where we grew up).  Rockaway is also a war zone.  Still.  Everyone heard about the houses that burned down in Breezy Point.  Other houses burned down as well.  The boardwalk is destroyed.  Thousands have no home.  My mother is moving to East Meadow and will not be going back to Rockaway.  There are other communities that can all say the same thing across the south shore, Staten Island, and New Jersey.

Yet in mid-town Manhattan, where I work, everything is normal.  Frankly, it was normal by the time I was able to return to the City on the Thursday after Sandy hit.  But downtown, there are office and residential buildings that are still unoccupied because there is no power or phone or internet service, or no heat or electric.  And outside of the coastal areas and outside of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut tri-state region, Sandy is an old story as the news cycle passes it by.

So what did we learn?  Some old lessons.  Building on sand spits is not a great idea.  Critical infrastructure has to be above the water line -- above the 1000-year storm water line.  Generators, heating systems, electrical panels, phone panels, computer hubs, all have to be out of the basement and sub-basement and be put on middle to upper floors.  Easier said than done.

Houses by the water have to either not have basements or be elevated so that the living quarters do not flood.  A friend of my brother and mine just finished his basement and first floor after Irene only to see everything totally destroyed by Sandy.  I am confident that throughout Long Beach and other communities others suffered the same fate.  Will insurers continue to "rebuild" in these coastal communities?  I had to change my insurance this year because my carrier of over 20 years dropped all policies on Long Island.  I am not on the water.  Insurers will start insisting on mitigation and prevention when rebuilding.

Dunes.  Dunes are cool.  People in Belle Harbor didn't want the dunes built up in front of their oceanfront views.  Those people no longer have houses as the nine to eleven foot storm surge swept over Rockaway and joined with Jamaica Bay.  Dunes and barrier islands help mitigate against storms and tidal surges.  So do groins and jetties.  In Rockaway there are rock jetties (really groins) in certain areas.  The beaches there are wide and the boardwalk was not as destroyed where the jetties were situated.  Where my mother lived, the boardwalk (for a short stretch) is somewhat intact, but literally two blocks west there is no boardwalk and the ocean flows under what was the boardwalk.  The rock jetties helped.  But there are environmental issues with jetties and groins. 

Generators.  I am contemplating installing an emergency generator hooked up to my gas line so I don't have to go through nine days of no power with dropping temperatures and standing on stupid gas lines because of panic.  Permanent generators are not cheap.  You have to create the proper hook-up to the electrical panel, properly place the generator and have it tied into the systems you want to run, and also run the gas line to feed the generator.  Is this an overreaction?  Not if Irene and Sandy are just the beginning of what is to come.

Backup and records.  We all do it.  We keep records and family memorabilia in the basement.  Not a good idea.  Electronic inventories of contents, important papers, etc. held in the cloud or offsite is the way to go.  But it's a lot of work.  I was lucky.  I only lost power for nine days.  I had no water and only minimal wind damage.  Five houses from me lost the entire first floor to water and a few houses from that had a major sewer back up.  The restaurants that I went to within a few weeks of Sandy in Freeport and East Rockaway were all destroyed.  Read the stories about how peoples lives are dumped in piles on the curbside.

Boats and shipping containers do not belong on railroad tracks.  But that's what happened on the Long Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad.   Public transportation agencies have to make themselves less vulnerable to flooding.  We did not have our trains for almost 3 weeks.  The PATH in Hoboken may not come back until next year.  Trains and buses cannot be housed in lowland areas near water that might overflow with a surge.  Stations need to be build to withstand flooding and tracks and electrical sub-stations have to be raised or build to withstand water.

Cell phones.  How cellphone companies built cell towers with no generators or generators on the ground is shocking.  We had virtually no cell service for a week or more.  All the towers on the south shore were knocked out.  Redundancy and proper watertight back-up power is necessary for cell towers.

First responders and others.  Everyone should thank all the first responders, municipal workers, and volunteers who continue to work hard even today to take care of those who were devastated by Sandy.  Many of you saw the 121212 concert.  Folks from all the communities that are suffering were there.  The suffering continues unabated.  Go on Facebook and view the various pages set up by each community on their disaster recovery efforts.  This will be going on for months if not years in some areas.

Disaster preparation and response is no joke.  Take it seriously as an individual, in your business, and with your clients.  We hope this blog and the efforts of the American Bar Association's Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section's Task Force on Disaster Preparation & Response helps.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Coast Guard Joins Admiralty Committee on Call

Chris Nolan of Holland & Knight, who is the immediate past chair of the Admiralty Committee of the American Bar Association's Tort Trial & Insurance Law Section, asked to post the following announcement:

The TIPS Admiralty Committee is proud to inform you that Captain Gordon Loebl, US Coast Guard , Captain of the Port for NY/NJ, will be joining us for our committee's monthly call on Thursday, December 20 at 12:30 Eastern.  Chair Laurie Sands will introduce Captain Loebl to lead off the call and the Captain will chat about the USCG's disaster preparedness efforts -- actions during and after Superstorm Sandy.  It is valuable insight into the USCG's emergency actions and time permitting, Captain Loebl may take questions.

Because of TIPS' commitment to disaster preparedness issues, this meeting may be of great interest to members and readers of this Blog.  if you are interested in listening in, we of course welcome you.  The dial-in number is 866-646-6488 and the conference code is 1885350536. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Twitter Conversation -- The Underinsurance Gap

Lloyd's of London, one of the leading insurance markets in the world (for over 350 years) conducted a Twitter conversation today for one hour on the global insurance gap that exists.  Lloyd's recently published a study on the issue of the underinsurance gap that exists worldwide and some ideas on how to fix it.  Lloyd's has on its website an interesting piece on this that all businesses should review.

A lot of the Twitter conversation focused on catastrophes and the need to have mitigation and prevention processes in place to allow for insurance to be affordable and available.  You can check out the Twitter conversation by searching the hashtag #insurancegap.  Some of the concepts discussed were location of business assets in the supply chain, the lack of insurance for substantial parts of natural disasters, the value of insuring for catastrophic losses lowering the burden on taxpayers, and the need to invest in mitigation and preventative measures.  This was an interesting way to learn more about issues affecting disasters and disaster recovery.