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.

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