Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 9, 2012

“The villain in this case is Hurricane Sandy”

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2012

In the twelve days since Sandy rolled up the Jersey shore and her winds tore across New York harbor people have died, families have lost their homes, and whole neighborhoods have been destroyed.  The vulnerabilities of systems on which modern life depends — especially power, communications, and fuel — have been dramatically exposed.

Mistakes have been made in responding to the crisis.  There has been delay, confusion, and bad judgment.  I have seen some of these problems up close and personal.  I have made my own contributions.  I have read of many more errors.  Several examples have been sent to me by readers.

I have also seen — and heard reports of  – kindness, courage, and generosity.   I have seen planning assumptions and preparedness exercises confirmed.  I have seen professionals giving fully of their energy and intelligence to serve those in need.   One night in New Jersey a huge caravan of  enormous utility trucks passed me heading north.    It occurred to me that the Interstate and Defense Highway System has never been needed to move tanks against an enemy, but it’s sure helpful to move mutual aid… and food, pharma, and much more.

At the very end of the caravan was a Red Cross ambulance with Texas plates.  As traffic slowed, I read a sign on its side explaining it was a gift from the people of Kuwait to a community in Texas (Killeen maybe, I don’t remember).  That’s really long-distance mutual aid.

Thursday afternoon Governors Christie (NJ) and Cuomo  (NY) each gave separate media briefings.   One of my mistakes was yesterday’s post worrying that the true cost of Sandy was not yet being recognized.  Cuomo’s remarks suggest there is a full realization of what the winds have wrought and the implications for recovery.

Governor Christie mostly provided an update on various public services and thanked those who have been involved in the response.   Chris Christie is certainly not shy to call someone an idiot or worse when he thinks it is deserved.  Especially in that context, I was struck yesterday by his defense of those who were doing their best to respond.  Even while 400,000 New Jersey residents remain without power (150,000 new or repeat outages from the nor’easter), the Governor commended the utility companies and especially their crews, who “worked right through the snowstorm. They are doing a good job.”

When a reporter asked a question inviting the Governor to pound-the-utilities, he responded instead,  “The villain in this case is Sandy.” (Governor Cuomo did not need to be invited to pound away.)

The storm is exposing systemic vulnerabilities and bad judgment that could reasonably be blamed on two or three generations of private and public officials and many survivors and victims of the storm.    I suggest it is helpful to look for lessons-learned and unhelpful to seek who to blame.

On a really great day about 80 percent of my plans make some progress.  On most days, without much interference, I only hit sixty-to-seventy percent of my targets.  Under stress, complication, and confusion the percentage further declines.   A quarter-century ago I had some venture capital experience; about two-thirds of investments were expected to fail.

Failure is not a villain.  Failure can be a really good friend.  Friendship is much more likely when — instead of punishing failure — we embrace it, ask it questions, and listen to it teach us.

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6 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 9, 2012 @ 2:08 am

“Disaster as War” the title of some of Kathleen Tierney’s writings has been my point. Triage may be necessary and because a Northeast winter is upon US then doubly necessary. As pointed out elsewhere snow and ice not a problem in Katrina. The winter of 2012-2013 still a complete unknown and techically still only fall 2012.
So what to do? First abandon and cordon off and create access control for the Jersey Shore and Staten Island and certainly some places like Breezy Point. The insurance business could be a big help but probably won’t by giving long extensions of Proof of Loss, including the NFIP which long ago should have lengthened the deadline in catastrophic situations from 60 to 120 days.

Make sure most understand it will be a long difficult winter in most the Hurricane Sandy heavy impact areas. There is a certain irony in that two Governors of different parties, possible political rivals for the Presidency in 2016, are coming to grips with the tough reality that their performance in Hurricane Sandy response and recovery and even mitigation efforts may well determine their political future. And of course MOTHER NATURE may well have more in store over the next 4 years.

And just as we stupidly poured money into the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan perhaps now time to not due the same to the already developed Barrier Islands that want to shift even their fundamental location over time. The risk of current occupancy of hazardous areas should be weighed before reinvesting.

And it should be recognized what has happened in the Gulf Coast and Florida. The Property and Casualty Insurers are abandoning rapidly that market for broad form homeowners insurance [HO-5] and forcing self insurance on many or trying to mask the problem with grossly actuarial unsound STATE catastrophe pools that pretend the resources will be available when all understand they will not.

And soon there may well be evidence of Professor Dennis Mileti’s so-called “Therapeutic Community” breaking down so assist law enforcement by restricting access to areas that cannot possible be rehabilitated this spring.

Yes time to rethink the entirety of the transportation and communications hubs impacted by Hurricane Sandy and even more certainly the energy and fuel complexes.

Make no mistake,a national level concern needs to be demonstrated NOW not a month from now. And yes preservation of this area is NOW a National Security Concern not to be postponed.

The FEMA structure was enlarged but not reformed as well soon be evident with often the wrong types of personnel in the lead. This is NOT a localized fire situation even a Full Box Alarm. Nor is it amenable to the scarce talents and efforts of the Coast Guard as in Katrina.

Hopefully in my comments on this blog over the last few years I can skip being blamed for a Jerimiah. The NSC and its NSS staff does not get it. They totally missed on the catastrophic situation in Haiti, made worse by Hurrican Sandy, and that it was an earthquake with domestic implications only 700 miles offshore.

Well now that parts of the Hurricane Sandy impact areas look like Haiti perhaps some will understand my concerns.

Federal Reserve and US Treasury wake up as your skills are needed NOW not tomorrow in this large-scale event. And only a CAT 1 imagine if the FEMA models showing a CAT 4 or 5 had occurred.

Hurricane Sandy should be the wake up call. Don’t do stupid things like fill in the new inlets carved through FIRE ISLAND!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2012 @ 6:39 am

DIVIDE AND CONQUER?

Notice how difficult it is to get accurate consolidated figures on disaster zones! Why? The natural tendency IMO is for local groups wanting to de-emphasize the scope of the short and long term impacts. Much awaits present outcomes of current decision-making and of course future courses of action.
Perhaps the STATES and certain city states are just not quite the geographic entities needed for a concerted and coordinated response. Cut the bridges, tunnels, ferries, subways to the STATE of Long Island and get a different viewpoint of the large mass of population and critical infrastructure that needs tending. Perhaps if geographic areas with populations larger some of the original and current STATES and equivalent representation in the Congress there might be more of a response to the demand pull from disasters. And perhaps the competitive situation of various areas might be more prominent. As in which areas have just bet against the certain of the future destruction of MOTHER NATURE by pretending that the risk is low.

Why is so little really published about historic disaster losses? STATES have been required to have mitigation plans since the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 that amended the Robert T. Stafford Act. Care to guess the ready availability of those plans?

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 11, 2012 @ 9:16 am

My guess is 50,000 have had their principal residence destroyed and not able to occupy! Will be interesting to see the actual numbers. Katrina over 100,000 homes destroyed. So perhaps housing issues simpler in Sandy than Katrina but perhaps not.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 11, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Bill, In another response regarding the water, food, and pharma supply chains I was pretty positive. On replacement housing I think it will be very, very difficult and I don’t know anyone who has a clear handle (yet) on scope and scale. While not as large as Katrina — where I have seen 300,000 as the number of residences destroyed — I think the transitional and permanent housing options in NY/NJ/CT will be, if anything, more difficult and expensive. A very small example: in wealthy Westport CT (population 25K) seven homes were destroyed, 260 were flooded, and 25 others had significant non-flood damage. Connecticut was not hit as hard as the Jersey barrier islands, Staten Island, and Long Island… and many of these residents have fewer options than those in Westport. I’m guessing that before Thanksgiving we will have a much better idea of the problem’s size.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 12, 2012 @ 8:54 am

As of Monday morning (November 12) I understand 82,335 applications have been approved for distribution of $460,767,000 in housing assistance for NY/NJ/CT. Want to confirm, but this is what I understand.

Comment by Willaim R. Cumming

November 12, 2012 @ 11:27 am

Thanks Phil! My guess is that the 80,000 + housing applications are for the minimal repair program and/or temporary housing.

Not that most “owners” meaning those with equity in a house have property insurance so in essence the housing effort by FEMA is a direct subsidy to the property insurers who thereby have less political pressure on them to come to an earlier and fairer settlement. Also all who recieve an insurance payment by law are to reimburse FEMA as a minimum and the law could be read that because of the prohibition on “duplication of benefits” these insureds never should have received benefits in the form of disaster relief in the first place. Note however that many insureds do not have temporary coverage for rent if they evacuate from their houses. Another dichotomy for which some may have paid with their life and not evacuated in Hurricane Sandy.

FEMA has few employees who understand the property/casualty insurance business and of course many insurance companies will be doing their best to adjust against losses by the NFIP that provides flood insurance.

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