It’s too late for a hot wash and there’s not been sufficient time for a serious after-action, but a few impressions — hypotheses, perhaps — that might productively frame follow-on information gathering and analysis.
(Below I focus mostly on a forty-mile radius from the Empire State Building. I have not addressed electricity because I perceive we need to assume power outages and discover how we can still water, feed, and otherwise serve those in need. I have not addressed telecommunications because, so far, this is for me mostly a dark hole. A reminder: Sandy began seriously impacting the mid-Atlantic during the afternoon and evening of Monday, October 29.)
Water and Wastewater Systems: Most did better than I had expected, given the extended period without electric power. In the handful of cases (well, two handfuls and a few toes) where there were problems it mostly resulted from the loss of pumping capability. For example the Middlesex Water Company serving 450,000 in Central New Jersey lost primary power to its New Brunswick intake facility and this was not restored until late on Tuesday, November 6. As water pressure fell contaminants entered the system requiring boiling or bleaching. The non-operation of water treatment facilities, caused by both power outages and physical damage, and the resulting release of untreated sewage into the region’s rivers could still threaten the safety of water drawn from these sources. The current status of waste water treatment facilities is tough to assess. (Thursday afternoon update: Today’s NYT has an extended report) Private sector sources of water were a helpful input in the immediate response period. For example, Anheuser-Busch donated 1 million cans of water.
Food Supply: A few grocery stores — notably in Hoboken, Red Hook, the Rockaways and other barrier islands — were totally washed out. Of about fifty ShopRite stores in the New York metro region 27 were still closed on Thursday morning November 1, mostly due to power outages. Out of 30 Stop & Shop stores, ten were closed because of no electricity. All have since reopened and most grocery and convenience food stores were back in business within 72 hours. Sources of food supply were mostly not impacted. The fuel problems (see below) did not seem to have a serious impact on making grocery deliveries after the event. Food shortages were evidently less the result of disruption in the food supply chain and much more the result of impediments to consumer mobility. (Special Note: In Connecticut on October 29 the Governor ordered all large trucks off state highways as of 1PM. It is not clear to me — yet — what impact that might have had on food, pharma, or other supplies.)
Pharmaceutical and Medical Goods: There have been several media reports of individual survivors of Sandy running low on prescriptions. I have not seen or heard suggestions of systemic problems. There was, apparently, some challenge in distributing pharmaceuticals as a result of fuel distribution problems. On November 5 Drug Store News reported:
A key focal point in the discussions between Rx Response and government agencies has been addressing challenges in getting fuel to delivery trucks re-supplying hospitals and pharmacies, and helping to secure fuel for pharmacies and other healthcare facilities operating on generator power. Efforts are currently underway to help ensure access to fuel for both delivery fleets and healthcare facilities powered by generators. Rx Response is also working with local law enforcement to help delivery vehicles gain access to areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
I have no idea why pharma distribution would have more problems with fuel than food distribution. In any case, it is a distinction worth resolving.
Since Katrina the pharma industry has developed a proactive approach to disaster preparedness and response. This process is coordinated through an industry-wide collaborative called RxResponse. The entire effort is designed to help the full pharma supply chain flex when under stress from an event like Sandy. For consumers and emergency managers an online pharmacy status update may be especially helpful.
Transportation Fuel: As was the case in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 tsunami-and-earthquake in Japan (and elsewhere), the disruption of the fuel distribution system seriously complicated the immediate response to Sandy. HLSWatch has already given considerable attention to this issue here, here and here. Yesterday Joshua Schneyer and Selam Gebrekidan with Reuters filed an excellent overview that I strongly recommend reading.
Housing Repairs and Replacements: On Monday New York Governor Cuomo reported that 305,000 housing units had been damaged or destroyed by Sandy in New York alone and this number is expected to increase. FEMA has reported 71,770 homes damaged or destroyed in New Jersey. This total is much larger than I anticipated. According to FEMA, more than 450,000 New York metro-area residents have registered for assistance. Over $888 million in emergency housing assistance has already been approved. During the Monday event — clearly designed to set the stage for a special Congressional appropriation — Governor Cuomo estimated needing $9.67 billion just focused on housing. Wednesday afternoon the New York Federal Reserve “Beige Book” summary included the following overview:
Residential real estate markets in the (NY Federal Reserve) District were mixed but generally firm prior to the storm, and its effects on the market remain unclear at this point. Manhattan’s rental market remained on a positive trajectory in October, with rents up roughly 5 percent from a year earlier and vacancy rates continuing to decrease. Sales markets in both Manhattan and the outer boroughs were fairly active in October, with prices steady and the inventory of available homes characterized as low… An expert on New Jersey’s housing sector notes that conditions were improving gradually prior to Sandy and expects that post-storm rebuilding will boost multi-family construction. The storm caused a noticeable slowdown in sales activity throughout the New York City metropolitan region, but this is expected to be temporary. With many homes along the New York City, Long Island and New Jersey shorelines severely damaged or destroyed, the lean housing inventory is a concern, as displaced residents seek short-term rentals. There is some concern as to how much of the shore communities will be rebuilt and how quickly, but one industry expert anticipates that residents in the severely-damaged areas will be strongly motivated to return and rebuild. Some of the biggest potential challenges are likely to be shortages of construction equipment and materials, and steeper prices for insurance.
(Might be worth reviewing the National Disaster Housing Strategy. Especially in the immediate context of Post-Sandy, it sets out a a very restrained strategic concept. This is not necessarily a criticism.)
Some emerging impressions:
- Supply of consumables (water, food, pharma) was not seriously impacted. There were problems with distribution, most dramatically with fuel. There was widespread lack of understanding about how distribution systems work and as a result early efforts to address problems were misdirected. Lots of mitigation opportunities were exposed.
- The most serious human consequences seem to have emerged from an inability to express or actuate demand. People who could not easily communicate with or travel to nearby sources of supply were those most affected by the event. Physical separation and social isolation are amplified by disaster (hardly a new finding).
- I’m surprised we’re not hearing more horror stories about housing. Maybe I spent too much time in Japan, but sometimes silence is the most important part of the message.
- Sandy was a serious event, but considerably less than a “worst case”. She was subtropical by landfall. She was certainly big but might have been badder. A repeat of the Great White Hurricane of 1888 would have much more serious and sustained impacts on electricity and distribution networks with considerably greater consequences for supply chains, critical infrastructure, and the population.
Given what we experienced with Sandy what can we do now to deal more effectively with the next really bad day?