Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 29, 2012

Learning from Sandy

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector — by Philip J. Palin on November 29, 2012

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?

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7 Comments »

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 29, 2012 @ 7:32 am

It would seem that the national housing strategy does need to be reviewed, particularly in light of recent changes to the National Flood Ins. Program. See NYTimes article on that yesterday. I just posted that source on RecoveryDiva.com

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 29, 2012 @ 7:41 am

Terrific post and summary Phil so many thanks! Definitely room for a philosopher king in disaster response, mitigation, and recovery.

Perhaps my litany of procedural hoops listed in yesterday’s comments post declaration should remind some if not all why I don’t view the Robert T. Stafford Act as the sole solution to protection, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. If that statute was organized along those lines or even a breakdown between federal financial and federal technical assistance including immediate life and property saving and also a communications laundry list it would be far better in assisting all. FEMA lives with a bad statute largely the fault of the Public Works Committees and has made it worse by it failure to propose substantial reorganization of the statute or even to provide technical suggestions to the Congress.

And for the record most of the post-Katrina reform effort missed the mark by a wide margin.

My key recommendations for years has consisted of a 100% federal funded effort for the first 45-90 days so cost share disputes don’t hold up the response. Also like the Judgment FUND administered by DoJ that funds awards and settlements against federal officers and employees for tort claims, the
DRF [disaster relief fund] should be a permanent appropriation with detailed reporting and analysis on the draws each 90 days and the outlook for the next 90. Hey if the Federal Reserve can print money maybe they should have the federal disaster function since they spent far more bailing out the financial sector [FIRE] then spent in the last 5 decades for FEMA style disaster outlays. Or perhaps a running total of Agricultural Dept. disaster outlays including crop insurance would make some realize how really small potatoes is the DRF outlays in comparison.

Of course the real disaster statutory scheme is smoke and mirrors and seems to be likely to remain that way until the “big one”!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 29, 2012 @ 7:44 am

Of course the classic example of where arguments over cost share impacted negatively lives and property of citizens and residents of the USA is Hurricane Andrew that made landfall in late August 1992!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 29, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

Historically up to 40% of Public Assistance outlays have gone to water and sewage treatment plants and structural flood control measures.

EPA AND USACOE BUILD THEM AND FEMA REBUILDS THEM!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 29, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

Claire and Bill: On all of these targets private-public is important. The NDHS is especially interesting in terms of the current status of private-public in strategic thinking. What is said about the private sector role is accurate. But the proportional attention given by the NDHS to the private sector role is, in my judgment, entirely too modest. What we seem to see — again and again, and not just in the US — is the worse the event, the more important the private sector contribution, and there is very little public-sector readiness to meaningfully engage private sector needs or assets.

Comment by Jenny Sokatch

November 30, 2012 @ 9:18 am

Would you consider posting this to the lessons learned website llis.gov?

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

December 6, 2012 @ 12:11 am

[...] Last Thursday’s post included what then seemed a rather modest notion: “I perceive we need to assume power outages and discover how we can still water, feed, and otherwise serve those in need.”  The onslaught of email I received seems to indicate the TV show’s premise may not be as implausible as I thought.  For many the possibility of  doing much of anything without electricity is nearly unimaginable. [...]

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