Sandy is only the latest massive storm to batter the continental United States and leave death, destruction and suffering in its wake. Our hearts go out to each and every soul impacted by this terrible storm. Current estimates are that Sandy has caused in excess of $50 billion (and rising) in damages, not to mention untold heartbreak across 13 states. Powerful storms are nothing new to the American people. We know that big storms blow and that things get destroyed. There isn’t much we can do about that. However, what we can do is prepare so that we can lessen our personal misery index and hopefully help someone else in their time of need as well.
What makes this disaster in particular feel worse is that, as with any hurricane, people knew about the threat Sandy posed more than week ahead of the storm’s arrival…and they knew that this storm had the potential to become an absolute monster, a superstorm. Even with this advance warning, many chose to remain in their homes even after mandatory evacuation orders were issued. What’s more, people failed to recognize or outright dismissed just how dangerous Sandy would be even though all of the major news outlets were informing the population constantly of the impending threat. Sure, there were the obligatory runs on the stores and the resulting empty shelves in the hours immediately before Sandy made landfall, but those steps taken at such a late hour (though better than nothing) were no more impactful than whispering in the hurricane force winds that would soon be lashing the northeast’s major metropolitan areas.
So, what did the same tired song that we have heard over and over playing out in one disaster area after another sound like this time? You guessed it…more dangerous evacuations, more fear, more anger, more frustration and hopelessness, more hunger and yet even more personal suffering. Despite the heartbreak we all feel for those impacted by Sandy, or any other major natural disaster, the reality and the cold hard truth of the matter is that so much of that pain could have been avoided with just a little planning and preparation. By taking just a few basic steps, many could have avoided a really bad situation becoming an absolute nightmare for themselves and their families.
This storm and it’s after effects have been talked about at length, but I wanted to offer a few themes I noticed in the days after the storm and why Superstorm Sandy may just prove to be a game changer with regards to personal preparedness in America.
*COMMUNICATIONS ARE VITAL – More than 8.5 million Americans were in the dark immediately after Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard and hundreds of thousands remain without power nearly a week and a half later. Twenty-five percent of the cellular towers in the impacted region were knocked out of service due to the storm. For many, landline telephones have become a thing of the past. So, when cell service was knocked out over such a wide area millions were left without a way to communicate with others to ask for help, report an emergency or even contact loved ones. After an emergency, the ability to communicate, on a personal level or with the outside world (those in the non-impact zone), is critical. In the case of Sandy, the people stranded on a devastated Staten Island could not even reach those in New York City to let them know just how badly they needed assistance. The ability to gather real time information during an emergency is vital, both tactically and psychologically. In real terms, access to news updates and relief aid information could very literally be the difference between life and death. Just having a radio with fresh batteries provides a link to the outside world to let you know you’re not alone and that can be enough to keep you going during a time of disaster. Imagine what a difference a hand crank or solar powered radio with a cell phone charger would have made for those individuals stranded on Staten Island with no power and no supplies. How are you squared away with regards to communications? Do you have a plan, and the gear to support it, to make sure you will be able to contact friends and loved ones after a disaster?
*POWER GRID IS THE LINCHPIN OF AMERICAN SOCIETY – This should go without saying. In fact, the expectation of power at the flip of a switch is so ingrained in modern American society that many cannot even comprehend life without the uninterrupted flow of electricity. We literally depend on reliable electricity for everything we need to power our daily lives: our water, our food, our ability to communicate…everything. We have built layer upon layer of complex systems, stripping away resiliency and rugged individualism at every turn, to the point that 98% of our population has no idea what to do when the lights go out and don’t come back on. Our level of systemic dependence as a society and as individuals is stunning and should be frightening. The functioning grid is at the center of it all. When there is no electric power there’s no refrigeration for food. It just rots where it sits. With no electric power there is no water, no fuel, because the pumps that bring it to you will not operate. With no electric power to bring the fuel to the surface, the fleet of trucks the endlessly circle our nation will cease to operate and with them, the ability to deliver fresh food and vital supplies. This means that in the reality of a grid down, post-disaster society, what you have on hand at the time of the incident is all you will have to help you survive.
*CLASSIC BIG CITY IMPACTS – In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, every “this is what will happen in a big city” type of impact you’ve ever heard about is exactly what we’ve seen come to fruition. How many reports have we seen of looting, violent home invasions and crime, people going without food and clean water and a lack of basic sanitation? Those nightmare scenarios and disaster bogey men are quite real and we should plan for them accordingly. Most often the oldest advice is the best in this situation: If you can get out of a big city before disaster strikes, you should do so.
*CASCADING FAILURES – When you have a destructive event the magnitude of Superstorm Sandy, infrastructure failure is inevitable. We’ve already mentioned the how Sandy decimated the power grid and communication systems in the impacted areas, but even with those issues the problems are only beginning. There is also the very immediate and impactful problem of ground level destruction that usually surrounds any major disaster, especially a natural disaster. Flooding, downed trees, no public transportation, fires (from lightning, downed power lines, broken gas lines, etc.) all present very real “secondary” problems in a post-disaster landscape. That means that homes will be damaged, that roads and bridges may be blocked or damaged and that entire sections of the city could be inaccessible. All of this will play havoc with the relief efforts and will severely limit the movement of aid and supplies. Surviving the initial disaster is only the first act of this tragedy. After the storm, you have to begin the hard work of recovery, assuming you are not injured and have overcome the shock that is certain to be associated with such an event. Fresh water and food will be scarce, so nutrition and energy will be in deficit. There will be minimal fuel to run the equipment necessary to begin clean up efforts and there will be no easy means to re-supply because the pumps will not operate without power. In a regional disaster, there will presumably be help pouring in from other parts of the country, but if that aid cannot reach those in need what good can it do? If aid and supplies cannot get in, then it is reasonable to assume that emergency first responders like the police and fire departments will also not be able to access the impacted areas. When there is no police presence in an area following a disaster, we have seen time and again that criminals will fill the vacuum and take advantage of the situation. This presents a safety and security threat for you and your family that must be considered. In the days following Sandy’s land fall, groups were going house to house on Staten Island announcing themselves as members of the National Guard, shouting that if no one answered the door they would bust in just to look for survivors. In each case, they were looters.
This is the harsh reality of a post-disaster existence, at least in the days immediately following the event. One problem triggers another and you and your family find that you are now being crushed by a series of cascading failures that has shifted your reality and changed the course of life as you know it. Would you be able to hold your own until help arrives?
Disaster strikes knocking out the power and communications, roads and bridges are blocked or damaged, or the areas impacted are just too dangerous to enter, help cannot get to those that need it most and even your personal safety is under threat. This is your new reality, even if it’s for (hopefully) the short term. This is why we feel the question of whether or not to prepare is a mute point. We believe it is only prudent to take steps now, when you are not dealing with a crisis, so that you and your family can have peace of mind knowing you will be able to better deal with any disaster situation that you may encounter.
Although immensely destructive and deadly, Superstorm Sandy could prove to be a blessing going forward for those that are suffering her impacts today. It is hard for me to believe that the extremely hard lessons taught by Sandy will not change the future behaviors of those that were in her path. Sandy struck a blow at the beating heart of America, unleashing her wrath on some of our country’s most dense population centers. America’s major media markets were also directly impacted by Sandy, so her destruction was on display for the world to see. If the populace of these United States has not seen the horrors and learned the lessons necessary to shake them to action after what we’ve witnessed from Sandy, then I don’t know what will. It is our hope that out of the pain and suffering brought by yet another natural disaster, we will see a nation of survivors snap back and rebuild their relationships and their communities stronger and more vibrant than ever.