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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Lessons we learned from the storm

(Or maybe, lessons we should have learned from the storm and didn't. The storm in question was Hurricane Irene, by the way.)

1. We were not ready.

In the runup to Hurricane Irene hitting the Northeast there was a lot of concern about New York City. All projected tracks indicated that there would be a direct hit on the city, with the possibility of massive devastation and loss of life. New Yorkers, being New Yorkers, generally decided to ignore evacuation orders and "tough it out," just like a lot of hurricane veterans in New Orleans decided to do during Katrina six years ago. Still, some of them chose to take precautions. I was impressed when one of my friends casually mentioned he had filled his bathtub with water - standard practice to ensure a supply of water in the event that normal supplies are cut off.

I didn't do that. I didn't think it would be necessary. Neither did a lot of people in this area.

The storm pulled a fast one on us. It jogged to the west after it made landfall in North Carolina, and it developed a bizarrely asymmetrical circulation: heavy precipitation on the west side of the storm, but little precipitation on the east. This meant that New York City was spared the worst of the storm, though there was still considerable water damage. Instead the brunt of Irene's wrath was borne by New Jersey, the New England states, - and Pennsylvania.

We were hit hard, but inconsistently. The storm was very capricious. Some areas experienced high winds and heavy rains that produced major flooding; others experienced little more than a stronger-than-usual summer storm. Two trees could be standing next to each other, and one collapsed and the other one didn't.

And a lot of trees collapsed. In Pennsylvania, falling trees or branches were the main cause of death in this storm. Falling trees were responsible for road closings, property damage, and massive power outages that lasted for days. (Some residents are still without power a week and a half since the storm hit. More on that later.)

I live in what is technically a "city." We have electricity transmitted over lines aboveground. Gas is provided through underground pipes, as is water. Sewage is carried away by other pipes. Provided that none of the gas or water mains are ruptured or sewage drains collapse or get blocked, we will continue to have water, gas for cooking, and flushable toilets in the event of a loss of electrical power.

Not so in the country. In the country water is pumped out of wells in the ground by electrically-powered pumps. And sewage is handled by septic tanks (or, in some cases, "sand hills") that use electricity to pump waste water and macerate it for digestion in the septic system. Cooking and heating are done with propane or electricity. A loss of electrical power in the country has implications far beyond those experienced in the city. In an all-electric house, not only can water not be pumped into the house for everyday use, but water also cannot be pumped out of the house for septic treatment. So a bathtub full of water will turn out to be less than useless in this case; emptying it may actually cause a backup in the septic system. Better you should have filled the bathtub with electricity.

Gasoline-powered generators will help, somewhat, in cases like this, though they are dangerous to use (several people died locally from improperly-vented exhaust fumes) and produce unconditioned power that may damage fluorescent lighting and sensitive electronic equipment. Also, as high-demand items, they may be tempting targets for thieves.

2. Utility companies were not ready.

Utility providers are corporations. Their primary concern is shareholder profits, not customer service. If profits can be maximized by cutting payrolls to the bone, that's what is done - even if it means that there is inadequate staff to deal with a major emergency. In that unlikely event, existing employees will simply be required to work harder for longer hours.

The unlikely event happened, and the utilities were not ready. Northeastern Pennsylvania is supplied electricity by two providers: PPL (formerly PP&L) and UGI.  PPL was able to address its customer outages relatively quickly, but many UGI customers still found themselves without power - or information - a week after the storm.

Individual residents were fiercely criticized for failing to be fully prepared for the consequences of the storm - generally by people completely unaffected by the storm. Apparently the expectation was that every resident would stockpile an adequate supply of water and electricity to see them through a power outage of indefinite duration. The reality is that this is beyond the capability of most individuals. But is it an unreasonable expectation that utilities be prepared for catastrophes? Because they clearly are not ready now.

3. Trees are our enemies.

I love trees. I live in Pennsylvania, a state full of forests and trees. Up until last December, my mom had many trees around her house, including an oak planted in 1977 (when it was already about five years old) and a pine planted ten years before. They were tall and they were beautiful - and they clearly needed to go. The pine's branches overhung a neighbor's property, and he had taken to parking a large and expensive RV right on the property line, directly next to and under the tree, as if he were waiting for the tree to fall on it so he could sue. The oak, on the other hand, had gradually pitched itself toward the major street in front of her house, and had a disturbing habit of self-pruning by dropping very large branches without warning. We knew that in the event of a major wind storm, one or both of these trees might be coming down with disastrous (and expensive) consequences. So, with some regret, last December my mom contacted a service to remove these two trees.  At least a dozen times since then, she has listened to the wind howl and realized that this was money well spent.

When Irene tore through this area it left behind downed trees everywhere. People died when they were hit by falling branches or trees, or when trees fell on their vehicles or residences. Trees landed on houses, or in some cases neighbors' houses. Sometimes trees fell onto vacant houses, which meant the houses would be left open and exposed to the elements until someone decided to deal with them.

Trees fell on utility lines. Sometimes it was one tree in a neighborhood cutting electrical service to a neighborhood. Sometimes it was trees in remote locations taking out major transmission lines and cutting off thousands of customers at once.

And in some cases, trees simply fell across roads and stopped the flow of traffic until they could be removed.

So what can be done? Well, preventative actions: my mom didn't have any problems with her decades-old oak or pine because she had them removed when it became clear that they might be a problem. A neighbor a block away lost an evergreen tree that had stood for some thirty-five years - it fell directly between her house and her neighbor's house, missing the neighbor's house by a few feet. But prior to that, nothing other than its size would have suggested that it posed any threat.

Some trees are dangerously close to power lines. In Northeastern Pennsylvania most power lines are aboveground. Utility companies will trim branches that are too close to power lines, but generally do not remove trees that may possibly collapse onto power lines if they should fall the wrong way. Two solutions suggest themselves: remove any trees that might pose a threat to aboveground utility lines, or bury utility lines so they cannot be threatened by falling trees.

4. Governments were not ready.

Taxes, we are told, are the price we pay for civilization. While some may dream of a Libertarian, Objectivist, or Anarchist utopia, such dreams rapidly crumble when you find access to your home, job, or essential services blocked by a tree across the road and you don't happen to have a fueled-up chainsaw in the trunk of your car. People may wonder why they pay taxes - or utility bills - when they find themselves cut off from civilization and seemingly forgotten for days at a time, when neither utility companies nor the local government appear to be willing or able to restore services or clear roads.

Much like utility companies, governments have also cut staffing and services in an effort to reduce costs. Staffing at levels that are barely adequate in the best of situations will prove to be completely inadequate in the event of a catastrophe.

What can be done? In this economy, not a lot - other than to kick the problem upstairs. Local governments may look to county or state governments for financial assistance; state governments may look to the federal government for financial assistance. In some cases these requests are amusingly ironic; in other cases state leaders have chosen to take an ideological stand and reject federal aid, to the detriment of their own citizens.

And if - when - the economy improves? Again, probably not a lot. Ideology trumps reason in many cases. When things are better, it is very easy to forget that they had ever been worse, and it is easy to accept that money set aside in preparation for disasters that may never come is money that could be better spent elsewhere - or not spent at all.

5. Some people just want chaos and carnage.

Hurricane Irene did not score a direct hit on New York City. There were no scenes of survivors who had foolishly decided to stick out the storm, huddled on rooftops waving flags, begging for rescue as the water laps at the buildings around them, water thick with the bodies of the dead.  There were no shots of cars making last-minute attempts to flee the city being blown off the George Washington bridge by the buffeting winds of the hurricane to plunge to their death in the Hudson River below, or of doomed cars racing into the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel only to be followed by floodwaters that would drown everyone below. There was no mass destruction, no mass casualties. As a disaster blockbuster, this was a flop. It certainly was no Katrina. So, obviously, this storm was nothing serious.

A week and a half after the storm, parts of New Jersey are still underwater. Parts of Pennsylvania are still without power. Parts of Vermont are without roads, and will be for some time. Irene left massive damage throughout the northeast, but apparently that wasn't enough to impress some people.

The problem may be political: Many people were looking for a disaster whose failed response could be blamed on President Obama, much as the failed response the Hurricane Katrina's devastation was blamed on the utter failure of George W. Bush's policies. But the federal government's response to this storm was more than adequate; the greatest criticism is that there was an overabundance of caution expressed prior to the storm. And so this has become a line of attack: money was wasted because we prepared for a disaster that never came! History will judge if these attacks manage to score any points.

6. There are criminals everywhere.

I haven't heard any reports of gas-powered generators being stolen while they're running, but I'm sure it's happened. There were reports of looting and petty theft throughout storm-damaged areas, in New York City as well as in the countryside. Nothing is sacred, and nowhere is safe.

7. In the event of an actual emergency, New York City is screwed.

In the days leading up to the storm officials called for New Yorkers - at least those in the most vulnerable areas - to evacuate. Very few did. Most decided to tough it out, with the New Yorker's attitude that there is nothing so bad that they can't face it. Some scoffed at the preposteroussness of an actual evacuation. How can you get eight million people out of New York City on a few days' notice?

New York City got lucky. Very lucky. Most people refused to evacuate, and most of them didn't die as a consequence. It could easily have been otherwise. If the storm had not jogged west, much of the northeast would have been spared the damage that they suffered. But New York City would have been hit that much harder.

What happens if a situation arises when New York City needs to be evacuated? Quite simply, it can't. Can't be evacuated, that is. There aren't enough escape routes to get everyone out in any reasonable amount of time. The best strategy is to be somewhere else if an emergency arises in New York City. Otherwise, odds are you're screwed.  (So what's the emergency response plan for a worst-case scenario at Indian Point nuclear power plant?)

All lessons that will almost certainly be forgotten before the next disaster rolls around.

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