Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Editorial: Some Thoughts About Hurricane Sandy One Year Later

Much of Lower Manhattan was without power for days after Sandy.
Photo via Wikipedia.
"There are many people who are still suffering," said Ann Dibble, director of the Storm Response Unit at N.Y. Legal Assistance Group. "We are seeing a lot of homeowners who are struggling to get insurance payments, whether it's homeowners or flood. We're still helping people with FEMA appeals, believe it or not." 

Who wrote those words in the past week? A conservative outlet like Daily Caller, Breitbart, or the Wall Street Journal's editorial page? No, it was the liberal New York Daily News

When Hurricane Sandy came onshore, with more hope than experience, the New York Times editorialized, "A Big Storm Requires Big Government" and extolled the virtues of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As anyone who has read Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather knows, unless you count the number of PR photo ops FEMA creates for itself by hiring local photographers right after a storm occurs, it fails at most everything it does, especially when measured against its self-generated hype. 

One might come to the conclusion (after reading Warnings as well as this piece) that I enjoy beating up on FEMA. I concede they make an easy target with all of their grandstanding -- while thousands are suffering -- in the wake of a major disaster. But, there is a far more important point, and that is:

Reasonable people can disagree as to the importance and role of FEMA. But, as long as people are told FEMA will come riding in to take care of them, they are disincentivized  to provide for themselves. Every family, when faced with a forecast of a disaster, should prepare with a full tank of gas, food and water for at least a week, and freshly refilled prescriptions. A tremendous amount of suffering would be reduced if everyone followed that rule. 

The second thing I wish to mention is the U.S. "weather enterprise" (National Weather Service, broadcast meteorologists, and private sector weather companies) did its usual outstanding job with the forecasts of Hurricane Sandy, although mistakes were made by the NWS with the threat communications. If you don't believe the forecasts were excellent, scroll back through the postings on this blog the last few days, and look at how accurate the forecasts were and how solid the preparatory suggestions turned out to be.

The third thing is my original editorial, "The National Weather Service Should Not Investigate Itself" was certainly validated by subsequent events. But, it is not only the NWS; the actions of FEMA, Red Cross, state agencies, and, yes, private sector weather companies, should be constructively evaluated by an independent agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board. That is the only way we insure that we, as a nation, don't keep making the same mistakes over and over again. 

Hurricane Sandy was by no means the "worst case scenario." In 1938, the Great Hurricane, at Category 3 intensity, destroyed huge areas of New England. This will eventually (one year or one hundreds years from now, it will occur) happen again. When it does, will we be prepared? I hope so, but I have my doubts. 

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