October 11, 2015

Hurricane Sandy

We think of extreme climatic events as happening only in this past few decades, but there were events that fundamentally altered our country’s demography in the 1920’s and 1930’s and 1950’s, and were more devastating than what we are now experiencing.

The Mississippi River flooded in 1927 and had short and long term impacts. In those floods, 700,000 people lost their homes and Herbert Hoover became a hero for his leadership in flood relief efforts, which propelled him into the Presidency in 1928. The flooding disaster triggered acceleration in the migration by African Americans from the Southern delta farm areas to Northern cities, which was part of a major migration by African Americans from South to North between 1915 and 1970. It also resulted in a significant increase in federal control of waterways and flood control systems across the country.

The 1930’s also brought extreme weather patterns, this time in the form of extreme droughts. The Wessel Living History description of these droughts characterized them as the worst droughts in America in the last 300 years.


The droughts covered about 80% of the United States in 1934 and were repeated in 1936, 1938 and 1940. They precipitated major population migrations from the Great Plains states to California, as farmers simply abandoned their now-barren farms and made their way west. California’s attempt to stop people from migrating into the State by policing its borders was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941. This decision, Edwards v. California, helped pave the way for the future Civil Rights Act of 1964 by articulating a constitutional right to interstate travel for a citizen of the United States. That constitutional right enabled Congress to eliminate racial barriers to interstate travel 23 years later.

The 1938 Category 3 Hurricane that hit Long Island (the strongest storm to hit the Northeast in the past century) permanently altered the geography of that area by breaking through the single barrier island and creating four separate barrier islands along the Island’s south shore, including Fire Island, the longest of the barrier islands.

Hurricanes Connie and Diane hit New England five days apart in 1955, and brought over 12 inches of rain to the region. Over 200 people died in these storms.

We are now dealing with the short term consequences of another natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, and, just as these prior disasters created long term impacts, I believe that Sandy will be a catalyst for long term change. What I hope we think about how to rebuild and re-plan our infrastructure and our lifestyles to mitigate the impact of the natural disasters that will inevitably recur.

None of us can know whether we are moving into a prolonged period of extreme weather, but we should not let this terrible tragedy pass without being humbled by the forces of nature and without taking time to draw the maximum possible learning from the storm. What are some of these possible big lessons?

  • Although most of our natural disasters since World War II have happened in predictably risky areas, such as hurricanes in the Southeast and earthquakes on the West Coast, weather events can happen almost anywhere. What makes a weather event a disaster is not an absolute level of natural forces, but a gap between those forces and the preparedness of a community for them. The northeast is unlikely to become a hurricane-plagued region like Florida or the Gulf Coast, but storms hitting our area are exposing weaknesses in our infrastructure, in our land use planning, and in our insurance policy coverage for floods.

The worst natural disaster to hit my immediate neighborhood was the March, 2010, storm which had no name, because the winds never reached tropical storm levels. However, the combination of 35-40 mile per hour winds which lasted for 16 hours, plus four inches of rain in an already ground-soaked area, led to more fallen trees and downed power lines than what happened in much more powerful storms. Our neighborhood did not lose all that many trees this time, because we lost so many of our vulnerable trees in 2010 and in Hurricane Irene in 2011. That no-name storm exposed more vulnerabilities among our natural vegetation systems, because it combined water and sustained winds.

We have a great deal of difficulty responding to natural disasters with five characteristics:

  • Those that hit a wide geographic area, since the recovery effort cannot be concentrated in a single cluster of communities;
  • Those that create power outages due to thousands of local problems, as opposed to a single power line break. This recovery effort is much slower because each power line restoration benefits a relatively small number of people; and
  • Those which create irreparable damage to old, hard-to-replace infrastructure. The combination of the force of this storm and the damage done by salt water accumulations is making it more likely that some of the damage will be far more difficult to repair.
  • Those which hit communities in which access to water is controlled by electricity, such as more remote areas of Stamford and other towns in which people depend on well water.
  • Those which hit communities that have many geographically isolated residences. Even in our built-up part of Connecticut, we have many residents in isolated wooded areas and, obviously, because of our proximity to Long Island Sound, residents who live in isolated beach communities. They value privacy, but, with privacy, comes a need to prepare better for natural weather events.
  • We need to re-examine whether states and the federal government should support building major residential structures and commercial and retail spaces so close to major tidal water bodies. Wind damage can arise anywhere, but flooding is clearly more likely to occur in certain locations more than others. A great deal of lower Manhattan is located too close to ground level, often on landfill. As we recover from this storm, we need to ask whether that continues to make sense.

The best strategy may be to allow rebuilding, but to eliminate all floor insurance subsidies in these zones and let the market price insurance at the appropriate level of risk, and to issue much stricter building codes.

  • We have become more dependent on continuous access to electricity for so many daily tasks, including the powering of our telecommunications systems, our data centers, the ability to get cash from bank ATM machines, the pumping of gas at service stations, our financial services transactions (the local coffee shop, which had a small generator, only had enough power for a relatively limited menu, and could not process credit transactions when it lost power from the local utility.) Our power grid is more important than ever, and, yet, we have less understanding of how vulnerable it is than we have ever had. I particularly get angry at local residents who defend the right to protect large trees close to vital overhead electric power lines when utilities attempt to trim back those trees.

We need to think more about some of our long term transitions from physical media communications to electronic communications. We are more dependent than ever on electronic transactions, which is inevitable, but the robustness of our electronic transaction infrastructure and its ability to withstand events like this has not yet kept pace. The New York Stock Exchange should not have needed to close for two days, but its all-electronic capability, while possibly the best in the world, should be able to operate somewhere else for the duration of the storm and its recovery effort, as Arthur Levitt, former Chairman of the SEC pointed out in an op-ed piece in the November 7, 2012, issue of The Wall Street Journal. online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204349404578099352057659538.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

  • Tidal flooding of salt water carries many additional risks, including the contamination of fresh water supplies, the corrosion of metal and electrical components, the creation of conditions for mold to grow inside buildings, and the potential for severe environmental pollution as the receding tidal waters carry many contaminants well beyond their points of origin. Siting vital infrastructure near the ocean or tidal estuaries like Long Island Sound is very risky.
  • As my wife and I have learned, the attempt to address electric power outages by installing a generator is only one step in an emergency preparedness process. The generator needs a source of fuel, which, for many people, including close friends of ours, is gasoline. The shortage of gasoline because of power outages at service stations is affecting their ability to keep generators going.

Right now, the worst traffic snarls are in many spots are at the gas stations that had both electric power and gasoline. When there is catastrophic damage to an area, the supply lines for items that enable people to withstand the loss of power or other necessities get damaged as well.

  • The differences between wealthier, more socially cohesive communities, and less wealthy and less socially cohesive communities become even more pronounced in the event of a natural disaster. I heard horror stories from people living in other communities who were without power, and, as a result, had no telephone or Internet service, no hot water for bathing, no access to hot meals at home, and no ability to watch TV or listen to their radios at home.

Meanwhile, in Darien, the library stayed open until 11 pm each night to give people access to the Internet and to lighted, heated places for children to study and parents to relax. It was very crowded, but it was made available to everyone who could get to it.

Friends with electric power, either because they did not lose it, or because they had a generator, made their homes available to others who needed a place to bathe or cook.

Socially conscious people made packaged food available to the local food bank for people less fortunate. The food bank has created a network of drivers to collect donated foods, which it has requested be dropped off at polling places in town tomorrow, and to distribute them to poorer members of the community.

Local government officials are very civic-minded, but much of the sense of sharing comes from the voluntary acts of people who routinely care for one another in a way that I do not see in other communities. As we think about how to create more just and equal societies, we need to appreciate how much of the wealth and quality of life in a community derives from the activation of collective support systems.

  • However, there is more to be done. Real-time traffic, gasoline, power availability, and food information systems are not very good in these situations. For traffic, there is a wonderful online traffic information application called Waze, which works differently from Google or Traffic.com, because it depends largely on information supplied by members who are in motor vehicles, or who spot problems as pedestrians. It has been quite useful for advising local residents which streets to avoid because of power line or tree removal efforts. It is like a Wikipedia for traffic management, and it is far better in contributing real-time information than the centralized traffic management systems available on the radio, TV, or on bigger online systems. We need systems like this to give residents who have smart phones the ability to know where and where to go.

I am contributing to the broad effort to create a 4th Regional Plan for the Tri-State Region, an effort spearheaded by the Regional Plan Association. I feel strongly that setting standards about how to prepare for, and respond to, major weather and other cataclysmic events will be a much bigger part of our long-term planning than it has been in the past century of long-term planning events.