As this year’s hurricane season draws to a close today it’s a good time to consider the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the northeastern coast. While much of the national discussion has centered around the supposed culpability of global warming for the storm, there are areas of practical importance to address. Those include the need to prevent the future widespread loss of electrical power and its effect on the availability of motor fuel. The two related factors combined to delay disaster relief, adding to the human misery and economic loss caused by the storm.
The storm also underscored the inadequacy of flood protection from the surge that swamped urban areas like New York City, as well as coastal resorts. And as always, it seems, the storm emphasized the need for residents to evacuate when hurricanes are bearing down.
Although Sandy struck a wide and densely populated coastal area from southern New Jersey to Rhode Island on Oct. 29, and although the recovery effort proceeded sluggishly in the weeks following the storm, estimates place its insured losses at $22 billion, compared to $62 billion from Katrina, which struck the Mississippi coast and New Orleans in 2005.
Like Katrina, Sandy’s major damage was done not by wind but by storm surge, which reached 14 feet in some areas of Manhattan.
Because of the damage done by the storm surge to public infrastructure like the New York City subway system, and highway and rail tunnels, uninsured losses could be much higher than Katrina’s. The governors of New Jersey and New York alone have submitted requests for $78 billion in federal aid. Requests from Connecticut and Rhode Island have yet to be totaled. Altogether, Sandy’s costs may rival the $125 billion cost of Katrina.
In contrast to the widespread criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Katrina, state and local officials have praised its role in responding to the Sandy crisis.
An estimated 8.5 million people lost power in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut during the storm, and nearly 2 million were still without power a week after Sandy hit. By mid-November most homes and businesses in the region had electrical power, but over 35,000 customers in areas that were flooded still were waiting for official permission to reconnect.
The Long Island Power Authority, a government-owned distributor of electricity, garnered harsh criticism for delays in restoring power to its customers.
The power outage meant that even when wholesale gasoline supplies began to flow back into the storm area, as many as 80 percent of gas stations were unable to service customers in large areas dependent on cars for transportation.
This prolonged a fuel shortage that severely hampered voluntary organizations collecting and distributing urgently needed emergency supplies of food, clothing and other necessities, and prevented people from shopping for their own needs.
New Jersey and New York imposed gas rationing after the storm; New York’s alternate-day plan wasn’t ended until Nov. 24.
If approved by FEMA, a large chunk of the funds requested by New York and New Jersey may be used to help address key vulnerabilities of the electrical supply grid. Improvements could include raising key electrical equipment above flood level, burying above-ground electrical wires in critical areas and such grid-strengthening steps as interconnecting the power substations that distribute electricity so that the failure of one substation does not deprive customers of power.
South Carolina experienced prolonged power outages after Hugo, the last major hurricane to strike the state with full force. So there may be lessons that utilities and emergency preparedness officials can draw from the experience with Sandy.
In the Northeast, consumers are likely to be asked to bear part of the considerable burden of modernizing the power grid. But improvements will be necessary to avoid the possibility of future outages in the most densely populated area of the United States, or of having the nation’s financial center brought to its knees again.