Hurricane Sandy and the Resilience of Cities

Stephen DeAngelis

November 5, 2012

“New Yorkers are known for their resilience,” writes Deborah L. Jacobs. “But Hurricane Sandy was a whack on the side of the head.” [“How Do You Spell Resilience?Forbes, 30 October 2012] Nevertheless Jacobs is optimistic. “No doubt New Yorkers all over the Metro area will improvise other ways to cope,” she writes. From his home in Vermont, environmentalist Bill McKibben watched in awe and horror as the devastating effects of Sandy rolled over the eastern U.S. coastline. In an interview with Amy Goodman, McKibben stated:

“The storm was completely amazing—the lowest barometric pressures ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras. The storm surge in New York City broke all the records, and the records go back to 1821. It broke them by large margins. [It was] just [an] astonishing storm in size. As it came over all that warm water up the East Coast, it just kept growing and deepening. And, of course, by now, everyone has seen the images of what happened in the city, a kind of — kind of horrible sort of vulnerability watching the water pour into subway tunnels, watching the Lower East Side turn into a kind of extension of the East River, and, of course, the great joy in watching resilient New Yorkers coping, as well as could possibly be imagined, with a truly amazing situation.” [“Bill McKibben on Resilience of New York City Residents Amidst Worst Storm Since 1821,” Democracy Now, 30 October 2012]

Sadhbh Walshe writes, “Although [New York] is no stranger to catastrophe, both natural and man-made, the wreckage left in Sandy’s wake is testing the city’s resilience.” [“Wreckage left in Sandy’s wake tests city’s famous resilience,” Irish Times, 2 November 2012] Walshe reports on current conditions:

“As of [November 1st], lower Manhattan was still without power, creating a surreal situation reminiscent of cold war Berlin where half of the city was overloading on business as usual, while the other, by force of circumstances, was taking a break from it all in the dark. On the east side, 40th street is separating those with power and those without. On the west side 25th street is the demarcation line. For those living south of this artificial border, the novelty of trying to survive modern life without modern appliances is starting to wear off. … The biggest challenge for New Yorkers at the moment is getting to work. You can try to imagine what the traffic is like in an already grid-locked city when many of the 5.2 million daily subway users are forced to commute by car or bus. Some intermittent subway service had resumed on Wednesday night but the lines for buses to take commuters over the bridges in Brooklyn and Queens were stretching hundreds of yards yesterday morning. Even those lucky enough to have trains running all the way to their offices were emerging ashen and defeated after their commute. In a few days’ time, hopefully, the lights will be back on, the subway will be running again and New York will be back to business as usual. It’s going to take a little longer, however, for the memory of Sandy’s wrath to truly fade.”

My company, Enterra Solutions, is based in Pennsylvania and our headquarters suffered power outages as well as disruptions in both phone and internet services as a result of Hurricane Sandy. However, the devastation experienced along the coast surpassed anything we had to deal with and our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the storm; especially, those who were injured or lost loved ones. The news reports of the damage and the efforts to deal with it started me thinking about cities and their resiliency. In two recent posts (Will Cities Save Us? and Tapping the Economic Power of Mega-Cities), I discussed how important cities are to the future of the planet and how big data is going to help improve the quality of urban life. Since many of the world’s largest and most dynamic cities lie near to the coast, they are subject to kind of natural disaster represented by Hurricane Sandy. That means that governments and businesses must be prepared to deal with disruptions in services as well as do all they can to mitigate the consequences of natural disasters. I believe that big data will play an increasingly important role in helping government officials and business executives to do just that.

 

There are bound to be a lot of lessons learned in the aftermath of Sandy. For example, one New York hospital had back-up generators located on the 13th floor well out of harm’s way of the flooding that affected the city. Surprisingly, however, the pumps that provided lubricating oil for the generators were located in the flooded basement and, as a result, the hospital had to be evacuated. The telecommunications sector also discovered some new things about its disaster plans. Anton Troianovski and Sarah Portlockat reported that following Sandy’s landfall “some of America’s most densely populated neighborhoods remained without wireless service, highlighting new risks as more people drop landline phones.” [“Outages Expose Wireless Carriers’ Backup Plans,” Wall Street Journal, 1 November 2012]

 

One sector that did respond quickly (and could do so because it had made preparations) was the retail sector. The sector was motivated both by opportunity and humanitarianism. Shelly Banjo reported:

“Retail chains seized on the selling opportunity created by Sandy this week as consumers with flooded homes and damaged roofs flocked to stores to begin what will likely be weeks of cleanup in the aftermath of the powerful storm. Shoppers lined up at some Home Depot Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. stores, … snagging necessities such as chain saws for clearing fallen trees and sump pumps to remove water or sewage from basements. Demand was particularly strong for generators, which can run as much as $1,500, from hundreds of thousands of people who are expected to remain without power through the weekend and perhaps longer. Big-box retailers are accustomed to leveraging their transportation and supply-chain networks to respond quickly to natural disasters. They said they were ready after Sandy to serve the swaths of people looking to rebuild their homes and return to everyday life.” [“Big-Box Retailers Spring Into Action,” Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2012]

Banjo reports that even though many store shelves had been stripped bare prior to the storm’s arrival, retailers worked feverishly to resupply stores so that supplies would be available in storm’s aftermath. That kind of planning and movement of goods is aided by supply chain visibility and close collaboration. Banjo reports, for example, that “Home Depot this year for the first time pre-loaded trucks of supplies and asked truck drivers to spend the night in rest stops, parking lots, and hotels inside the storm’s path.” All concerned deserve a pat on the back for their efforts. The military, which is also accustomed to responding to disasters, reacted quickly and effectively.

 

Despite some excellent efforts there is still more that can be done. Tom Teixeira, a London-based Life Sciences Practice Leader in Willis Global Markets International, writes:

“There is still not enough alignment between the procurement function and group risk. The silo mentality – driven by localised Profit & Loss (P&L) accounts – has created opposing objectives, such as procurement trying to significantly reduce inventory and group risk and operations trying to reduce the level of business interruption should disasters occur.” [“Hurricane Sandy Will Reveal the Cost of Poor Supply Chain Management,” WillisWire, 30 October 2012]

In the midst of recovery, there have been stories of heroism, sacrifice, and hard work. Picking themselves from amidst the rubble, New Yorkers have struggled mightily to get back to work. In higher areas, stores opened almost immediately. In Manhattan and Staten Island, where most of the flooding occurred, it was a different story. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters, “People are transitioning from shock to real-world problems of how do you get water and how do you get food.” [“New York struggles back to working life,” by Shannon Bond, Financial Times, 1 November 2012] In the aftermath of Sandy, the editorial staff at the Financial Times wrote:

“[The] landfall of hurricane Sandy in New York and surrounding areas is a reminder of nature’s awesome power. … As one might expect from a country with America’s can-do spirit, the response has been impressive. Not only have the emergency services performed heroics, the clean-up has proceeded apace. Only days after much of New York’s subway system was submerged under feet of water, large parts have returned to service. But even this burst of resolve cannot disguise a bigger inconvenient truth: that New York and much of the eastern seaboard lie increasingly at nature’s mercy.” [“Superstorm Sandy sounds a warning,” 1 November 2012]

John Gapper writes, “Rivals may spy opportunity in the city’s travails – some will drop hints to employers and exchanges that they ought to move somewhere safer and dryer. But New York is not the only large metropolis perched by the coast or a tidal harbour. We are witnessing the future.” [“New York’s ascent meets the rising ocean,” Financial Times, 31 October 2012] The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) agrees with Gapper and other analysts that “cities and local governments need to get ready, reduce the risks and become resilient to disasters.” [“Making Cities Resilient“] Its website states:

“National governments, local government associations, international, regional and civil society organizations, donors, the private sector, academia and professional associations as well as every citizen need to be engaged in reducing their risk to disasters. All these stakeholders need to be on board, take on their role and contribute to building disaster resilient cities.”

Although cities like New York have shown remarkable resiliency, I agree that there is more that can be done. The answers begin with data and the analytics that provide actionable insight for private and governmental leaders. In the days ahead, I intend to write more about what can be done to make cities more resilient.