Hurricane Sandy is winding down, with winds and rain lingering across the nation, but the full magnitude of the damage – including vanished homes, destroyed communities and infrastructure in shambles – may remain unclear for some time.
More than 8.2 million people are without power in the region, and it may be months before power is completely restored. One Connecticut resident called it a “100-year-mess.”
“We never had floods like this before. We made preparations but it didn’t do any good,” the resident said.
Many of the shattered areas are heavily wooded, and electrical service cannot be restored until fallen trees are removed and paths are made for power company repair vehicles. The same trees that were responsible for some of the dozens of fatalities are also hampering relief efforts. Reports from New Jersey say that “they are still looking for people.”
Travel in and out of the region was hamstrung by a cessation of all forms of transportation. Airlines canceled more than 20,000 flights, and surface transportation was stopped in and out of major cities.
The storm mangled the New York City subway system, flooding tunnels, garages and rail yards, and threatening to paralyze the country’s largest mass-transit system. All underground approaches to and from the city under the East River from Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn took on water, and much of the system’s electrical components must be cleaned of salt-water before the system can be restored.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was closed for 18 hours along with two other major bridges, effectively cutting off the Delmarva Peninsula from the rest of Maryland and Virginia.
The paralyzed transportation infrastructure also disrupted food supplies to the stranded in those areas.
After the storm surge flooded homes and businesses, fires followed. The Breezy Point community on the western edge of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens was devastated by more than 100 fires.
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According to IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm, Hurricane Sandy will cost more than $20 billion in property damage and $10 billion to $30 billion more in lost business, making it one of the costliest natural disasters on record in U.S. history.
What happened during Hurricane Sandy will be the study for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for many months to come.
Stories of the breakdown of communications and services abound.
Nuclear plants in the region shut down as the storm hit the coast with a surge reaching six feet above sea level. The Salem Nuclear Generating Station in Lower Alloways Creek, N.J., was shut down Oct. 30 because four of its six circulating water pumps were no longer available. The pumps are used to condense steam and recirculate the water on the electrical generating side of the plant, outside the radiation containment area.
Another generating station in New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest nuclear generating facility, was shut down for refueling. But high water levels at the station prompted safety officials to declare what was designated as “unusual event.” Later, the status was upgraded to “alert,” two levels below the highest “general emergency” status. The station is now off alert status.
A power failure resulting from the storm caused over 2 million gallons per hour of raw sewage to overflow out of a water reclamation plant in Savage, Md., into the Little Patuxent River, according to the Associated Press. Because of the severity of Hurricane Sandy, no immediate action was taken to mitigate the damage.
In New York City, a backup generator failed at the New York University Tisch Hospital, forcing nurses to move out more than 200 patients, including 20 babies from neonatal intensive care unit. Dozens of ambulances lined up around the block as doctors and nurses began the slow process of evacuation. Some patients were on respirators operating on battery power.
Without power, there were no elevators, and patients had to be carried down the emergency stairwells by hospital staff. Because all the computers were down, the patient medical records could not be accessed. Doctors had to accompany the patients to other hospitals to brief the receiving hospital staff personally on the patient’s condition, greatly slowing the process.
A Philadelphia report said that emergency personal would not respond to calls in the face of hurricane force winds. Chester County, Pa., emergency services officials said that, for the safety reasons, they would discontinue response to all calls in winds in excess of 50 mph or wind gusts over 65 mph. Emergency personnel helped citizens who came to the station only when it was considered a danger to release them back into the weather.
If Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami are any indications, Hurricane Sandy may cause problems in cyberspace as well. Just as they did during the previous disasters, cyber criminals are likely to take advantage of the historic storm to make money or steal personal information from victims and those wanting to help.
Facebook postings, tweets, emails and websites claiming to have exclusive video or pleading for donations for disaster relief efforts will begin to appear. These messages often include malicious code, called malware, that can infect computers and steal a user’s passwords and banking information.
Since the debacle that was Hurricane Katrina, emergency service agencies have been studying natural and man-made disasters to improve the effectiveness of their response.
It is said that there is a “thin veneer of civilization” that covers interactions between people. But that veneer is quickly scraped away when disaster strikes. Hurricane Sandy is just the latest example of how people react under stress. While cases of individual heroism abound, there are also stories of how the “mob mentality” overcame civility.
Mark Palazzolo, who owns a bait-and-tackle shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., told CBS3 in Philadelphia: “I got a call from a friend of mine from Florida last night who said, ‘Mark, get out! If it’s not the storm, it’ll be the aftermath. People are going to be fighting in the streets over gasoline and food.’”
Hurricane Katrina turned local neighborhoods in New Orleans into warzones, with local gangs vying for control. People were seen taking anything they could from televisions to clothing out of stores and homes before order was restored to the area.
Already, much of the same behavior that was demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in Nashville is manifesting itself in the Northeast.
The New York Daily News reported that looters descended on Coney Island, adding to the misery of the business owners.
Aisha John, a witness to the crime spree said: “People were running in and out of Rent-A-Center carrying these big flat screens. They were holding on tight. I couldn’t understand how someone could steal a big TV in broad daylight, but no one cared.”
One young man justified his behavior by saying, “Look, they’ve been looting our wallets for too long,” as he helped himself to a TV at the Rent-A-Center.
Others wheeled shopping carts full of merchandise out of a local drug store, oblivious to any danger of being arrested.
One witness said: “They looked like they were casually shopping. They looked almost happy. I saw an elderly lady walking away with batteries and a bag of Kit Kats.”
New Jersey State Police have deployed troopers at all gas stations on the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. These and other stations get quickly mobbed as tweets and Facebook postings go out saying a particular station still has food and fuel available for purchase.
Sal Risalvato, the head of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience and Automotive Association, was quoted as saying more than 80 percent of the filling stations in the state were unable to supply gasoline as of Wednesday.
Some of the stations that could not supply fuel were handicapped because of either the lack of fuel or electricity to power the pumps. Many military transports have self-powered fuel pumps on board to retrieve the gasoline and diesel, but that is used only for emergency services.
“It’s going to be an ugly few days until we can see both power and supplies restored,” Risalvato said.
Ugly indeed. As people slowly dig through the wreckage that was once their home and try to rebuild, some will start to show the same symptoms that many combat veterans exhibit, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Disasters are often unpredictable, they are out of a person’s control and can impact entire communities, breaking down established support networks.
Many people feel they cannot cope with their condition. People not only have to try to rebuild their lives, but, if they still have a job, they have to go to work and also commute to and from temporary housing, often hours away. One professor at the University of New Orleans experienced this first hand and spoke of the “Thousand Yard Stare” he saw in other professors’ and students’ faces as they tried to cope with their circumstances.
Much of the stress comes from the fact that they made no provision to get through even a day-long power outage, much less a cataclysmic event.
In Staten Island, borough president James Molinaro called the Red Cross an “absolute disgrace” and even urged the public to cease giving them contributions.
In an interview with NBC, Molinaro said: “You know, I went to a shelter Monday night after the storm. People were coming in with no socks, with no shoes. They were in desperate need. Their housing was destroyed. They were crying. Where was the Red Cross? Isn’t that their function? They collect millions of dollars. Whenever there’s a drive in Staten Island, we give openly and honestly. Where are they? Where are they? I was at the South Shore yesterday; people were buried in their homes. There the dogs are trying to find bodies. The people there, the neighbors who had no electricity, were making soup. Making soup. It’s very emotional because the lack of a response. The lack of a response. They’re supposed to be here…. They should be on the front lines fighting, and helping the people.”
Large national disasters seem to have one thing in common, the ineffectiveness of outside service providers, especially in the first few days of the calamity. Government and non-profit agencies are increasingly advising that individuals practice a degree of self-reliance to face the challenges nature gives them.
“Preppers” may have the answer to that challenge.
According to the American Preppers Network, a prepper is a “person who takes personal responsibility and self-reliance seriously.
“Preparedness is an important part of life for a serious Prepper.”
While many do not feel the need to have a year’s supply as preppers suggest, there are some simple steps that everyone can take to prepare for an emergency.
A recent CNN article included a list of supplies that people should have on hand in the event that a hurricane is on the way.
The items include a three-day supply of water, one gallon per person per day as well as a three-day supply days of food, including: canned meats, canned or dried fruits, canned vegetables, canned juice, peanut butter, jelly, salt-free crackers, energy/protein bars, trail mix/nuts, dry cereal, cookies or other comfort food in addition to other items.
Some other items that should be in a well-supplied household are flashlights, water, batteries and toilet paper. Many people will buy lanterns and candles, but the risk of fire may be too great, especially in homes with small children.
It is suggested that for a hurricane, people need to be prepared to survive for at least a week without any help from the outside world. In the most extreme situations, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the state of emergencycan last even longer.
Also recommended is a communication plan advising friends and relatives where one would go in case of an emergency and how to get in touch.
People also need to make plans on how to secure property if it’s necessary to leave for a period of time.