The toll and trauma from Sandy continue to mount with cost estimates skyrocketing. Sandy could end up with a price tag higher than Katrina's. And the heartbreaking reality that the devastated neighborhoods will take years to put back together, and will never be the same, has set in.
Where will the money come from to rebuild? Many people had no flood insurance. What will they be allowed to rebuild? What should they be allowed to rebuild? Where can they go in the meantime in a region famous for high rents and housing challenges. These are extremely difficult questions to answer.
Other states have gone through this wrenching slog after major hurricane disasters, of course. Florida after Andrew; Louisiana after Katrina; Texas after Ike. Things HAVE TO change. But it's a staggeringly difficult process for the governments and the people in the middle of it.
And there are mountains of other questions that need answers. The biggest one, of course, how did a well predicted storm that did well predicted things cause so much hardship and death?
Bad storms do bad things, but when we know the bad things are coming, and hundreds of thousands of people don't protect themselves, a hard look at the processes and policies that were executed is required.
The National Weather Service does a "Service Assessment" after every major, deadly event to determine what they did right and what needs to be fixed. I've been interviewed for a number of Service Assessments after big hurricanes over the years, and my impression was that they were rigorously and impartially done.
But last week, the Weather Service canceled the Sandy assessment just a week into the process. They obviously knew the stakes were high this time because they took the extraordinary step of having a private-sector meteorologist, Mike Smith of Accuweather, co-chair the survey and report. But, somebody decided that the extraordinary events - and perhaps the extraordinarily tragic outcome - of the storm called for a different and broader-based approach. Who made the decision to cancel, and exactly why the decision was made has not been, to the best of my knowledge, released.
There's no doubt in my mind that Mike Smith and the National Weather Service team would have made a detailed and accurate assessment of the questionable decisions - which I and others have roundly criticized - involving NHC advisories and the bulletins issued by local offices within the NWS's Eastern Region. But the fact is, the communications problems in Sandy reached to New York City, Trenton, Albany, and beyond.
Hopefully the rethinking of the process will mean a more extensive and far-reaching analysis so we can fully learn the lessons from Sandy... as opposed to obscuring the lessons in a cloud of finger-pointing. We'll see.
It's natural to focus on New York City because the organizations that handle emergencies there - from the Mayor's office to emergency management - are, in general, the biggest and best at what they do. But CLEARLY there was a breakdown. Sandy's storm-surge was accurately forecast to inundate the low-lying parts of the region. Somehow, as good as they are, the emergency planning and communications team in New York City did not seem to understand or plan for this scenario.
It's important for the city to learn what went wrong, but it's equally important for other emergency planners to learn as well. It will be difficult for the professional and dedicated people in New York to subject their decision-making processes to the kind of examination that should be undertaken, but it should be undertaken just the same.
Two facts highlight the problem. On Saturday, October 27th, the First Selectman of Fairfield, CT, Michael Tetreau, announced an evacuation order to be completed by 11 PM that Sunday, saying they "could see flooding that exceeds the damage from the 1938 hurricane". Yet the message from Mayor Bloomberg that same day carried nothing like that urgency.
Also, we now know that an untold number of New York City firefighters and policemen stayed in their homes near the water, only to end up leaving in the middle of the storm in a nightmare evacuation... lashing family members together to hang on through the raging water. These are people that understand that really bad crap happens in the world. You'd think that an NYC firefighter, if anybody, would have taken action to protect his family if he understood that the ocean was going to come surging through the house. That was exactly the forecast, but that, obviously, did not come through in the messaging.
Communicating evacuations is tricky business. It includes motivational speaking and step-by-step explanation... and extensive repetition. Nobody wants to leave their home and the natural instinct is to rationalize 1000 reasons why to NOT evacuate. Leadership combined with motherly love is required.
None of the governors and certainly not the Mayor did this according to best practices, even though the storm and the forecast provided every opportunity. Hopefully Sandy will be THE teachable moment that will instill better communications planning and yields a system that can lead people though the mental process of understanding the threat and taking the right action.
On another front, word also came out last week that the National Weather Service is looking for a CFO to develop a plan to do the NWS's work with fewer people. As poor as the decision-making of the Weather Service management was during Sandy, that's a separate issue from staffing. They don't have enough people in many local NWS offices now. This is a serious problem.
The National Weather Service has had a PR problem in Congress for some time. I testified at a Senate hearing in the 90s when they were talking about getting rid of the Commerce Department and privatizing many National Weather Service functions. I said then, and I say now, you don't want the standards of the nation's weather-data collection, analysis, forecasting, and warning system set by the lowest bidder and profit incentives. You want the standards to be absolute and extremely high.
The hearings were mostly political grandstanding. Everybody who testified on the day I was there said it was a bad idea, and thankfully good sense prevailed. But the PR problem remains.
Unfortunately, if you had to pick a body that doesn't have a reputation for good decision-making these days it would be the U.S. House of Representatives. And they have the purse strings. Add to that the NWS messaging malfunction during Sandy and it's a recipe for budget cuts that would do real damage to our nation's weather-warning system. There is reason for significant concern.
And the real problems of the toxic mix of flood, homeowners,and hurricane insurance continue to mount as well. I keep promising more on that and I'll get there. Stay tuned.