Failure Warning

Hurricane Sandy whipped through the densely populated coastal north east last fall. The storm was responsible for 117 deaths in the region, the majority along coastal New Jersey and New York State.  An estimated $50 billion in damages in these regions is associated with the storm.  The storm provided a humbling example of how we can be outmatched and overpowered by Mother Nature. However, she does not deserve entire credit for the damages. Poor planning should and is taking the brunt of criticism for the areas loses. Unnecessary casualties and economic lost caused by this storm are tied to transit, utility services and questionable land-use regulations among many others. Only so much can be done when confronted with storms of this magnitude, but blatant disregard and neglect is a failure that will haunt this region for years to come.


Hurricane Sandy hits the northeast. Photo from (10/20/13)

Public transit could be argued as one of the most vital pieces of infrastructure for east coast metropolises. Perhaps, this is what makes The New Jersey Transit failures so remarkable. The organizations has come under fire for its decisions and overall unpreparedness regarding the storm. At the forefront of this berate is the neglect the organization paid to flash flood warnings and its decisions of where to store valuable and expensive equipment. Disregarding the warnings and opting to use storage facilities at low level locations resulted in a loss of a third of its transit fleet. The agency backs this decision based off of the areas resilient history to flooding.  When it became apparent that hurricane Sandy was different from previous storms it was too late. This decision has perhaps received such intense criticism because it can be compared to how the same situation was handled across the river.

The New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had developed thorough plans for serious weather conditions. Extensive research regarding the city’s transit infrastructure and threats of climate change had effectively prepared it. The city took the necessary precautions to move susceptible equipment to higher ground.  Make no mistake, the city’s transit system did suffer from massive damage, but was able to negate many damages through sufficient planning and research.


Power outage in New York City. Photo from Wikipedia. (10/2-/13)

The failure that had the largest impact was that of the utility companies.  An estimate 8.5 million customers were left without power.  Again inadequate planning for global climate change and extreme conditions are at the epicenter of the criticism. Prolonged power outages can be attributed to a lack of manpower available to respond. Utility workers had to be pulled from surrounding states to assist in repairing down lines and flooded areas. Energy Consultant Steve Mitnick argues that utility companies need to start investing more for these types of disasters. Additional precautions could have be taken regarding the susceptibility of power lines to disaster forces.  Moving lines out of flood zones and tree trimming are ways to minimize damages. Tree trimming has long been a subject of debate between utility companies and neighborhood organizations. The massive power outage associated with this last storm may create some flexibility from neighborhoods. A large storms will almost always have some negative effect on utilities, but effectively controlling issues within your power will prove vital when problems start piling up.

The biggest head-scratching failure relating to Sandy deals with land use along the New Jersey shoreline.  Lenient land-use laws allow development at close proximity to the shorelines, at areas vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges. What’s even more puzzling, is after a huge storm property owners are allowed to rebuild in the same spot of their demolished property. Despite the $37 billion in damages caused from hurricane Sandy, these property owners continue to rebuild. The destruction of Sandy shouldn’t come as any surprise given this type of land-use, but the destruction does not seem to alter future policies. “There is no choice but to rebuild,” NJ governor Chris Christie states in response to changing traditional coastal development.

Aerial photos of New Jersey coastline in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Surging tides flood shoreline neighborhoods. Photo from Wikipedia. (10/20/13)

It is without doubt that the rebuilt infrastructure will be designed for stronger weather conditions after Sandy, but why are areas like coastal New Jersey still putting themselves at risk.  Changing weather conditions are going to bring in larger and more unpredictable storms. A greater understanding of these changes and adapting older planning patterns is going to prove imperative to mitigate damages. When disasters hit, and areas suffer the damages the east coast did, fingers will always point to failed planning.

One thought on “Failure Warning

  1. Just yesterday I watched an episode of This Old House, where the PBS show is covering the reconstruction of several of the Sandy-effected properties — including one in the neighborhood you’ve shown in your last photograph (where they had to raze the remnants of 55 homes). In every location the owners are rebuilding on their exact same spot, but raising their homes above flood level — some of them nearly nine feet higher, and all of them on pier pilings. I wonder how much the homeowners’ insurance and FEMA relief policies are obligating them to rebuild on their existing parcels.

    I thought that the land use jurisdictions deserve the lion’s share of the blame for permitting residential construction within the flood-prone areas. But, even if there’s some forgiveness for not knowing how drastic the flooding would be with Sandy, re-permitting construction on the same parcels after being given irrefutable proof of the sites’ propensity to flooding seems to border on criminal negligence. There seems to be a fair amount of fuzzy logic when it comes to residential construction patterns along the coasts (jurisdictions along the Pacific often do the same thing).

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