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Sandy's Pain and Gain

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For some the story of Superstorm Sandy is a set of images on a TV screen, while for others it is cold, fear and misery. I live in a part of Manhattan that was relatively unscathed by the storm, but have a summer home in Long Beach, New York that took in three feet of water during the height of the storm. My two sisters and parents live in Long Beach and had to evacuate from their homes, and so over the past week I have seen the storm and its response from several different perspectives.

When I was in Long Beach this past Saturday, I was impressed by the spirit of my neighbors and the visible presence of government everywhere. I saw a policeman give a box of MREs (meals ready to eat) to an elderly woman and then patiently explain to her how to prepare the meal for use. My next door neighbor, one of the quiet heroes of this horror, had already removed my furniture from my flooded first floor and patiently explained to me what I needed to do to access help from FEMA and my insurance company. I saw teenagers walking down the street distributing bottled water from a red wagon to anyone who needed it. While Long Beach had temporarily lost electricity, water and sewage, it had not lost its soul and spirit. For many the pain of loss was not far from the surface, but so too was the desire to reach out and offer help to those in even greater need.

What is it about the shore and the beach that attracts us, even though we know the risk of events like Sandy? For me and many of my friends and neighbors the scent of the ocean, the feeling of sand beneath my feet and the caress of a sea breeze is worth the risk. It brings a set of emotions and memories that are too meaningful to dismiss, and will always bring us back for more.

If you live by the ocean you know its power and in some way also know that someday it will break your heart. I remember the day in 1987 that my wife and I closed on our little place in Long Beach, thinking that someday our house might be damaged by a big storm. I hoped that after the "next big one" blew through, that my house would still stand and not float or be blown away. And so when my sister e-mailed me a photo of my still-standing house, even though I knew it had been flooded, I was filled with joy knowing that my summers by the shore had not come to an end. But that joy was tempered by an almost overwhelming sadness due to the pain I witnessed. A disaster like Sandy may be inconvenient for people as lucky as I am, but can be horrific experiences for people whose lives, health, homes, possessions and livelihoods are destroyed or damaged.

My Long Beach home is a tiny, 1,000 square foot bungalow on a piece of land that is only 40 by 60 feet. It is half a block from the bay and a block and a half from the ocean. When storms come, we are in a place where the water from the bay doesn't have to go very far to meet the water from the ocean. While I know my neighbors and I will rebuild, some of the innocence of years gone by may never return. I hope I can forget the images I saw over this past week. In my case, it may be fairly simple, I am back in Manhattan, where life is already back to normal. But for many of my Long Beach neighbors, once the mandatory evacuation ends, they will be back every day struggling to bring their lives back to where they were before.

While no disaster response can ever be fast enough or perfect, this one has been impressive on many levels. There was no "fly over" like the image of George W. Bush in Air Force One during Katrina. Instead we had Chris Christie and Barack Obama working together in the mutual understanding that an aggressive, coordinated and cooperative response was both their moral responsibility and also in their political self-interest. In New York, the state and city seemed to be able to coordinate every aspect of the response, except for the press conferences. But all the federal, state and local agencies were working together and in that sense Sandy really has to be seen as the un-Katrina. Not a perfect response, and certainly the people in Staten Island, Coney Island, Redhook, Rockaway and parts of Long Island were both frustrated and angry, but the speed and energy of government action was impressive and obvious.

One deficiency that should attract our attention as soon as this disaster is over is restoration of power. Loss of power was the most predictable impact of Sandy and power restoration remains too slow. Clearly no one wants to spend the money needed to plan for these events, store replacement parts, and deploy sufficient personnel to quickly rebuild the system when it is damaged. Sophisticated power replacement drills should be conducted to simulate the tasks now being undertaken to bring the system back up. Plans should be developed for a wide variety of contingencies and contracts with private firms and other utilities should provide for greater capacity than current emergency response plans seem to call on. Slow and steady does not win this race. My suggestion is that a small surcharge be added to utility bills to provide a trust fund for a state funded power restoration program. Utilities should only be permitted to draw on these funds if they meet specific, aggressive power restoration targets.

A second issue is gasoline distribution. The long gas lines add an extra level of insecurity and fear to an already difficult situation. Once the psychology of scarcity begins, it is difficult to overcome as people keep more gasoline in their tanks than they normally do. Emergency response plans must focus more attention on keeping fuel distribution networks intact or repairing then as soon as possible.

Most of the media attention focuses on the frustration of those who have not received enough help, are waiting in gas lines, or are just plain miserable. What is missing from the story is the dedication of the people in the MTA, FDNY, NYPD, FEMA, National Guard and other government agencies working tirelessly to help people and get the region back on its feet. What is also missing is reporting on the community spirit of neighbor helping neighbor and families coming together to help each other rebuild their homes and their lives. The media presents the aspects of a story that are most interesting and can attract the largest possible audience. That is the business they are in and how they make their money. But unlike Katrina, the response to Sandy has few villains. It is a story of government, communities, families, and individuals doing their best to respond to nature's fury. It is a tough time for Long Beach and other shore communities in this region. It's going to take a long time before things are back to normal, but there are far more heroes in this story than villains.

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