Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Lessons from Sandy

Preparedness in the face of natural disasters is an obligation governments must bear all the more as global warming intensifies their impact, writes Mohsen Zahran

Al-Ahram Weekly

Along with the rest of the world, we followed the news of Hurricane Sandy as it swept up the eastern seaboard of the US, threatening the lives and property of people in eight states, especially in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Local and federal authorities had to caution some 40 million people against the dangers of this unprecedentedly huge and vicious storm. But thanks to advanced satellite and meteorological technology, it was possible to monitor Sandy’s progress, to predict when it would head north from the Caribbean, and to identify the major centres it would strike, thereby enabling the implementation of precautionary measures to minimise human and economic loss.
The damage that Sandy wrought as it tore through the Caribbean made it clear just how destructive this hurricane was. Having claimed hundreds of casualties and decimated residential communities and tourist and recreational sites there, Sandy notified American cities to the north of exactly what it had in store for them. To prepare for this, President Barack Obama declared states of emergency for several states, rendering them eligible for federal financial aid and relief services, while several state governments acted similarly for cities and towns that would fall in Sandy’s trajectory. In addition, two days before the hurricane would hit land at Atlantic City, New Jersey, numerous precautionary measures were implemented, notably:
- Schools, government offices and the New York Stock Exchange were closed.
- The operations of underground and surface transportation networks were suspended.
- Some 350,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas that would be affected by the storm.
- Commercial and US naval vessels docked in the area’s ports were moved out to sea.
- Hospitals, the Red Cross and civil defence units were put on alert.
- The National Guard was brought in to assist employees in local utility and public service administrations and to guard evacuated areas.
- Private vehicles were banned from using public thoroughfares except in cases of emergency.
- Media outlets were instructed to publicise up-to-the-minute reports on developments related to the storm.
On Tuesday night, 30 October 2012, the mammoth hurricane struck the states of New Jersey and New York, and particularly the coastal New York City, the world’s capital of trade and finance, destroying docks and yachts, seaside resorts and coastal residential areas. Torrential rain and high-tide seas flooded streets under several feet of water which, in New York City, poured into the subways and flooded the tunnels connecting Manhattan with other parts of the city and New Jersey. The rushing floods swept through the streets and into houses throughout the 12 long hours of this unprecedentedly huge hurricane whose flood-related damage was exacerbated by the fact that it coincided with a high tide.
But emergency and relief teams speedily moved to the rescue of the stranded and to put out fires that broke out in some 100 houses. Meanwhile, utility repair teams set to work to restore electricity to 10 million people, to get transportation services in operation again, to remove fallen trees and debris, and to pump out water from flooded homes and buildings. Initially, government authorities estimated that Sandy had caused $15 billion worth of damage. They subsequently raised the figure to $50 billion.
In spite of the early warning, precautions, repeated alerts, and material and human resources support at all levels, there were certain other measures that US local and federal authorities could have taken. Had they done so, they would have averted considerable material and human loss, and the breakdown of utility networks and businesses for several days. Whether contingency planners were unaware of the necessity, or simply forgot, they should have:
- Cut off electricity and gas for the 12-hour period of the storm. Naturally, they would have given sufficient advanced notification to people beforehand. Implementing this measure would have saved hundreds of houses from fire caused by falling electricity poles. The current could then have been turned back on as soon as the storm passed and the electricity grid was tested for safety.
- Constructed steel gates to seal off the entrances to the Metro and installed large underground drainage tanks that would have collected flood waters and could then have been emptied out as soon as the storm had passed. These precautions would have prevented heavy damage to the subway grid and subway cars, and enabled the resumption of operations soon after the storm passed. Unfortunately, since such measures were not taken, the subway system is still out of order and repair work is expected to continue for several more days.
- Study maritime currents and construct barriers and levees in coastal areas. Certainly, such precautions would have protected seaside facilities from flooding caused by the onslaught of high waves and spared the economy billions of dollars worth of damage.
- Warned private yacht and boat owners to bring their vessels to shore and house them temporarily until the storm passed.
- Sheathed and anchored large trees located next to major roads or houses, thereby preventing them from falling and killing people, destroying property or damaging electricity lines. Many of the casualties from the storm were the result of trees falling on their cars or homes.
- Create special storm drainage networks separate from the normal drainage networks in coastal areas.
- Redesign coastal urban strips to better equip them against natural disasters.
- Create citizen defence teams equipped with the necessary training to assist government authorities in times of natural disasters and similar emergencies.
- Establish specialised natural disaster and emergency administrations endowed with the necessary material, technical and human resources. These administrations would be required to hold periodic drills throughout the year and to remain constantly prepared to contend with any emergency situation.
- Enact laws and regulations to ensure that all public institutions, especially schools, hospitals and government administrations, as well as commercial and industrial establishments, conduct regular drills and training courses for their staff on the emergency procedures to be followed in the event of earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and other such crises, as is already the case in airplanes and ocean liners. Sufficient funding should be made available for this purpose.
The foregoing analysis underscores how necessary it is for relevant authorities to be equipped with the necessary resources and potential to prepare for and contend with the challenges posed by natural disasters. Certainly, if government authorities follow guidelines such as those described above, they would avoid unnecessary risks and pitfalls and spare the state and society considerable human and material loss.
I can only pray that God spares Egypt from such cruel natural disasters. In addition to our 2,500 kilometre long coastline, our country is located along a major fault line and has experienced a number of earthquakes in recent years. It is only logical that we should heed the lessons that Sandy and earlier disasters, such as the catastrophic Tsunami in Japan a year ago, have taught us. Perhaps the foremost among these lessons is that global warming has heightened the likelihood of natural disasters and increased their magnitude. Surely this is all the more reason why we should take all appropriate measures and precautions to avert as much of the destruction they can cause as possible, rather than repenting for having left these matters until it was too late.

The writer is emeritus professor of planning at the University of Alexandria.

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