October 30, 2013

It's inevitable there will be future significant catastrophic events but there are numerous things communities, government agencies and the public can do to identify and mitigate the risks and potential damage that comes with these events. This will involve a combination of technology, education, cooperation, and the political will to make hard decisions. That was the message at a conference that took place on the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. -- the "mile square" waterfront community where Sandy caused flooding in nearly 80% of the city and left almost 90% of its residents without power.

Introducing the program "After Hurricane Sandy: Lessons Learned for Bolstering Infrastructure Resilience," Stevens president Dr. Nariman Farvardin stated, "From these difficult experiences, we should learn and become better as we move forward. I've learned science and technology play a critical role in providing prediction and protection, and they should play a more critical role in … decisions and planning. I'm hoping we can learn from this experience and have more science-informed decisions in our policy making."

[CoreLogic says some 4.2 million homes are at risk of damaging storm surge: With Up to 20 Named Storms Predicted, Millions at Storm Surge Risk]

Learning from the experience of responding to Sandy's devastation was a recurring theme of the conference presentations. "Sandy should be a teachable moment," said Dr. Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, Northeastern University. "We tend to look at events like Sandy as if they are rare and unknowable -- and if so, we can't prepare for them. [But] we know they are knowable and will happen with more frequency."

One thing that Sandy should have taught us, Flynn continued, is that "we have overwhelmingly been taking our critical infrastructure for granted." He described this infrastructure as "an extraordinary investment" that is "the foundation [of] the modern urban society we are. But we're like a generation that inherited our grandparents' mansion but are unwilling to do the upkeep. It's a disgrace. When we neglect it, there's a real consequence. We see that when the system is put under real stress it will fail and fail badly. The infra that is critical to our way of life is under increasing stress. How do we design it to withstand [a catastrophe] and recover?"

Acknowledging that this will require "massive expense [and] huge investment," Flynn emphasized that "a lot of this is choreography, not technology." That is, it's about operational issues and collaboration among different types of bodies. He pointed out that catastrophes such as Sandy "are regional events" and responding through uncoordinated local, state and federal efforts tends to create more problems -- as evidenced by the chaos that ensued after Sandy as people lined up to try to get gas for their cars. "You have to prioritize on regional basis to get things up quickly," Flynn said. "Everybody taking care of themselves first turns into a food fight."

The challenge, he added, is to "make as a commitment that we are going to learn from each one of these events, [so that] data is captured and shared, we coordinate in advance to respond and recover more nimbly, and invest as we must as a nation in our critical infrastructure to make sure it's there for us when we need it."