Hurricane Sandy and Disaster Preparedness

 This originally appeared on my work blog iirrblog.com

On the evening of October 29th, Hurricane Sandy tore through the Northeast United States causing enough devastation to make it the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history. Millions of people in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut lost power, belongings, and homes. But considering the amount of damage (approaching the $50 Billion mark), there were relatively few deaths. Regardless, people will spend countless hours and money to rebuild their lives and the region is far from getting back to normal.

I live in Hoboken, NJ, one of the hardest hit areas in the aftermath of Sandy. And while all of my belongings are fine, I know that my Sandy Survival story is far from the norm. Almost two weeks after Sandy made land-fall late last Monday night, I still have no heat or hot water. I went without power for a week, and while all of this is terribly frustrating, people’s homes in Hoboken – as well as the Jersey Shore and coastal areas of New York  City - are literally gone.  As our U.S. office isn’t fully functional in Manhattan, I’ve been working out of Starbucks, and when I walk through the streets of Hoboken, I can’t seem to find the words to adequately describe the destruction. There are enormous piles of trash still remaining on many of the streets, and entire blocks of basement apartments have been ripped apart awaiting a post-flood rebuild. The storm surges of Sandy brought enough water to completely fill these basements with water and then to also submerge cars and some ground floor apartments and businesses.

Living in the Northeast, we aren’t used to hurricanes, but when Hurricane Irene was on track to be a “once-in-a-lifetime” hurricane in the Northeast last fall, it caused a considerable amount of damage on the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Northeast. So when weather forecasters predicted Sandy would be bigger and cause more damage than Irene did last year, another ”once-in-a-lifetime” storm was upon us.

I don’t think anyone in the Northeast thought Sandy would be this bad. But it was, and still is, very very bad.

And the worst part? This is likely to become the new norm.

In the US we’re lucky to have access to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local and national relief organizations to help us clean up the mess and rebuild. Within hours of Sandy making landfall last Monday, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Red Cross, and other relief organizations had set up camp in Hoboken to offer guidance, relief supplies, and a little hope. Things may be slow at times, but we have myriad resources available to us in the wake of disasters.

In the countries in East Africa and South East Asia where IIRR has programs, things are a much different situation in the aftermath of natural disasters. Climate Change is certainly coming to a head in the Northeast with two epic storms in the last year, and hopefully Sandy will keep the discussion on the table, but elsewhere, climate change is already being felt on a most epic and disastrous scale. In Ethiopia, droughts that only happen every couple of years are now happening on a yearly basis. South East Asia has been rocked with an increase in flooding, and it is these communities that feel the brunt of the effects of climate change.

Developing nations don’t have the resources to avoid destruction from natural disasters, and even in countries that do, like the U.S., it was clearly demonstrated last week that even the best resources don’t help. That’s why at IIRR we believe that the best way to mitigate the risk of disasters is to work directly with local people to identify their vulnerabilities and capacities and then to develop an action plan that will help them lessen the impact of disasters and manage their effects.

We use an integrated approach that allows communities to be at the center of hazard identification, analysis, and risk assessment and management. We also make sure that community members participate in this process so they can bring information to their families and neighbors in the face of disaster, and in turn, helping bring their needs to a greater policy level.

Climate change is here, and while the global community is slowly mobilizing to thwart a change to a dangerous new normal, IIRR is working to help the most vulnerable communities prepare for the worst, no matter what it may be. And perhaps larger, more developed economies, can take note that to prepare for the new normal, we must be prepared for whatever comes our way.