Hurricane Sandy: lessons and failures

The impacts of Hurricane Sandy, like this uprooted tree, will vanish. The impact of putative President Obama will linger.
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Hurricane Sandy shows that central relief plans often fail, and personal, household, and neighborhood efforts, when people make them, work best of all.

Hurricane Sandy: it’s personal

Hurricane Sandy is very personal for your correspondent. To set the scene: I live in Millburn Township (home of the Paper Mill Playhouse), in the southwest corner of Essex County in New Jersey. The Jersey Central Power and Light Company serves Millburn and the neighboring town of Livingston; Public Service Electric and Gas serves the rest of Essex County, including Newark.

At 5:32 p.m. EDT on Monday, October 29, 2012, your correspondent was typing at his console. Suddenly it went dark. The secondary computer, then playing Fox News Channel’s program, went dark and silent. The room went dark. The house went dark.

And so began 120 hours of shelter-in-place. At first the only houses that were dark were on my block. I called JCP&L to report my problem. I reasoned then that a tree or branch had cut or shorted out my circuit. I probably have the least reliable circuit in the neighborhood.

Three hours later, a nearby street light went dark. And then the only house I could see with any lights in it, belonged to a neighbor who had a standby generator that ran on piped-in natural gas.

By next morning, the wind died. But another neighbor’s tree lay across the street, cutting it off. Several trees in my yard broke off and fell during the night. One cut off my driveway and also blocked one lane of the main thoroughfare. (Three men brought chainsaws and chopped that up for me when they spotted me trying to chop it up myself with an ax.)

As far as anyone knew, several trees uprooted during the night. Most of these fell. No one died in our neighborhood. My neighbor with the generator offered to store a few perishables in his refrigerators, ran an extension cord to the house next door to him, and let me recharge my cell phones once a day. But without power, I had no telephone service. This wasn’t merely the “cordless phone base unit syndrome.” My telephone service was a connection to a fiber-optic network, and for that I needed power to a special network panel in my home. And so, when the Millburn Office of Emergency Management (OEM) sent message after message to people, I got none of these messages until much later. Memo to OEM’s everywhere: telephone messages help no one who can’t answer the phone!

Hurricane Sandy uprooted this tree and sent it tangling with an electric line.

An uprooted tree leans against another tree and tangles with an electric line after Hurricane Sandy passes through. Photo: CNAV

Worse yet, JCP&L had no set-up to tell people what was happening in their town. I might as well say now what I learned later: Hurricane Sandy knocked down six utility poles, and when they fell, the main power line fell with them. Worse, Hurricane Sandy totally wrecked the two power substations that serve Millburn. But I did not know this. I lived in a cocoon, with no newspaper, and no mail, for three days. All I had was a radio, tuned to WKXW in Trenton, NJ. On the third day the announcer mentioned rumors of looting in several New Jersey cities. This looting did not reach our neighborhood, but we have only the Lord to thank for that.

We heard about (putative) President Barack Obama visiting Atlantic City on the second day. CNAV has a source, whom I shall call The Eagle, in Wall Township in Monmouth County. (He still does not have power to his home.) That photo-op disgusted him, and revealed Governor Chris Christie as an opportunist, trying to curry favor with someone who happens to be, or at least everyone believes him to be, the President. (Regular readers will remember that, as far as CNAV is concerned, he is not the President. His father was a British colonial subject, and that alone makes him other than a natural born citizen.)

That photo-op was all I ever heard about any federal response. Your correspondent never saw hide nor hair of FEMA, or of the vaunted FEMA Youth that graduated its first class a week before Hurricane Sandy began her baleful run up the East Coast.

If anyone at all “came through” for anyone in Millburn, it was, ironically, JCP&L. On Day Four, their contract tree surgeons (Asplundh Tree Experts) came to my home and chopped down the spruce tree that uprooted and tangled itself in the wires when Hurricane Sandy passed through. The next day, they did the same for my neighbor with the generator. Then on Day Six, contract linemen came and made minor repairs to the line serving my block.

Finally, at about 5:45 p.m. EDT, I heard someone’s security system sound an alarm. Then I heard my system sounding its low-battery alarm. But how could that be? Then I realized that my kitchen ceiling lights were shining.

And so my ordeal ended, after more than 120 hours. I have not even begun to count the cost of cleanup and replacing spoiled food. And only then did I learn how badly JCP&L’s infrastructure suffered from Hurricane Sandy.

Bitter lessons

The first thing I learned is that the United States Postal Service’ historical motto is a sick joke. Recall what the Greek historian, Herodotus, said in his Inquiries about the Persian Post Express:

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Benjamin Franklin adopted that motto for the United States Post Office Department. The New York City Post Office displays that motto above its ornamental string course. And, I repeat: that’s a joke. I received no mail at all until Day Five, and even then the mail was three days old.

The second: government services are not reliable. Did you know that the White House and FEMA both sent people in storm-stricken areas to a Web site? Hel-lo-ooo! No power means they’re off-line!

The New Jersey governor’s office has a site for information on Hurricane Sandy relief and restoration. Fine, if you have a generator (but not one that runs on gasoline! Try getting gas now, when the gas stations can’t pump it, because they have no power!). If not, then someone has to reach you, somehow, with this information. (First Energy, parent company of JCP&L, keeps an outage map, So does PSE&G.)

Solving the problem

The problems that Hurricane Sandy showed us, are that we don’t communicate as neighbors. Worse, we’ve gotten used to saying,

Let the government worry about it. Leave me alone.

In a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, that doesn’t go. If you have telephone service and your neighbors don’t, how are they to know what your local OEM told you? If you’re not sure that they can get this information, stir around and find out. “MYOB,” with apologies to Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, doesn’t cut it. It is every neighbor’s business that every other neighbor knows what could help him.

The Eagle told CNAV that in Florida and the Southeast, they know: don’t expect the government to reach you for seventy-two hours. So they plan for that. So should we all.

The secret is what a republic means. A republic has many levels of government, each having a particular area to take care of. Good republican government includes being ready, personally and as a neighborhood, for disaster.

Hurricane Sandy showed that city government often failed to reach the people it needed to reach most of all. State government did even less well. And the federal government? Nowhere to be found. And no one should have expected them to respond.

Is Hurricane Sandy “Obama’s Katrina”? Maybe. Or maybe not. But Hurricane Sandy should remind us to rely on ourselves more than we do, and organize with friends and neighbors before disaster strikes, to be ready when it does strike.