When Disaster Plans Meet the Unstoppable Force

Despite the fact that scientists have been warning us for years about the devastation that a hurricane could cause the New York area, few understood the crippling impact such a storm could cause. Hurricane Sandy was a wakeup call for many, as companies across the city suffered power outages due to the storm despite having backup systems in place. The reason they were unable to cope? Most companies and people in New York City did not fathom the severity of the storm and the level of storm surge, combined with high tide, which overwhelmed most barriers that had been put in place to prevent flooding.

Many did not think the water level would rise over 12 feet, the highest it had gotten in storms before. So it was with surprise when waters from the Hudson River reached almost 14 feet in height, easily breaching barriers and flooding the streets of lower Manhattan. It was these flood waters that inundated the lower levels of many buildings and caused the various backup generators to fail. Most businesses and buildings in Manhattan have moved their backup generators to the roofs of their buildings, doing this in light of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina. The fuel for these backups is kept in the basement for most buildings, and therein lies the problem.

Storing fuel in the basement is done for both safety and practicality reasons. It is safer to keep fuel on the lower levels of buildings, as this protects it from lightning strikes. It is also easier to pump the fuel into the fuel tanks from the trucks it is delivered on using gravity as opposed to using a pumping system.

Add to that the fact that backup facilities miles away were also taken out by the storm, and a recipe for disaster was born. While some facilities were able to maintain some semblance of a presence through the diligent actions of employees and volunteers, who formed a bucket brigade to transfer fuel from 50-gallon drums in five-gallon jerry cans up 17 flights of steps for two straight days, in the end the need for better disaster planning was made plain for all to see. The main question remains: Will such action be taken before the next storm hits?

For more information about disaster preparedness in the face of severe weather, visit: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/03/storm-sandy-contingency-plans-idUSL1E8M256320121103