In the last several weeks, we were reminded how quickly cities and communities can be turned upside down by a natural disaster. Though Hurricane Sandy was only a Category 1 storm, it was one of the most destructive storms to ever have hit our country. It has impacted the lives of millions of Americans and caused tens of billions of dollars in economic damage. Its effects will be felt for weeks, months, and even years. Earlier this hurricane season, another Category 1 storm named Isaac wreaked havoc on many south Louisiana communities.
With every natural disaster, we learn new lessons. After Katrina, we learned how important it is to have effective emergency plans in place ahead of a storm, a well-coordinated response at the local, state and federal levels, and a strong commitment to rebuilding. As important, we learned that responding to a large-scale disaster is a responsibility that must be shared – among local, state and federal officials, the private sector, and individuals and communities.
As a country, we learned many other lessons after Katrina, and while it is too soon to know all the lessons Sandy holds, one thing is already clear. Given the scope of the devastation, recovering from this storm will require the continued engagement of everyone – and not just those who suffered losses. Government officials and elected leaders at every level, including mayors and governors, members of Congress, administration officials and the president must maintain the commitment that has been so firm to this point.
What we have seen thus far gives us great confidence that this will be the case. The federal government, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in particular, has defied stereotype. The experience of this storm was a case study in forethought, quick action and co-ordination.
Days before the hurricane made landfall, governors began declaring emergencies and making requests of the federal government to begin pre-positioning personnel and supplies along the storm’s path. President Barack Obama acted quickly to sign disaster declarations for impacted states, which allowed federal resources to begin flowing into local jurisdictions so governments could take appropriate steps to be prepared. Governors also began activating National Guard forces.
After Sandy made landfall, a well-coordinated search and rescue operation began locating people in harm’s way and ensuring those in need of assistance or medical care received it. Local utility companies working to restore power were joined by special teams flown in by the Department of Defence from as far away as California. The US Army Corps of Engineers sent its equipment and personnel to New York City to assist in pumping water from flooded tunnels and subways.
We also saw FEMA send representatives into the hardest hit areas to go door-to-door to offer assistance. FEMA has established more than 65 disaster recovery centres in the region with more on the way, and worked with the Red Cross and local government agencies to provide food and water for their shelters for those without a place to stay.
FEMA didn’t wait to be called by state and local officials. FEMA leaned forward and did its job.
President Obama also ordered the members of his Cabinet to cut through red tape, respond to every phone call in 15 minutes or less, and find a way to say “yes” to requests from the states. Already, more than $600 million in assistance has been awarded to disaster victims, and states are receiving federal support for costs associated with debris removal, power restoration and other critical actions.
This is not to say that everything has gone right and that all problems have been addressed. There are the immediately obvious deficiencies such as the delays in restoring power to so many communities, and there are certain to be many more subtle problems that will emerge as we take the time to assess our response. We must seize every opportunity to learn and improve. Lives are at stake.
These are significant challenges. But as with other disasters our country has faced, we can and will overcome them. We must. More and worse storms are on the way. And this storm showed only some of our vulnerabilities.
Recovery will take time. It also will take a commitment from the federal government as well as states and cities and communities to reinvest and rebuild. And again applying a lesson learned from Katrina, we need to rebuild better and more resilient than before. Together, we will recover from Sandy. We will learn its lessons and apply them to future disasters. And we will emerge even stronger.