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December 9, 2012

New York mostly ignored reports warning of superstorm

ALBANY, N.Y. — More than three decades before Superstorm Sandy, a state law and a series of legislative reports began warning New York politicians to prepare for a storm of historic proportions, spelling out scenarios eerily similar to what actually happened: a towering storm surge; overwhelming flooding; swamped subway lines; widespread power outages. The Rockaway peninsula was deemed among the “most at risk.”

But most of the warnings and a requirement in a 1978 law to create a regularly updated plan for the restoration of “vital services” after a storm went mostly unheeded, either because of tight budgets or the lack of political will to prepare for a hypothetical storm that may never hit.

Some of the thorniest problems after Sandy, including a gasoline shortage, the lack of temporary housing and the flooding of commuter tunnels, ended up being dealt with largely on the fly.

“I don’t know that anyone believed,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “We had never seen a storm like this. So it is very hard to anticipate something that you have never experienced.” Asked how well prepared state officials were for Sandy, he said, “not well enough.”

It wasn’t as if the legislative actions over the years were subtle. They all had a common, emphatic theme: Act immediately before it’s too late.

The 1978 executive law required a standing state Disaster Preparedness Commission to meet at least twice a year to create and update disaster plans. It mandated the state to address temporary housing needs after a disaster, create a detailed plan to restore services, maintain sewage treatment, prevent fires, assure generators “sufficient to supply” nursing homes and other health facilities, and “protect and assure uninterrupted delivery of services, medicines, water, food, energy and fuel.”

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