We can compare severe storms with facts and figures, but the emotional impact of a storm and its aftermath also needs to be scrutinized. Journalists and reporters tossed Hurricane Katrina into their observations when talking about Superstorm Sandy with remarks such as, “This is New York’s Katrina.” But, there is no comparison – although emotions and extent of damage may seem similar, Sandy is not Katrina.
Additionally, I constantly hope that solutions to mitigate storm impacts might be developed during storm recoveries, but I’m highly skeptical that any changes will occur this time around. Returning to “normalcy” always seems to take priority, but that investment may prove costly in the long run as severe storms seem to be on the uptick.
Katrina was a hurricane that belongs to the people who lived along the Gulf Coast in 2005. The survivors and their family members “own” the loss of life (1,836 with more than 2,500 missing), the loss of property, and the lack of response time during and after that storm. No one – including Katrina survivors – can fully describe the horrors wrought by that storm, and the Gulf Coast will bear scars for decades to come. Physical scars, yes – but the emotional scars run deeper.
After seven years, the anger generated by losses and responses to Katrina remains palpable among survivors. After listening to some resentment coming from Gulf Coast friends about comparing Sandy to Katrina, it occurred to me that while this resentment may seem petty, it also is reasonable. The recovery response during Katrina and its aftermath appears irresponsible, unprofessional, and inept when compared to current responses. The financial, physical, and emotional costs resulting from acute neglect and disrespect can’t be calculated.
One small example to refresh memories about Katrina response involves U.S. Army Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré and New Orleans Director of Homeland Security Terry Ebbert. Ten days after Katrina made landfall, they announced a "zero access" policy to prevent media from reporting on the recovery of dead bodies that remained floating in New Orleans’ waters. In response, CNN filed suit against that restraining order, and the order was lifted.
I’m writing this article less than a week after Sandy’s landfall, and within that week authorities obviously didn’t bar media, residents are receiving help, and rock stars held a fund-raising concert. This quick response is a good thing – I would say I’ve witnessed a normal human response to a disaster. But this was no mere disaster – Sandy was a rare and deadly devastating post-tropical superstorm that affected every state east of the Mississippi, the Great Lakes states, and Canada.
Still, the fact that media was able to report Sandy’s impact from various locations without loss of coverage helped many viewers outside the storm understand its devastation. If you magnify that surge you saw in New York subways and other areas by a little over two times, and you might be able to imagine the historic surge you didn’t see in Pass Christian, Mississippi, that measured over 25 feet. You didn’t see it, because media along the Gulf Coast lost the ability to cover the storm for three days during Katrina’s landfall.
The big difference between Katrina’s power as a Cat 3 and Sandy’s power as a Cat 1 was size. Sandy may have caused more physical damage than Katrina because of this element. The metric that quantifies this measurement is based upon the distance that tropical-storm-force winds extend from a storm’s center. This measurement, called Integrated Kinetic Energy or IKE, places Sandy’s force as second among all measured hurricanes at landfall – the hurricane in first place for this ominous distinction isn’t Katrina – it was Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
Anyone who has watched recovery efforts from any storm might understand why I feel few of these efforts will contain ways to lessen impacts from future storms. You can hear it in survivors’ voices – they all want things to return to “normal” as soon as possible. But, nothing is going to be normal again, as we’re seeing more of these storms and their ferocity is mind-boggling.
Additionally, nothing is “normal” after a storm of this magnitude, although that’s where money usually is funneled – to try to regain that sense of normalcy. Changes in infrastructure designed to reduce storm impacts cost far too much, take too long to plan and implement, and the human response to planning these mitigations often is based upon denial that a disastrous storm will recur in the same place with the same strength.
That element of disconnect can be strong. After gauging Sandy’s strength and direction and adding a few other elements into this equation (including Erik Lawson’s 1999 story, Hurricanes on the Hudson), I knew Sandy’s storm surge could reach Wall Street. My New York friends scoffed at me…no way would the East or Hudson Rivers experience that kind of storm surge from a Cat 1 storm. After the storm, I heard a survivor state on television, “Now I know what storm surge means.”
It was difficult to watch the storm coverage on television, but I felt compelled – I had to know what a storm of this magnitude looked like. It was especially difficult to see the survivors’ reactions, I know that some East Coast residents may not feel the response time was fast enough, especially in Staten Island – but, that “neglect” is no comparison to what happened along the Gulf Coast in 2005. Granted, lack of normalcy, including power, transportation, and shelter add to survivors’ desperation, but reparation is happening fairly quickly. But, one element that Katrina survivors didn’t experience was cold weather – without power, this is a frightening aspect to current recovery efforts.
Like those individuals who “own” Katrina, now there are hundreds of thousands of people who “own” Sandy, as well as people who “own” Irene and who “own” Isabel. It’s a sorry investment; but, until authorities and residents recognize and accept the fact that these major storms may occur more often, it’s the only investment we’ve ever made after a major storm – other than the impossible task of trying to restore things to “normal.”