Its four days since Hurricane Sandy plunged our lives into cold, dark, analog confusion. We have no electricity, no heat, no telephone, Internet, or cell phone service in my home. A thousand downed tree trunks and limbs lay on the streets or sit precariously dangling against bent over power lines and poles. There are no traffic lights. Gas stations have gas but no electricity to pump. Neighbors run loud generators all day and drive far and wide to fill bright red gas cans with another day’s supply of electricity and warmth. Night time temperatures plunge close to 0C, and we huddle in our living rum under blankets with gloves and hats. But we have it easy on the North Shore of Long Island. The South Shore has flooding, and huge sections of our beautiful coast line have been wiped off the map. In New Jersey, whole communities have been lost and the devastation is beyond imagination. We see photos now on the Internet and we can’t believe this is happening to us, here in New York. Florida, Louisiana, yes… But NY?!
Here in Port Washington, most of our electricity transformers were destroyed when trees brought down power lines and current backed up and created loads the transformers were not designed to handle. They popped and flashed all night like fireworks. Then the current rushed into sub-stations and caused them to explode in a chain reaction that ultimately fried our main lines. Now our town’s electricity infrastructure is completely destroyed and must be rebuilt at great cost.
Last week, we heard public officials tell us to be prepared for this storm, that it would be worse than Hurricane Irene, which hit last year. But why weren’t they prepared?
1. Why didn’t they have storm damage models that could simulate the impact of a storm like this on the regions?
2. Why didn’t our authorities issue mandatory evacuations of low lying areas in NY and NJ?
3. Why didn’t the power authorities turn off the grid as the storm broke to prevent circuit overloads and preserve the infrastructure?
4. Why don’t LIPA and National Grid finally move our power lines from above ground to below ground?
5. Why didn’t the Governors ship in generators and emergency fuel supplies before the Hurricane to respond immediately after?
6. Why weren’t the grocery stores backed up with extra generators and provisions for the next week?
7. Why weren’t Lowes and Home Depot armed with extra supplies of candles, inverters, generators, flashlights, and other emergency supplies?
8. And why weren’t armies of skilled technicians, goods, and supplies ordered, organized, and backed up nearby to jump into action the minute the storm ended?
We are a just-in-time society with myopic, market driven forecasting models that react to the last crisis instead of preparing to meet the next one. Damage estimates from this storm now exceed $50 billion. It would have cost a fraction of that amount to answer the eight questions above and prepare to meet the storm in the week prior than it will now to clean it up. We have the satellite intelligence to predict natural catastrophes long before they strike. Now we need Data and Human Intelligence to prevent future catastrophes from disrupting our lives and causing so much damage.
This one was eminently preventable. I hope public officials and businesses will heed my advice and use predictive models, simulations, and analytics to prepare for the next one and mitigate the damages.
This is a data challenge as much as a leadership one. Both need to work together. This year.
Because all too soon we’ll have another crisis to respond to…