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Preventing the Next Storm Catastrophe with an Information Strategy

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…

4 Comments »

  1. Outstanding assessment Steve. I also think that people don’t believe and don’t want to be inconvenienced by what they are being told. I bet all constituents react differently in the near future to the next set of warnings :) Hindsight….

  2. Surviving the Next Storm Disaster – Its not a lack of data!

    For those of us affected by the most recent storm this blog entry brings little in the way of viable solutions and presents some ill-informed ideas.

    1. Why didn’t they have storm damage models that could simulate the impact of a storm like this on the regions to forecast impact?

    More than ten years ago insurance companies developed predictive models that indicated hurricanes were coming further inland. Scientists have been predicting and we have been witnessing increased storm surges with the increasing water levels. This was reflected in the fact that insurance premiums were increased and hurricane deductibles were increased as well. Coverage for hurricane damage was also reduced. For homeowners that should have been a warning sign to develop a personal plan to address these predictions. Some did use this data to purchased backup generators. Others increased their insurance coverage and some astute people read the fine print in their policies to determine the increased exclusions.

    2. Why didn’t our authorities issue mandatory evacuations of low lying areas in NY and NJ?

    The governor of New Jersey did issue a mandatory evacuation order.

    3. Why didn’t the power authorities turn off the grid as the storm broke to prevent circuit overloads and preserve the infrastructure?

    Which grids should they have turned off; the entire east coast?

    Why didn’t residents all have generators?

    4. Why don’t LIPA and National Grid finally move our power lines from above ground to below ground?

    This debate has been going on for decades. Over the years the challenges have increased. From the public resisting rate increases to pay for this to other vested interests vying for a seat at the table, it’s a wonder we have any wires left at all.

    5. Why didn’t the Governors ship in generators and emergency fuel supplies before the Hurricane to respond immediately after?

    FEMA shipped in 400 generators to maintain power in critical facilities such as hospitals. However, you can’t just roll up a generator and plug it in whether it’s for a hospital or a residence. You have to have the circuitry required and preventive safety measures to use a generator. Once again, why didn’t individuals plan for themselves with prewired circuitry and generators?

    6. Why weren’t the grocery stores backed up with extra generators and provisions for the next week?

    Some stores did install generators after last year’s storm. This was evident in our vicinity. This is an economic decision. Stores are not social services organizations. Generators are expensive and require a ready supply of diesel fuel. So even if they had a generator, how long would it run before the fuel was exhausted?

    7. Why weren’t Lowes and Home Depot armed with extra supplies of candles, inverters, generators, flashlights, and other emergency supplies?

    These outlets did stock up but unfortunately, as is human nature, people bought more than they required and stocks ran low. Once again however these organizations are not social services agencies. Why didn’t homeowners have ready supplies on hand? This storm was predicted one week in advance.

    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?

    The utility companies had plans and executed plans to move men and equipment from areas outside the storm area. But how do they predict the size of the force required? This is a very costly operation and who pays for it? Again an economic decision.

    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.
    What facts are there to back up this claim? We learned from Katrina that there were models and real simulations but few heeded their warnings. There are simulations and models for hurricanes coming inland so why did individuals not prepare for themselves?

    This is not a data analytics problem it is a human behavior problem. If individuals themselves did not prepare adequately why would we expect the powers to be to react any differently? They are after all just human. What is lacking is some common sense and the willingness of all constituents to converse on this topic using factual data rather than conjecture and opinions. We have the data, the models and the potential outcomes but how we respond to then requires human action.

    We have generator ( I installed it 20 years ago), we had heat, light we could watch recorded video programs (the cable was out of service) we could do work using our computers and hooking to the internet using cell Internet service. We opened our home to our neighbors who did not have generators and we offered a helping hand to others who were concerned about flooding by running invertors (which I had on hand) off their car batteries to run their sump pumps.

  3. Felled trees by wind cannot easily be prevented. But widespread power failures and gas shortages can.

    In Holland, and they live 4 feet below sea level and have worked for 60 years to protect their nation from flooding. In Denmark, they have been net oil exporters for 30 years but have also invested in wind power and will generate 50% of their energy from wind in 2020. I they have fierce wind storms all year round but don’t get power failures because their wire line infrastructure is underground.

    A society can choose to neglect planning and capital infrastructure by focusing on current consumption – as we have for 32 years. But power failures and flooding are preventable though planning and collective action.

    Not everyone has the financial resources to buy generators or offer neighbors warmth and shelter. Some live paycheck to paycheck and have small children and elderly parents at home. Their lives during normal times are precarious as they work two or three jobs. Societies are large and complex and we need to plan to meet crises on all levels for everyone – not just the self-sufficient.

  4. 3. Why didn’t the power authorities turn off the grid as the storm broke to prevent circuit overloads and preserve the infrastructure?

    Which grids should they have turned off; the entire east coast?

    Well at least very-low lying areas like ConEd did in lower Manhattan?

    Why didn’t residents all have generators?

    Or at least lower cost inverters to run essentials from cars?

    Referenced from: http://www.infogovcommunity.com/blog/2012/11/preventing-the-next-storm-catastrophe/#ixzz2BNSiwYzR

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