Living with disaster: New Yorkers rebound a year on from Sandy

By Jamie Morton

Hurricane Sandy left hundreds of people dead and cost billions of dollars when it slammed into the US and neighbouring countries. Jamie Morton visited New York and found a stronger city.

A parking lot of yellow taxis was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Photo / AP
A parking lot of yellow taxis was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Photo / AP

It's another red, white and bright blue day at Breezy Pt, New York.

The cool afternoon air is filled with the sound of hammers ringing out from a timber skeleton slowly rising on the shoreline.

A construction crew meets over the bonnet of a pick-up truck.

Little paper messages of love and hope hang from a nearby telephone pole. And everywhere hang the stars and stripes - fluttering from makeshift masts rammed into ruined masonry, or draped across the sunny porches of beachside bungalows.

Pride and patriotism hasn't succumbed here, even in the face of lost lives and livelihoods, insurance wrangles and the daily battle of trying to get things back to the way they were before October 29, 2012.

"Everyone has their own story of survival down here," says local volunteer firefighter Mike Schramm, looking at a block of bare sections where homes once stood.

If Hurricane Sandy didn't take a friend or relative, it probably took a home or a business, or too often, everything.

The Rockaway Peninsula community they call Breezy, or the "Irish Riviera", was caught square in Sandy's eye when it bore down on the United States' eastern seaboard. One hundred and twenty-five homes burned when seawater met power lines; 230 more were flattened in the path of the storm.

Mr Schramm could only liken Sandy's havoc to that of Dresden, the German city bombed to cinders during World War II.

"Just imagine everything black. It was basically hell on earth, you could smell it from a quarter mile away."

Breezy has been through fire before - 30 of its firefighters perished in the September 11 attacks - and the community is pulling together to create a protective double dune system and levy along the shore.

To build it, locals are having to stump up $11 million themselves.

"It'll probably mean us having to take out a second mortgage, but hopefully we'll get the money refunded."

Further down the Rockaway Peninsula, a new concrete boardwalk, stretching 8km along the beachfront, is slowly taking shape.

Lucy Sanchez, watering the garden of her beachfront condo, is all too familiar with the previous one.

A large chunk of it smashed through her living room.

Millions have been spent just to build stop-gap beach facilities to draw back the summer tourists vital to the peninsula's economy, but progress towards full recovery, as far as four years away, is painfully slow.

"It's downright frightening how long it's going to take ... we are beating the drum," local newspaper editor Kevin Boyle said.

In this once-popular part of the Rockaways, floods swept away whole streets.

Afterwards, one could stand at one side of the peninsula and have a clear view through to the other side.

Flood insurance is allowing moderately damaged homes to be repaired, but others will have to remain wrecks.

"There's lots of heartbreak here and it's tough for people to figure out," Mr Boyle said. "It's a once in a lifetime thing ... and you can't draw anything from experience."

Hard lessons have been learned, and not just by the hard-hit coastal neighbourhoods of New York.

Sandy had already claimed the lives of more than 100 people throughout the Caribbean before it swept into the Atlantic and made a left turn towards the New Jersey coastline.

Seventy-two Americans died as a direct result of the hurricane, more than half of them in New York.

Transport systems were brought to a standstill as a record storm surge reached almost 4.2m in central Manhattan, washing through subway tunnels.

Sandy's total damage bill for the US totalled US$65 billion ($82 billion), making it the second costliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

Hurricanes in this part of the world typically make an upward sweep parallel to the North American coastline, but as far as seven days out, US meteorological agencies saw the frightening potential for this monster to make landfall.

"At five days out, we really knew this was going to be a huge event," said Jason Tuell, eastern region director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service (NWS).

For all of his agency's scientific accuracy, Mr Tuell admitted the messages given to the public at the time could have been conveyed much more clearly.

The agency's language was criticised for being too technical, its web page too complicated and its role along with other weather offices confusing.

A review has recommended a simple, one-stop website, warnings to mobile devices and a standardised approach to communicating potential impacts.

"Our ability to synthesise and combine all of this information in a way that the public and decision-makers can understand is really the next grand challenge."

The same warning definitions used for hurricanes and tropical storms will now also be extended to post-tropical storms that pose a danger to life and property.

That so many people chose not to evacuate - the boy having cried wolf with the much less severe Hurricane Irene a year earlier - stands as one of the disaster's biggest failures.

Officials nevertheless went to extremes to move residents out of the storm's path.

Days out, NWS meteorologist Gary Szatkowski even issued a personal plea to the stubborn, asking them to consider rescuers who would have to recover their remains.

Sandy also caused authorities to recognise the value of social media: 250,000 tweets were sent out during the disaster, one quarter of them from iPhones.

One organisation, Humanity Road, recruited 100 volunteers, dubbed force multipliers, to gather and relay information on Twitter and other platforms. Using their phones, people could borrow power tools, find out where to get hot meals and check what infrastructure was damaged in their area. Sometimes it even meant the difference between survivors being saved or stranded, or family members knowing whether their loved ones were alive.

Echoing some of the key lessons from the Christchurch quakes, Mr Tuell expected social scientists would now play a bigger role.

"Social scientists understand how people perceive information in ways that we don't. Not everyone is a meteorologist, as much as we like to think they are."

Meanwhile, the city has acknowledged Sandy was simply a harbinger of future disasters in coming decades.

Climate change projections promise higher sea levels and a greater number of extreme weather events, while the number of people and buildings in harm's way is also climbing.

"The lesson we've taken from this is that we have to start taking steps immediately to address these challenges," said Seth Pinsky, formerly director of New York City's special initiative for rebuilding and resiliency.

Seth Pinsky knows climate change presents a serious challenge.  Photo / Jamie Morton
Seth Pinsky knows climate change presents a serious challenge. Photo / Jamie Morton

The Sandy disaster, which cost New York around US$19 billion in damage, is today regarded as a one-in-70 year event, but by 2020 the rate would become one-in-60.

By 2050, such chaos would be expected once every half-century.

By the same time, the number of New Yorkers who live in areas of the city at risk of a major flood would have doubled to 800,000.

High-end projections for sea level rise also showed a rise of 0.7m within the next four decades.

"So if you believe these projections about sea level rise, significant portions of the city could actually experience regular flooding, even without storms and just from high tides."

City planners had accepted there was no silver bullet for the problem, but have refused to abandon New York's vulnerable waterfront.

"We are going to rebuild, but we are going to rebuild in a way that is smarter and safer," Mr Pinsky said.

"Some people have said that's crazy. Why would you rebuild, given all the things you just went through?

"The reason is today, there are almost 70,000 buildings, with hundreds of thousands of people living in them, and the idea that we are going to be able to relocate them and move them somewhere else is just so unrealistic that we think it's better to pursue something that we can actually achieve."

So far, nearly 60 of 250 steps in a US$20 billion rebuild have already been taken.

Building codes have been strengthened, a director of resiliency has been appointed and design work has begun on a network of interventions and defences.

Four billion dollars will be spent on coastal protection in the first phase, the projects ranging from wetland restoration and dune strengthening to hardened bulkheads and levees.

In Staten Island, where 23 people died during Hurricane Sandy, an armoured levy would be installed to protect its vulnerable coastline.

A fund of more than US$1 billion would help retrofit about 68,000 buildings in the flood plains, and a special kitty had been set aside for smaller businesses and low-income households.

For some of the largest buildings, mandatory orders mean they will have to be retro-fitted within the next 15 years.

Mr Pinsky said money spent and effort made today would lighten the impact in future.

"There is a real cost to inaction here in New York."

Progress at the Government level, however, has been criticised for being not nearly as swift.

As at the end of August, just US$5.2 billion of a US$60 billion federal aid package for victims had been spent, sparking fresh outrage.

In the Rockaway Peninsula, many locals had lost hope of any support from the Government, restaurant owner Robert Kaskel told the Herald.

"This is the only time in my whole life I could remember that I needed government support ... and it just wasn't there."

Mr Kaskel lost both his home and business, and was denied a loan to kick-start his Thai restaurant, recently opened at a site that sustained US$1.5 million of damage.

"My kitchen is a barbecue, a couple of coolers and a microwave. Who can have a business on that?"

With the slow winter season ahead of him, he has no money in the bank and little hope of getting federal support.

Yet, guided by old-fashioned American optimism, he knows his restaurant and the tight-knit community it serves will endure - and re-emerge stronger than ever.

"This is what human beings do. We build, we create, we make things better than before - and this is an opportunity to make things better."

The series

Yesterday: China's fight against earthquakes
Today: New York after Sandy
Tomorrow: Japan's tragic lesson
Thursday: Tohoku: Life in the aftermath
Friday: New Zealand: Living with disaster

- NZ Herald

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