Hoboken After Sandy: Stevens Event Explores Disaster Recovery

4/16/2013

Scientists, Politicians, and First Responders Meet to Learn from Hurricane Sandy

What did we learn from Sandy? What have we changed, and what remains to be done? These were the organizing questions of the panel discussion at the recent Stevens event “Learning from Sandy: Science, Politics, and Social Justice.”

The discussion, organized by Prof. Lee Vinsel in the Program in Science & Technology Studies (STS) within Stevens’s College of Arts & Letters, featured a mix of speakers including academics, elected officials, and first responders. It began with an introduction by the STS Program Director, Prof. Andrew Russell, who explained that the STS Program operates at the intersections of the humanistic and technical disciplines. Disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, according to Russell, are more than natural or technological disasters; they also are human disasters that compel us to consider moral questions, such as how societies care for their poor, sick, and elderly. 

Prof. Alan Blumberg, Director of the Stevens Davidson Laboratory, then summarized the experiences of his team during the storm, when they made very accurate predictions of storm surge and flooding. Blumberg’s team is refining their model to provide street-level predictions, and exploring ways to “mash-up” those predictions with street-level pictures that show how the flood waters would look, block-by-block.

The next panelists were State Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos, Jr. and Hoboken Housing Authority Director Carmelo Garcia. Ramos and Garcia both echoed two points that Blumberg made: Sandy exposed shortcomings in the communication of technical information to the public, and political officials need to work more closely with scientists and engineers to mitigate the effects of storms like Sandy. They also discussed a range of political and practical issues, from the need for new FEMA maps to the installation of new water pumps, back-up generators, and water-proof cabinets for mechanical and communication equipment.

The final panel featured Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm, Hoboken Police Chief Anthony Falco, and Stevens Police Chief Timothy Griffin. The Chiefs described their equipment and communications challenges during Sandy, and expressed their deep appreciation for cooperation among a variety of government groups, public safety agencies, and volunteers after Sandy. They also provided new detail—and a few humorous anecdotes—about the cooperation between the City of Hoboken and the students, staff, and administrators at Stevens.

The event concluded with a lively discussion about the interdependencies among technological systems and social systems. In response to a question about a proposal to build flood walls around Hoboken, panelists and audience members agreed that technology alone cannot resolve the problems that arise from storms like Sandy. Rather, cities need to develop their own capacities to cooperate and to make sure that technological proposals work in the interests of all citizens.