When Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in late October 2012, it disrupted millions of lives, causing death and destruction at an entirely new scale for regional coastal storms. One year later, residents of the tri-state area are still experiencing Sandy’s impacts. At the same time, there have emerged unbelievable stories of courage, resilience, community and innovation.
Stevens Institute of Technology, whose hometown of Hoboken, N.J. suffered some of the worst impacts of Sandy, commemorated the anniversary of the hurricane this week with an event that looked both backward at the massive destruction of the storm and then forward to offer insights on mitigating the impact of future crises – combining diverse scientific, engineering, technology, policy and community perspectives.
The anniversary event included an eye-opening, two-hour panel discussion featuring local and national leaders from the scientific and public policy communities, who discussed storm-related research findings and shared updates on developments in making the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region more resilient to natural disasters.
It also included an inspiring community program, organized in collaboration with the Hoboken Historical Museum, which featured short stories from local residents about how life was affected in Hoboken during and after Sandy, revealing a common thread of hope and possibility in the power of communities in times of crisis.
After Sandy: Lessons Learned for Bolstering Infrastructure Resilience
The scientific panel discussion – moderated by Dean Michael Bruno of Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering and Science and featuring notable speakers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northeastern University and Stevens’ Davidson Laboratory – focused on bolstering urban coastal infrastructure resilience to flooding from storm surge, as well as related social and policy issues.
In his opening remarks, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin called for more science-informed decisions in infrastructure projects on the coast.
“Sandy was a devastating experience for our region; it had a profound impact on all of us,” Farvardin said. “We learned that science and technology must play a critical role in prediction, protection and rebuilding.”
A common theme among all of the speakers was what Sandy taught the world about the importance of preparedness in planning a smart and informed response to natural disasters.
Dr. Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern, has led a series of regional events – including one at Stevens – to examine ways to build more resilient coastal cities based on lessons learned from Sandy and through a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
He said Sandy-like events will occur with greater frequency in the future, and the time is now to safeguard our coast through infrastructure investments, technology upgrades, operational improvements, improved collaboration and cooperation, and enhanced research and data.
“Our critical infrastructure cannot be taken for granted,” Flynn said. “The generations before us made a significant investment to help us become the modern, urban society we are today, and it is up to us to maintain those investments. When we neglect them, there are real consequences.”
CAPT Gordon Loebl, commander sector New York, U.S. Coast Guard, said planning and preparation actually made the Port of New York and New Jersey one of the region’s few “success stories.” Although the port – one of the world’s busiest and largest – was hit extremely hard, suffering extensive damage, forcing closed waterways and halting commerce, Loebl said the port was able to reopen relatively quickly by working flexibly and collaboratively in the lead up to the storm and the days following.
Joseph Seebode, deputy district engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NY District, described Corps successes immediately after the storm, such as clearing 500 million gallons of water from subway tunnels and 90,000 cubic yards of debris from New York City. These victories were only possible due to smart emergency planning ahead of time, he said.
Today, the Corps is repairing approved projects damaged by Sandy, as well as conducting a comprehensive study of the North Atlantic coast to develop recommendations for risk reduction opportunities and bring greater resiliency and robustness to the coastal region.
Dr. Holly Bamford, assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called Sandy “a turning point” which sparked a critical conversation about the vulnerability of our coastal regions. She said climate change and population growth on the coast necessitate engineers, policymakers and the public to come together for the common purpose of “reimagining our coasts to better protect and preserve the communities and economies that depend on them.”
Finally, Dr. Alan Blumberg, George Meade Bond Professor and director of the Davidson Laboratory at Stevens, demonstrated the research center’s storm-threat assessment and storm surge impact models. Based on a highly sophisticated physics model, he showed a computer animation of street-by-street flooding in Hoboken as Sandy approached, struck and passed by. Validated by real-time photos of flood levels in Hoboken during Sandy, the animation proves it is possible to accurately predict how much water will come in where, and does so in a way that can be easily communicated to emergency responders and the public.
The speakers also emphasized the need to involve social scientists in all aspects of disaster preparedness and mitigation, as greater human understanding are what will enable scientific, technological and policy solutions for resiliency to have the most impact.
Hoboken: Reflections on a Community’s Experience
The community program, which was narrated by Stevens Science and Technology Studies Professor Lee Vinsel, focused on the human side of Sandy in Hoboken, with video and live performances from community members that unveiled many innovative solutions and selfless responses that emerged to cope with the countless challenges residents faced in the past year.
“Sandy was a memorable event not only in its destruction, but in the opportunity it provided to bring the best out of our people,” said Farvardin, who helped the university’s emergency management team lead Stevens safely through the storm, despite losing power to many parts of campus.
Bruno and Blumberg presented on the challenges they faced in warning officials and residents of the storm’s magnitude, as their forecasts and models showed stronger and stronger signs as it approached.
“We had to show them that you can’t pump against the entire Atlantic Ocean,” said Bruno.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer expressed gratitude to the National Guard and FEMA, who brought relief to the city, as well as the thousands of volunteers who helped in smaller ways, such as unloading food trucks and carrying water and medications to residents stuck in high-rises. Today, plans are underway to develop a comprehensive community emergency response strategy and improve energy resiliency and the micro-grid throughout the city.
“We have to protect our city; we are talking about the future of Hoboken,” Zimmer said.
Two residents who were on the front lines – Maria Rivera and Madeline Lopez – said Sandy made Hoboken stronger, as neighbors shared food, shelter and supplies with people they previously only knew as strangers.
Eugene Flinn, who owns three restaurants in Hoboken, said the day after Sandy was “the best day I ever had in the business.” With the help of his long-time chef, Flinn opened Amanda’s Restaurant on Washington Street – which lost power but did not flood – to the public. Dozens of volunteers quickly showed up to help them serving free food in the street.
“We lost cars, furniture, computers … but we got something much more. Our sense of community was greatly enhanced,” Flinn said.
Stevens student Allison Outwater and Hoboken resident Maggie Mallan showcased the power of volunteerism which emerged after the storm and how the community stepped up to meet common needs.
Outwater volunteered at City Hall the day after the storm and soon found herself in charge of leading the community volunteer effort.
Mallan, who never lost power, opened her home to her friends and neighbors, allowing people to check their email, contact loved ones and store food in her refrigerator.
Two spiritual leaders, Monsignor Robert Meyer of Sts. Peter and Paul Church and April Harris of In Jesus’ Name Charities, explored the place of faith in the storm recovery.
Meyer opened his church to those in need, providing shelter to those who had lost everything.
“People trusted us and we tried to live up to that sacred trust,” he said.
Harris, who runs a food pantry for the poor, saw the entire ministry devastated by the storm, but just as quickly saw it come back – through donations from individuals and religious institutions across the country.
Technology activist David Haier and technology entrepreneur Aaron Price looked at the response of the tech community in Hoboken to Sandy.
Haier, who was out of state during Sandy, built Hoboken Sandy Maps, which used information gathered from social media and other online sources to show residents what locations and blocks in Hoboken had power during the storm. The maps garnered 600,000 views. Today, with the help of two Stevens students, Haier is developing Hoboken Crisis Map, an extension of the concept – although he hopes we never need to use it.
“There is a huge opportunity to gather information from individuals in future crises,” Haier said.
Aaron Price is a technology entrepreneur who founded NJ Tech Meetup, the largest tech group in the region. Immediately after the storm, he launched HealHoboken.org, a fundraising campaign for the Hoboken Relief Fund which received $32,000 in donations in the two weeks after Sandy.
“Technology empowered the community during Sandy,” Price said. Price and Haier are both looking for ways to ensure that technology and crowdsourced intelligence contribute to preparedness, planning and recovery efforts in future crises.
Robert Foster, executive director of the Hoboken Historical Museum, encouraged the public to visit a new exhibit which explores Hoboken’s past history with flooding, the community’s experience during the storm and during the recovery, and proposals for improving the city’s resiliency. Using personal stories, audio and images to explore the impact of Sandy and lessons learned about disaster response, the exhibit runs through July 6, 2014 at the museum at 1301 Hudson Street in Hoboken.
Finally, more speakers offered resources to aid in the ongoing recovering efforts for citizens who are still in need of support. Daniel Altilio of the United Way of Hudson County, and Dawn Donnelly, a disaster relief counselor, have partnered with the Hoboken Historical Museum to offer the Sandy Community Outreach Program, specifically aimed at providing mental health relief and other counseling services to residents effected by the storm.
Vinsel concluded the evening with a positive reflection on Hoboken’s collective experience.
“When Sandy came, people used their imaginations to envision a better future for each other,” Vinsel said. “Over and over again, we saw fundamentally hopeful acts. If we can take a bit from what we learned and hold onto it, it would be a great thing.”