Municipal risk and emergency management administrators should treat Superstorm Sandy as an opportunity to review their local disaster preparedness and response plans, even if they were not directly affected by the storm, experts said.
More than 80% of city governments surveyed in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2012 National Preparedness Report said they were confident that their current emergency operations plans would adequately respond to a catastrophic event. However, experts said, periodic re-examination of a community's emergency management capabilities often reveals glaring deficiencies in its disaster preparations and response strategies, especially when viewed in the context of an event as destructive as Sandy.
Unfortunately, identifying specific vulnerabilities and potential solutions is only part of the challenge facing most cities and towns. In order to affect substantive disaster readiness and response improvements, municipal risk and emergency management administrators may need to overcome local budget constraints and political temperaments. To do that, administrators will need detailed assessments of their community's current disaster readiness capabilities, event probabilities and loss projections as a result of a disaster.
“Especially since the end of the recession, all of our government clients are faced with having to do more with less in terms of funding and personnel,” said Adam Balls, the Cincinnati-based vice president of public risk at Hylant Group Inc. “One of the more worrisome elements of that is that a lot of city management teams can wind up putting off risk management discussions like this in favor of operations that are more critical on a day-to-day basis, so finding the time and the resources to do some of this high-level disaster planning definitely becomes an issue.”
One element experts said cities frequently overlook is the degree to which they can pre-emptively mitigate their exposure to catastrophic property damage and loss of life. Approximately 31% of U.S. residents live in cities and towns not covered by a FEMA-approved local mitigation plan, according to the agency's report.
“Everybody that looks at emergency planning looks at two areas, which are preparedness and response. Both of those are great, but those are only half of the puzzle,” said Geoffrey Bacci, director of operations at Batavia, Ill.-based Aires Consulting Group Inc., a division of Gallagher Bassett Services Inc. “Mitigation is all of the things you can do to either prevent a disaster from happening in the first place, or at least prevent or reduce the effects of a disaster. The problem is that the conversation about mitigation really only happens after a municipality has some experience with a disaster.”
Depending on their specific profile of disaster exposures, cities could find themselves with a host of mitigation options. Common solutions for hurricane-exposed communities include structural investments such as levees, dams, floodways and wind-resistant retrofits for public buildings and infrastructure, as well as legislative measures such as stricter building codes, zoning ordinances, risk mapping and hazard vulnerability disclosure requirements.
A 2005 study by the Washington-based Multi-hazard Mitigation Council indicated that every dollar spent on pre-event disaster mitigation measures can save as much as $4 in costs associated with property damage, business interruptions, emergency response operations and loss of life. To the extent that their mitigation plans qualify, communities may be able to access federal funding through FEMA to ease the up-front financial burden of their investments.
Experts said cities will need to weigh the economic effects of any structural or non-structural mitigation measures they undertake against the probability of a catastrophic event and the severity of projected losses absent the measures to determine whether mitigation is the right course of action.
“There's a fine balance you have to draw between protecting property and overregulating construction and building based on something that might only happen once in a blue moon,” said John Grook, risk management administrator at the City of Virginia Beach, Va. “You don't want to wind up overtaxing developers and citizens.”
Another common oversight in many municipalities' disaster planning is the absence of contingencies for the unexpected loss of access to resources and personnel. Aside from many billions of dollars in property damage, Superstorm Sandy crippled much of the transportation infrastructure in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, which in turn dealt a tremendous blow to the effective distribution of emergency personnel and equipment, utility repair teams and relief supplies, and access to designated shelters and emergency checkpoints.
“A lot of times, a plan is really good for meeting the normal exposures that a city anticipates, whether it be a flood or a tornado,” said Tom Metzner, senior loss control consultant at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Lockton Cos. L.L.C. “But when it gets into multiple elements and back-up plans being taken out of operation during an event, you can be left with gaping holes in your plan. For example, if a municipality has designated a high school or some other facility as an emergency shelter, have they gone to the extent of figuring out what would happen if that shelter was taken out of the game?”
Superstorm Sandy also exposed substantial weaknesses in many communities' emergency communications models, specifically where rescue and recovery efforts were reliant on access to cell service. According to reports by the Federal Communications Commission, about 25% of the cellular towers along the coastline between Virginia and Massachusetts were disabled during the storm, affecting nearly 160 counties across 10 states.
While improving the resiliency of cellular networks will largely be the responsibility of provider companies and the FCC, experts said local governments can guard against the risk of communication failures by fortifying and enhancing public access to auxiliary systems, such as pre-programmed CB radio channels and satellite phones.