Hurricane Irene – Few takeaways

August 29, 2011 at 7:04 am | Posted in Blogroll, General | Leave a comment

As we are currently on vacation in New Jersey US, we had an opportunity to witness the high drama around Hurricane Irene this weekend. There have been only five major hurricanes around New York in last century and half, of which the last one was twenty five years back. Irene was expected to be the next one; hence there was a lot of worried anticipation. There was a heavy news coverage starting a few days before. Three days back, first we saw shots of devastation caused by the hurricane in Bahamas and remembered our visit there last year. There were a few familiar landmarks but they were hardly recognizable. Over next three days, the tempo kept building up till it passed over New York yesterday.

Like everybody else we also sat glued to the TV. Now that it is over, I remember a few snippets which had some interesting takeaways, which I would like to share.

Surprisingly there were no visits by politicians and celebrities to the shelters or hospitals, with news cameras in tow. Right from a city mayor to a governor to the president everybody just repeated the checklist of things to do and not do. There checklists were distilled from the past experience in similar situations.

The preparations and their communication at different levels were meticulous; whether it was sealing of doors & windows in low lying areas, the evacuations, presence of met staff to collect live data at large number of locations or the arrangement of shelters.

As is human nature, despite repeated warnings some people had gone into the see and started drowning. The 911 call resulted in quick help with life jackets saving their lives. But after they were taken out to safety, as mayor Bloomberg sternly mentioned in his address over TV, they were served summons for diverting scarce & critically resources while at the same time commending the efforts put in by the rescuers. This was in stark contrast to children falling into tube wells requiring hours of efforts by police & even army with apparently no action being taken against the landowners who carelessly leave their tube wells uncovered.

Steve Levy the executive of Suffolk County mentioned an incident in 1986 when after the last major hurricane there were shortages of essential commodities and again as is human nature those who had supplies tried to make a huge profit by charging exorbitant prices. Steve was a legislator then and he mentioned that they were very angry and created a legislation to take stringent action against unscrupulous persons during such special situations. He said that those measures are currently in force and warned the people not to take advantage of the situation as they would be dealt with quite harshly.

After the eye of storm had passed over New york city yesterday with much less damage than was anticipated as a couple of hours back it had turned from a category-1 hurricane into a tropical storm, Mike the TV anchor on weather channel almost ruefully but jokingly said that this was almost  a letdown. To which the met guy on the boardwalk on long beach mentioned that they did not have enough data of a category-1 hurricane over the eastern coast to accurately predict and hence probably overestimated the impact. Next time with better data they may not need to evacuate to such an extent in similar circumstances. To this there was a comment that next time it may turn into an underestimate. On the whole, these few days were quite interesting.

To summarize watching the whole chain,

  • The data from past was used to improve prediction and converted into practical checklists which were effectively and specifically communicated & reinforced with repetition.
  •  The attention was not unnecessarily diverted to politicians & celebrities grabbing limelight & attention by announcing relief using public funds.
  •  The good work was promptly and publicly appreciated while at the same time publicly warning the offenders diverting critical resources of consequences.
  •  Learning from experience, suitable legal structures were put in place and invoked when there was the need.
  •  Last but not the least, there was a realization of the importance as well as limitation of data in future predictions.

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