I got into New York City yesterday. It is so cold outside at night that it hurts my eyeballs, but fortunately the novelty of this has not worn off. Yet. I am immersed once again in subway noise and unexpected smells and dodging taxis while I jaywalk and 24 hour diners. There is too much to do, always, especially because I have spent hours – or what seems like hours – staring at this map of predicted vs. actual flooding during Hurricane Sandy. [There is also a “remixed” version which doesn’t allow you to zoom in or out but juxtaposes the two for a better idea of real vs. predicted.] Henry Grabar, who posted it to the Atlantic Cities blog, writes:
The striking thing about the map, which includes all areas of New York and New Jersey affected by the storm surge, is how close the contours of the estimates were to reality. Though the degree of damage varied from place to place, flipping back and forth from projection to reality is an affirmation of how well-informed we were about what a storm surge would look like — and, despite that, ill-prepared.
The larger question, I think, is what we imagine preparedness to be. Is it having the information? Is it ensuring distribution? Is it making the plan? Is it making sure the plan has enough money behind it? Is it forcing people to leave the evacuation areas? Is it changing or expanding the evacuation areas to account for errors in the GIS number-crunching? Many deaths, particularly on Staten Island, were related to people who either did not receive the order to evacuate (solvable) or refused to leave (much more problematic).
And, of course, it’s worth remembering the blame game that gets played after every disaster* – to the extent that the city, state, or FEMA up the ante in terms of the preparation that people can expect, they can then be blamed when the disaster response fails to live up to those expectations. Not to mention the way people also get angry at the Red Cross for failing to meet everyone’s needs – a prime example of the way ostensibly public functions (disaster relief) have defaulted to private organizations in the absence of government resources (or in the presence of government ineptitude). At least in this instance nobody will be living in contaminated FEMA trailers.
* It’s also worth mentioning the scientists who were jailed for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy.