THE RECOVERY is now in earnest for those still without power, for public transportation systems that closed during the height of the snowstorm, and for families who left their homes to seek shelter. But the great nor’easter of 2013 isn’t over. We will rebound, but, if we are lucky, this storm will never end.
Every disaster has repercussions. In 2013, the lessons learned from the Blizzard of 1978 clearly animated decisions about preparation and response. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were also important precursors. There will be immediate recovery needs, of course, but the focus will soon turn to digesting the lessons of this weekend’s storm. They will become part of the legacy, even mythology, of the
nor’easter. Mistakes made during this week’s cleanup will become part of that narrative, helping to drive preparations for the next storm. There is a perpetual feedback loop. The cycle of learning and adjusting never ends.
This weekend’s thesis adviser was the Blizzard of 1978. That storm was much more than a paralyzing inconvenience; ninety-nine people died. Fatalities can happen in any disaster, but how and why people die matters greatly for the next time. The 1978 blizzard has been studied for decades to determine whether those 99 deaths could have been prevented. Many of the victims were overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning while waiting in their stranded cars.
Knowing that one fact, and equipped with the fruits of more advanced weather predictions, Governor Deval Patrick decided to institute a sweeping travel ban. It was an extreme move, in a good way. It was life-saving. Keeping people off the roads wasn’t just to protect them, or to leave more room for snow plows, but to ensure that limited public safety resources weren’t wasted on saving people who could otherwise have been home.
It is worth noting that the only driving-related fatalities this weekend occurred in other states; massive pileups, with drivers stuck in cars for hours on end, took place in states that failed to institute travel bans. Preventing deaths has rarely been simpler. Meanwhile, the deficiencies in the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, in particular, led to advancements in federal emergency management support, airline cancellation protocols, communications systems, and the speed of coastal evacuations, all of which came into play in this storm.
Now, guarding against the next disaster will not simply be a matter of building stronger sea walls or refining communications systems still further. Those kinds of improvements may be necessary. But a key test will be how quickly we’re able to institutionalize the subtler lessons of this blizzard. Given that such storms appear to be happening more frequently and with greater intensity, and that the consequences of a local storm can be felt in flight cancellations throughout the globe, a sophisticated lessons-learned apparatus may be one of the most valuable investments for any society.
A deeper awareness of the need to quicken the analysis of disaster responses is starting to be reflected in policy priorities. Contrary to the impression that most homeland security and emergency management funds are spent on fancy equipment, almost half of that money is steered toward analysis and training. While recognizing that each disaster is different, and will require different types of solutions, it’s important to understand that history still provides the most valuable learning tools. Teaching first responders and political leaders about events like this weekend’s nor’easter will save lives and protect property. Simulated rescues, training exercises, and detailed “lessons learned” reports will enable officials to figure out what worked, and didn’t.
The greatest challenge will be figuring out how best to make individual citizens and families part of that feedback loop. Resiliency requires a constant learning curve, and families who confronted unexpected obstacles last weekend should take note of any deficiencies in their own planning: no batteries, not enough snow salt, limited food supplies. After shoveling the walk and restocking the refrigerator following this ordeal, a few minutes of evaluation should be in order.
Ordinary citizens, as much as governors or public-safety workers, have every capacity to improve their disaster responses. Getting back to normal as quickly as possible shouldn’t be the only goal following a storm of this magnitude. Understanding the limits of both public and personal planning should stimulate improvements. It should create a new baseline for future catastrophes.
This “new normal” will eventually be replaced by a newer normal after our response to the next disaster exposes further gaps and deficiencies in planning. In the struggle for resiliency after a disaster, there is no finish line.