Eastern United States Devastated by Hurricane Irene – No Break from Onslaught of Natural Disasters

Eastern United States Devastated By Hurricane Irene – No Break from Onslaught of Natural Disasters:

Hurricane Irene devastated Eastern United States within a week after the Earthquake tremors and caused the worst flooding in recent history all the way from North Carolina to Vermont.

Hurricane Irene: Devastation of bridges, roads, buildings

Category 1 Hurricane Irene poured heavy rain with 115 mph wind speed when it made landfall in North Carolina (6 dead and thousands in shelters, half a million people without power). Turning into tropical storm with heavy rain and flooding Irene continued its 700 miles wide path all the way through New England. Irene poured 20 inches rain in North Carolina and 13 inches in New England.

Irene’s aftermath included (source – The Weather Channel):
• Airports closed and transit shutdown in New York and Boston
• 11,000 flights canceled affecting one million travelers
• Bridges and subway shut down in NY
• Bridges washed away and roads broken in many states causing many communities trapped without outside help
• Historic covered bridge of 1870 in Vermont washed away (worst flooding in Vermont after 1927 due to hilly terrain washing away more than 200 bridges and many roads)
• Trees falling on power transmission lines cutting off power to millions
• Power breakdown affected all DC metro area and surrounding region.
• Heavy flooding in a dozen states along the path of Irene in the coming days
• River overflow in all these states; rising sea water flooding coastal areas in New York and NJ
• Estimated human loss of 40 and 5 million people without power as of August 30

Ironically, there was no rain in Atlanta which is under dry spell for many months. Worst flooding was in Vermont after 1927 with 100-year flood occurred second time within a few years. This shows the inherent limitation of the flood insurance rate map (FIRM) developed by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

All this flood water overflowing rivers, devastating communities, buildings, and transportation infrastructure, and finally simply going to waste to the ocean. (See Guest Post 2 and Dr. Uddin’s note). This is just another indication of severe limitation of the approach of federal funding to government agencies because none is charged to protect nation’s lifeline infrastructure against natural disasters.
Question 1: Is there office in the U.S. executive branch looking at overall priorities for infrastructure funding to protect from natural disasters?
Question 2: Have the federal agencies and the U.S. Congress learned the important lesson to protect key lifeline infrastructure from hurricane and flood disasters instead of simply funding reconstruction when there are catastrophic failures?

(Photos: courtesy of Hely S. Gonzalez, Florida)

11 thoughts on “Eastern United States Devastated by Hurricane Irene – No Break from Onslaught of Natural Disasters”

  1. We in the northeast are not immune to the flooding typically seen in the southern US. The recent rains from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee laid waste to many towns in Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont.
    The effects of all the rain that fell and the ensuing hydrologic impacts were devastating as you can see in this article: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Expert-explains-Irene-s-destruction-2156590.php.

    Much is known about what happens when certain large amounts of rain fall in these areas (hydrologic models are very accurate these days due to improved elevation data from LIDAR and aerial photography).
    Often people rely on minor defenses already in place that are clearly described as inadequate by scientists and engineers: “It has been ascertained that these levees may not protect the community from rare events such as the 1-percent annual chance flood.” from http://www.rampp-team.com/county_maps/new_york/schoharie/schoharie_ny_fis_tables.pdf

    However, many residents were unprepared for the damaging effects of all the rain and many cities and towns were ill-equipped to manage or mitigate the flooding. A lot of the municipalities had been warned, but many elected to forgo the proper preparations or did not implement the recommended defenses as discussed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/us/12flood.html?_r=1&ref=floods.

    1. Thank you for your timely feedback.
      Your observation clearly demonstrates that landuse planning, permits, and infrastructure protection planning to cope with disasters must start at local level with the highest priority and with help and guidance of state and federal agencies. Otherwise, the consequences may be disastrous for the affected population and businesses because in the case of Vermont 500-year extreme flood events happened within last few years and noone was really prepared for the 2011 Irene onslaught and flooding aftermath.

  2. Lessons learned from hurricane disasters in the United States, 2005 – 2012:
    1. Communication between Local, state and federal Governments and their leadership of emergency management agencies. Insure that the incident management structure is implemented consistently at all levels.
    2. Major Hurricanes cause downtime due to overload and major losses in the power and communication infrastructure assets.
    3. Transportation infrastructure is disrupted (roads, bridges, transit services, airline flights, rail service).
    4. Structural damage is high when structures are not built to the latest hurricane building codes.
    5. Preparation for storm events needs to consider for the worst scenarios including destruction of lifeline infrastructure. All storms are not alike.
    6. Rethink Coastal Development and development priorities in floodpalins near coast and inland.
    7. In creased disaster planning with updated GIS maps and exercise response plan on yearly basis.
    8. A need for infrastructure asset management changes in the way you do things and how they are built.

    Suggested actions:
    1. Invest in infrastructure and asset management implementation to ensure good service and minimum service interruptions.
    2. Invest in mitigation for infrastructure asset damages, as well as in disaster prevention plans.
    3. Strengthen and implement up-to-date building codes.
    4. Ensure floodplain management compliance.
    5. Improve disaster response preparation and planning.
    6. Improve communication within key operating government agencies on lifeline infrastructure asset protection from disaster risks.
    7. Develop better communications between local, state and federal agencies dealing with critical lifeline infarstructure construction and maintenance.

  3. Several important lessons were learned from recent hurricane disasters and my recommended actions follow:

    1. Energy – No power supply or severe breakdowns

    Action – One of the vital needs of human being nowadays is power supply. Clearly, if the power transmissions are not designed for extreme winds and inadequately inspected and maintained, falling trees and flying debris easily cut off the supply. Federal government buildings and other critical facilities should have backup generator systems for emergency usage, plus sufficient fuel supply for at least a week, but fuel must be safely stored.

    2. Communication Failure – Thousands lost connection between families, relatives and friends.

    Action – The federal government needs to develop a coordination framework with communication infrastructure owners to ensure resilient power supplies for maintaining wireless phone and data networks that can support consumer communications devices when outage of power supply durng disasters.

    3. National preparedness towards disaster – Most government agencies were not prepared for this catastrophic event

    Action – Department of Homeland Security must provide necessary plans for catastrophic threats and natural disasters that happened without warning. The goals should include risk assessment and prevention damage to lifeline infrastructure assets and not just post disaster restoration efforts.

    4.Environmental Hazard and Debris removal – Took longer time to clear tons of solid waste and debris

    Action – Early planning and identifying suitable landfill locations as waste or debris disposal site after hurricane.

    5. Citizen and Community preparedness – Mostly, community did not prepare well for disaster and catastrophic situations.

    Action – Educate public on how serious the effect will be, clear briefing on evacuation processes, and help authorities on running mass care and shelter during and after disasters.

    6. Evacuation – Integrated timing and planning for evacuation is required.

    Action – The department of Transportation with other related departments must be prepared with better plans with web-based geospatial maps to conduct mass evacuation, not to neglect residents without personal transport and other helpless individual. Required transportation to deliver food, water, medicines, and other critical commodities must be prioritized and secured.

    7. Emergency Call – The 911 line will be at the peak usage during disaster and 911 should be dialed for emergency cases only.

    Action – Non- emergency case may dialed other emergency telephone number coding, maybe 311 to help those who really need to talk to 911 operator for instant help during life threatening situations. Cases clarification must be made for each emergency number’s usage.

    8. Public Infrastructure – Scheduled and preventive maintenance programs prevent further damages to the structure itself during extreme events. Bridge design must consider lateral, uplift, vertical force of water in design, as we learned from bridge failures during 2005 Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

    Action – Have technical expert groups to inspect and evaluate all possible aspects of critical structures, and make decision on structural replacement, reconstruction or rehabilitation.

    9. Human Well Being – Have additional food and water supply ready for disaster preparedness. Be positive and keep calm.

    Action – Self awareness towards disaster and ready for any possibilities. Use social media for improving volunteer recruitment and management

    10. Task Integration – Same individuals were helped twice, while others have no food, medicine, and other commodities supplied.

    Action – All parties involved in rescue and recovery operations should have a clear recovery missions to avoid redundancy of goods delivered and operators’s assignments.

  4. Lessons learned from hurricanes destruction in the U.S. from 2005 to 2012:
    1. Protection of critical infrastructure assets against flood disasters.
    2. Checking local building codes of storm protection and design for it.
    3. Making sure that the main electrical panel board and all electrical outlets and switches are located at least 12 inches above the flood elevation for your area.
    4. Planning an evacuation route over high ground ahead of time.
    5. Preparing for power outages by stockpiling flashlights and fresh batteries and a battery powered radio.
    6. Stocking up on water, non-perishable food and other supplies to be able to stay at home for up to three days.
    7. Clearing your yard objects that could become airborne in high winds and harm people.
    8. Give better risk signs and alerts when flood disaster may happen.
    9. Provide escape ladders for multi-story structures.
    10. Post emergency phone numbers at every phone equipment and promote mobile phone based alerts.

    Actions to be taken by government agencies to protect critical lifeline infrastructure and communities
    1. Conduct maintenance regularly.
    2. Provide funding for substitute and conserve needed infrastructures.
    3. Ensure availability of equipment and materials for restoration and repair.
    4. Adapt modern building codes and construction procedures for new and retrofitted structures to increase disaster resilience.
    5. Prepare emergency operations plans.
    6. Improvise, innovate, and expand safety infrastructures.
    7. Require public concern about disasters and the operation of critical infrastructure.
    8. Increase the strength or resistance in a system to withstand external demands without degradation or loss of functionality.
    9. Increase infrastructure properties that allow for alternate options, choices, and substitutions under unexpected stresses.
    10. Educate children effectively about hazards and environmental concerns.

  5. In my lifetime, some of the most devastating disasters to strike this country frequently are hurricanes. Here are some of my thoughts for actions and lessons to be learned from these weather relater events:
    – I feel we learned from Katrina that evacuation needs to begin as soon as possible upon notice of the formation of a hurricane that is found to be headed towards the U.S.
    – The post mentioned flights being cancelled and airports being shutdown due to Irene, I feel this is something that will be difficult to improve just due to the fact that flying in hurricane conditions just puts more lives at risk.
    – A possible improvement for helping with cancelled flights and leaving individuals stranded at an airport would be to provide a possible emailing or messaging system that keeps passengers up to date on the storms coming into the area for flights and the ability to let them know if flights will be cancelled or postponed plenty of time in advance. With most airline tickets being bought online now, I feel this would be effective. (Dr. Uddin’s note: Some airlines are practicing this, as I got several updates on flight schedules from the airline on my cell phone during my return recent trip to Washington, DC.)
    – I feel that as long as congested cities continue to have very limited access, such as New Orleans, it will be very difficult to get people evacuated and get crews into the cities to provide aid to those that remain.
    – Largely populated cities need to have plenty of evacuation routes, for multiple modes of transportation, going to and from the center of the city.
    – As long as power lines are running in areas with many trees and weaker structures that can easily be affected by wind, there will be large power outages during these hurricanes.
    – Extra steps should be taken to better prevent our power grids from being hit by lightning or being taken out by falling debris or the failure of weak power line towers.
    – Instead of spending money over and over on rebuilding large pieces of infrastructure such as bridges, the money needs to be spent now on better designing the structures to withstand these powerful storms.
    – There also needs to be more frequent and more stringent maintenance checks on larger structures in hurricane prone areas to allow us to know that they are at maximum strength to survive these storms.
    – More money needs to go into the prepping of our coasts for these storms because there will be more and they almost seem to be getting larger as they strike. More money for better preparation, inspections, agencies providing aid, warning systems etc could be better used to help save more lives and critical infrastructure assets in these regions.

  6. A. Lessons to be learned from destruction of hurricanes which struck the United States from 2005 to 2012:
    From 2005 to 2012, there were many hurricanes which made landfall in the United States. Some of them are extremely destructive hurricanes such as Katrina (August 2005), Irene (May 2011), and Sandy (October 2012). There are some lessons to be learn from destruction impacts of these hurricanes:
    1. Beware of sea level rise:
    The sea level in the most coastal areas has risen about a foot (0.3 meters) over the last century. Because of these rising sea levels, even weaker storms in the future can cause more devastating flooding. New Orleans and Jakarta are good examples.
    2.Think natural:
    As a result of development over the centuries, many coastal areas and their surrounding areas have lost wetlands, mangroves, and oyster reefs, which are natural features that once protected the coastal erosion from storms. Preventing further loss from development and human activities and restoring these features could help make the coast and coastal lands more resilient, such as by reducing wave velocity and erosion. Wetlands and oyster reefs also provide other benefits, such as the removal of contaminants from the water and wildlife protection.
    3. Reconsider costs:
    On average, every $1 spent to make infrastructure assets more resilient against pounding storms saves $4 or more in future costs, but human nature tends not to acknowledge this math of life cycle assessment.
    4. Plan and prepare for multiple crisis scenarios:
    The best outcomes from crises happen because the scenario that created them was predicted and a better solution set planned. Although the disaster itself may not have been a predicted scenario, the response, in all of its layers and components, indeed, was carefully planned.
    5. Response and recovery of fuel supply and electrical powers:
    Electrical power outages and interruptions in fuel supply can cause the shutdown of ports, railroads, refineries, and pipeline stations.

    B. Actions to be taken by government agencies to protect lifeline infrastructure assets and communities:
    1. Federal government to adequately coordinate its actions with state and local agencies for infrastructure protection and restoration efforts, as well as evacuation planning and implementation.
    2. States, federal government, and local agency offices should respond to each hurricane with a comprehensive understanding of the interdependency of the critical infrastructural asset groups in each geographic area and the potential local and national impact of their decisions. A national response plan guidebook should be in place to help out all communities, large and small.
    3. Federal government should have adequate timely, accurate, and relevant ground-truth information from state and local sources necessary to evaluate and prioritize which critical infrastructure assets were damaged. This requires risk assessment of critical infrastructure
    4. National Response Plan-guided responses should account for the need to coordinate critical infrastructure protection and restoration efforts across the Emergency Support Function
    5. Pre-disaster mitigation planning should be in place in vulnerable araes to protect communities and infrastructure based on disaster risk assessment.
    6. Redesign and relocation of transportation facilities may be necessary in areas which are always prone to natural disasters.
    7. Implement social media based volunteer management tools to mobilize more volunteers from within the affected areas and neighbor states to help the areas affected by hurricanes (remove trees that fall on roads or power line and debris…).

  7. The purpose of this paper is to provide a Perspective on the following two questions:
    • Question 1: Is there office in the U.S. executive branch looking at overall priorities for infrastructure funding to protect from natural disasters?
    • Question 2: Have the federal agencies and the U.S. Congress learned the important lesson to protect key lifeline infrastructure from hurricane and flood disasters instead of simply funding reconstruction when there are catastrophic failures?

    Answer to Question 1:
    The search for an office in the executive branch with the main mission of reviewing overall priorities for infrastructure funding in any form has not been found. President George W. Bush by executive order established the “President’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board”. This was mainly for information systems. In 2013 President Obama released Presidential Memorandum — Modernizing Federal Infrastructure Review and Permitting Regulations, Policies, and Procedures. This still did not establish an office for “critical infrastructure proetection” within federal government.
    In the Department of Homeland Security the Office of Infrastructure Protection was found. The Vision and Mission is:
    The vision of the Office of Infrastructure Protection is secure and resilient critical infrastructure across the Nation achieved through sound risk management, collaboration, information sharing, innovation, effective program management, and a highly skilled workforce.
    The mission is to lead the national effort to protect critical infrastructure from all hazards by managing risk and enhancing resilience through collaboration with the critical infrastructure community.
    This office under the Department of Homeland security in my perspective that would fall under “an office in the executive branch”.

    Answer to Question 2:
    I do not believe that the federal agencies and the U.S. Congress have learned the important lesson to protect key lifeline infrastructure from hurricane and flood disasters instead of simply funding reconstruction when there are catastrophic failures. In looking up all disaster funding requirements it does not indicate they have. The following quote from DOT disaster funding section indicates my perspective.
    “Before your company applies for Federal funding to repair and restore the local transportation infrastructure and facilities after a disaster, you need to understand that the majority of Federal funding for such projects can only be used to restore the network to pre-disaster conditions. You may, however, apply for and use other funds to supplement Federal resources to improve impacted transportation systems and mitigate damage from future disasters.”
    The laws that pertain to federal funding in disasters has not been changed to include mitigation and improvement to bring the systems above existing standards. The Corps of Engineers practice for levee repairs from flood related damages has not changed. Under the PL 84-99 Program repairs can only be made to pre-event conditions. No improvement or enhancement with federal funds are authorized.
    Since all federal agencies operate under the laws that pertains to how to use federal funding for disaster repair and recovery Congress must take a lead and change the laws that pertain how the funds are spent in disaster repair and recovery to include mitigation to the repairs.

  8. Question 1: Is there office in the U.S. executive branch looking at overall priorities for infrastructure funding to protect from natural disasters?

    My answer to Question 1:
    The U.S. government is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the costs of natural disasters through disaster declarations and spending by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The number of presidential disaster declarations has generally increased over the last half century, since the federal government has assumed continuous responsibility for disaster aid. The federal government’s costs for natural disasters are increasing both in terms of the federal budget and the gross domestic product (GDP). Even when accounting for the exponential rise in GDP over the last four decades, costs of natural disasters as a percentage of GDP have more than tripled. The timescale of human experience is short compared to the recurrence interval of many natural phenomena. While we develop infrastructure resilient to common events, such as routine seasonal weather, we remain vulnerable to those extreme events that occur less frequently or over longer timescales.
    Regarding the fund for natural disasters, most of funds from U.S. government that support response to natural disaster are for the support during or after disasters. For examples, after Katrina in 2005, FEMA had funded $5.5 billion to repair and replace damaged public infrastructure assets and supported more than $3.7 billion to assist with debris removal efforts through the Public Assistance program.
    However, the government also has some federal disaster funding programs such as Hazard mitigation grant program, Pre-disaster mitigation program, Flood mitigation assistance. These programs provide funding for eligible mitigation activities that reduce disaster loss and protect life and property from future disaster damages.
    In conclusion, the U.S. executive branch is not really looking at overall priorities and providing federal leadership for infrastructure funding to protect critical assets from natural disasters.

    Question 2: Have the federal agencies and the U.S. Congress learned the important lesson to protect key lifeline infrastructure from hurricane and flood disasters instead of simply funding reconstruction when there are catastrophic failures?

    My answer to Question 2:
    Hurricanes and flood disasters have caused catastrophic damages to key lifeline infrastructure assets. For instance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 100 commercial radio stations were forced off the air and 2000 cell towers were knocked out. Emergency 911 services were severely damaged. Transportation infrastructure was seriously disrupted. Key highway and rail bridges were destroyed.
    Hurricanes (Katrina, sandy, etc.) necessitated a national response that Federal, State, and local officials were unprepared to provide. The lack of communications among DOT and other agencies and situational awareness had a debilitating effect on the Federal response. Even after some coordinating elements were in place, Federal departments and agencies continued to have difficulty adapting their standard procedures to catastrophic incidents. The lack of expertise in the areas of response, recovery, and reconstruction. The hurricanes demonstrated the need for greater integration and synchronization of preparedness and prevention efforts, not only throughout the Federal government, but also with the State and local governments, and the private and non-profit sectors as well.
    There are some useful lessons that the federal agencies and the U.S. Congress may consider to protect communities and key lifeline infrastructure from future hurricane and flood disasters:
    1. The Department of Homeland Security (DHL) should revise the National Response Plan to (a) Provide for a stronger Infrastructure Support Branch in the National Operations Center. The Infrastructure Support Branch should coordinate among the appropriate Emergency Support Function’s to ensure that the guidance developed by the Critical Infrastructure Policy Coordinating Committee is followed for infrastructure protection in high risk areas and restoration after a disaster event. In addition, this branch should coordinate with critical infrastructure sectors, provide senior leaders with a summary report and model results, and develop recommendations for preemptive and responsive actions to re-mediate or mitigate the impact of the loss of the critical infrastructure. (b) Strengthen the role and responsibility of the infrastructure liaison. This role should be more clearly defined, and have greater responsibility which should include a designated group of trained critical infrastructure staff from Federal departments and agencies including DHS staff with expertise in infrastructure protection technologies. The liaison should gather and fuse relevant data about private infrastructure operational status and coordinate overall Federal response efforts for infrastructure restoration and recovery.
    2. DHS should revise the National Preparedness Goal to require the collaborative development of regional disaster plans with the states and private sector.
    3. Set basic criteria for private sector preparedness against which these regional plans can be measured. There is a lack of a clear and agreed upon prioritized implementation plan to address the coordinated restoration and protection of critical infrastructure during times of limited resources and competing demands. Basic levels of private sector preparation similar to those outlined in the National Preparedness Goal should be set and used to measure progress in restoration planning.
    4. Standardize Federal government policy to link the prioritization of both protection and restoration. Linking prioritization for protection and prioritization for restoration will motivate private sector participation in the effort to prioritize critical infrastructure and to develop disaster response plans.
    5. The Department of Commerce should lead, in cooperation with the Department of Treasury, Homeland Security, and other sector specific agencies as appropriate, the development of a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security for incentives and other mechanisms to motivate private sector cooperation and participation in efforts to prioritize infrastructure and community protection.
    6. DHS should share the plans and policy for Federal response and delineated roles and responsibilities with other government levels and the private sector too.

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