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Hurricane Irene and the Routine of Emergency Response

All of the advanced preparation and response to the storm prevented death, injury and damage. We may have escaped the worst imaginable catastrophe this time, but perhaps we won't next time. It is better to be inconvenienced than dead.
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As Hurricane Irene made its way up the east coast of the United States, we saw an impressive set of emergency measures taken by local, state and federal agencies. Increasingly sophisticated emergency response has become a fundamental and expected function of government in the developed world. We see this in the United States and we need to see enhanced capacity on a worldwide basis. There are three reasons for the need for more routinized and sophisticated emergency capacity. The first is that there are more people on the planet and here in the United States. We are approaching 7 billion people worldwide, and some projections call for world population to peak at 10 billion by the end of the century. The number of people in the pathway of exposure to danger grows daily. The second reason is that for the first time in world history most of the world's population lives in cities. Urban people depend on others to provide the basics of life: food, water and shelter. Some of the systems that deliver these necessities are fragile, and when disasters hit, it is difficult to avoid their impact. The third reason is that people like me love the ocean and have the means to live nearby.

In fact, while waiting out Irene in my apartment in New York City's Morningside Heights, my thoughts, fears and hopes centered on a narrow sand bar on the south shore of Long Island, where I have spent summers for nearly a quarter century. It's a place called Long Beach, New York. Long Beach has been a popular resort since early in the 20th century, and has survived many storms. Although I am not an environmental scientist, I work with them every day at Columbia University's Earth Institute. They have made me aware of the risks of owning property near the ocean, but it is a risk I knowingly take.

I guess I have always loved the ocean and the beach. As a boy I lived a bike ride away from Rockaway's Riis Park, and a short distance from Brooklyn's Manhattan and Brighton Beaches. In 1987, my wife and I bought a small (1,000 square foot) bungalow in Long Beach. Perhaps love of the beach is a genetic trait for me, since soon afterward my older sister, parents and younger sister also bought homes in Long Beach. For my parents and sisters, Long Beach is their year-round home. For my wife, kids and me, Long Beach is our summer place. Our bungalow is in the West End of town, in the narrowest part of the Island. Where I live, Long Beach is only two blocks wide. One block adjoins the bay, the other is closer to the ocean.

Long Beach is an urban beach. It has great Long Island Railroad connections, buses, bars, restaurants, a terrific library, and a wonderful boardwalk with a bike lane in the center of it. The beach and ocean can be both a playground and a soothing counterpoint to the bustle of the beach town behind it. To know Long Beach is to love it; it is a distinctive and special place. While my neighbors and I like to think it is a unique place, we know its not. Many other folks on the eastern seaboard love the ocean and are willing to take risks to continue to live there. Like many of them, I expect that at some point floods and winds will damage my home. Since my house is about a hundred years old, I hope it will survive whatever damage comes to it. While I know living close to the water involves risk, I am not in it alone, and pay both insurance premiums and taxes to hedge my bet and reduce my exposure to risk.

I assume and expect that government will do its job to protect my home and ensure the well-being of my neighbors. I have not been disappointed by what I've seen. In fact, I was impressed by the degree of mobilization and emergency response capacity in place for the hurricane. Some people may come to believe that the evacuation of Long Beach and other places near the shore on the East Coast was an over-reaction. Some may think that New York City's Mayor Bloomberg and New York State Governor Cuomo panicked when they closed the New York City's subway, buses and commuter railways in anticipation of the storm. I am not one of those people. I think that all of the advanced preparation and response to the storm prevented death, injury and damage to property. We may have escaped the worst imaginable catastrophe this time, but perhaps we won't next time. It is better to be inconvenienced than to be dead.

As the storm made its way up the coast and government's leaders and first responders sprang into action, I didn't hear much anti-government nonsense from the ideologues of the Tea Party. Many people (including me) were unhappy about the disruption to their summer weekend, but most people understood the need for order, authority and action in the face of nature's fury. Over the past decades we have learned a great deal about how to use technology, volunteers and best management practices to anticipate, ensure response and clean up after emergencies. These "emergencies" are becoming increasingly routine. Heightened capacity and coordinated emergency response can reduce the impact of these events. This greater capacity costs money and (gasp!) we may need to tax ourselves to get that money. At least here in the United States we have the wealth needed to pay for emergency responses. What about those parts of the world that do not have the resources we have? Can we allow them to simply suffer and die?