Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

November 6, 2012

Responses to Hurricane Sandy are disasters in their own right

— — The huge storm formed by Hurricane Sandy and associated meteorological elements reminds us just how much we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. The death toll is now more than 110 and may go higher. Thousands have seen their homes destroyed, 131 homes in one New York City neighborhood were destroyed by fire, and thousands more homes received heavy storm damage. Thousands are still without electricity, and while there is gasoline at filling stations, most of them don’t have power to run the pumps, so gas lines are usually hours long. Multitudes have no place to stay, no food, water, or clothing, and it is cold there.

As they always do, the police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel performed at heroic levels, however, millions of people were gravely affected, and major relief efforts are plainly inadequate, not unlike the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, failed to pre-stage ample amounts of bottled water and other supplies nearby prior to the storm, as it proclaimed it would do on its website as part of its “lean forward” strategy, despite several days of advanced warning of the coming catastrophe. Days later, Staten Island residents were pleading for food and water, and while thousands try to survive cold temperatures without electricity and necessities, generators that could provide power sit idle in parking lots.

And inadequate preparation has been compounded by foolish thinking.

According to Politico, “When President Barack Obama urged Americans under siege from Hurricane Sandy to stay inside and keep watch on ready.gov for the latest, he left out something pretty important — where to turn if the electricity goes out,” and FEMA “told the public via Twitter to use texts and social media outlets to stay informed.”

Power company workers from Decatur Utilities drove hours from Alabama to lend a hand in New Jersey restoring electricity to the thousands who desperately needed it, only to be told by the local power company workers union they weren’t welcome unless they signed a union agreement.

As reported on the Fox Business Channel website, “Officials from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers presented Alabama-based Decatur Utilities with documents that ‘required our folks to affiliate with the union,’ according to Ray Hardin, general manager of Decatur Utilities. ‘That was something that we could not agree to. It was our understanding, and still is, that it was a requirement for us to work in that area.’ ”

Ed Hill, international president of the IBEW, told Fox Business later in an emailed statement: “It is the policy of this union and the companies we represent to welcome assistance during major natural disasters — regardless of union status.” Oooops! Apparently, someone didn’t get that message.

And then there’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who thought it was a good idea to go ahead with the New York City Marathon that was scheduled for Sunday, only a few days after the storm hit. The mayor drew a parallel between 2001 and 2012, saying “Rudy (Guiliani) made the right decision” holding the 2001 race after 9/11. However, that race was held weeks after that tragedy, while the super storm occurred just days before this year’s marathon.

The marathon course winds through five New York boroughs, some of which still are obstructed by the destruction caused by the storm, and the idea of holding the event when so many are still suffering so greatly really set some people off. “All the water and blankets and food that are given to these runners can be better utilized for those who lost everything and to shelters,” one outraged resident stated. Before the mayor finally gave in to common sense, storm victims who had taken rooms in hotels and motels were unceremoniously ousted for marathon participants who had reserved rooms for the race.

Rep. Michael Grimm, who represents Staten Island and Brooklyn, sharply criticized Mayor Bloomberg for his initial decision to hold the race as planned. “We’re still pulling bodies out of the water and the mayor is worried about marathon runners and returning to life as normal,” Mr. Grimm said. “The Verrazano Bridge should be used for getting fuel and food in to Staten Island, not getting runners out. Police resources would be best allocated to prevent looting and in rescue and recovery operations.”

A good bit of the problem is that people are focused on the wrong things. New York’s mayor thought it was more important to show the world that New York was returning to normal than helping the tens of thousands of his constituents who are having trouble surviving return to normal.

Hotel managers thought it was more important to honor the reservations of marathon participants than to rent rooms to storm victims whose homes were destroyed or unlivable and need a warm place to sleep.

The New York Road Runners organization that puts on the NYC Marathon couldn’t see the suffering of victims of “recent extreme weather conditions” because its vision of the marathon blocked out everything else.

And FEMA still is beset with red tape, inefficiency and performance issues so prevalent in federal bureaucracies.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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