Balboni: Make sure we're really ready for next Sandy

"We vow to fix the problems associated with "We vow to fix the problems associated with storms and then...we simply forget about them," writes Michael Balboni. Photo Credit: M. Ryder/ Tribune Media Services

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As the hurricane headed toward the metropolitan region, the governors of both New York and New Jersey urged residents to stay home while the mayor of New York ordered residents of Staten Island and Coney Island to evacuate. Just before the storm hit, the streets of New York City were eerily emptied. Afterward, millions of people were without power. The Stock Exchange was shut down, as were schools. Gov. Cuomo said, "We got hurt. The damage is in the millions."

Sound familiar? Maybe so, but this is an account of 1985, after Hurricane Gloria, and it was Gov. Mario Cuomo commenting on the damage.

There appears to be a counterproductive coping mechanism at work. We awake to a disaster, respond to it and examine it. We vow to fix the problems associated with it and then . . . we simply forget about it.

The challenge after every disaster and subsequent report, including one I wrote as a state senator in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, is that the recommendations are either too complex or too expensive to carry out. So, over time, we move on without implementing many of the recommendations designed to prevent a repetition of the consequences we suffered.

There's hope that this time, after superstorm Sandy, will be different. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has named several commissions in Sandy's wake. They will analyze infrastructure performance, first-responder effectiveness (a commission I'm serving on), and crisis leadership and management at multiple levels of government.

The recommendations will be comprehensive, and they will likely come with a hefty price tag.

So this time, the recommendations must include an in-depth cost analysis of the required fixes and preventive measures, followed by a long-term commitment by government at all levels to pay for them. If our goal is to reliably sustain the systems we depend on in our daily lives, we must honestly assess the resources that are needed and how to provide them. Not everything can be fixed immediately, so we must commit ourselves to continued infrastructure improvements.

For example, in my 2005 report, I noted that radio communications in Nassau County were inadequate. The report also recommended that a catastrophe fund for property insurance be established, similar to one used in Florida, and that the state should require gasoline stations to have generators, funded through tax credits. But a full cost analysis was never performed, and neither were the recommendations followed -- to our detriment this fall.

The way to approach this is to do a vulnerability assessment, measure it against the resources available, and then devise a system to ensure that any further resources are acquired. The creative part comes with the analysis of the costs and the various means to pay for them. Tax credits, revolving-loan funds, bulk acquisition and spreading costs out over time have all worked in the past. The question is, can we follow through on our commitment to close our vulnerability gaps?

We know many sensible recommendations will emerge as Sandy is further studied. We can make this disaster different if we commit ourselves, this time, to adopting the programs that create long-term capabilities -- before the next storm.

One suggestion already emerging from the post-Sandy analysis is that acquiring large generators -- for water purification, sewage treatment, traffic lights and the like -- would help ensure the resilience of critical infrastructure. Because of their cost, the state should consider a revolving loan program for municipalities to purchase or lease them. That way, local governments will be more likely to be able to provide essential services, including telecommunications, water treatment and fuel distribution.

They key is to detail how to enable municipalities to make the investments.

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Michael Balboni, a former state senator and former New York State deputy secretary for public safety, is managing partner for Redland Strategies, a management consulting agency specializing in homeland security.

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