My Thoughts on Sandy — and How You Can Help Storm Victims

First, let us get right to how you can help those who have been adversely affected by the storm known as Sandy: many suggestions are found here — some of which you could be rewarded with frequent flier loyalty program miles or frequent guest loyalty program points. Donate through a reputable charity or religious institution such as a church, mosque or synagogue; or donate through your favorite airline or hotel company…

…or, you can do what I did back in 2005 to help those people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina: roll up your sleeves and volunteer to help clean up. I drove to Mississippi and found devastation and destruction at a scale which I have never previously witnessed:

A shed was thrown against a tree in Pass Christian, Mississippi after the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina displaced it from its foundation. Photograph © Brian Cohen.

Mud caked the floors inside the living room of this home after the storm surge — which left a water line almost six feet high on the walls — caused by Hurricane Katrina receded. Some of the mud — a couple of inches deep in some places — had already been cleared away when this photograph was taken. Photograph © Brian Cohen.

That is me on the right, posing during a break showing that we mean business and are waging war on cleaning up the destruction caused by Hurrricane Katrina. Photograph © Brian Cohen.

Judging from the photographs I have been seeing in the media, many areas of the northeastern United States have experienced similar conditions — and they at times seem surreal to me, as I never imagined that the destruction endured by the northeastern United States could ever reach the magnitude that occurred greater than a couple of weeks ago. Even as I write this, there are still thousands of people currently without power.

Growing up in New York, I recall an occasional major snowstorm, as well as the occasional hurricane watch and other kinds of bad weather of which to be aware, but life was never disrupted for a significant period of time. My grandparents and other relatives would tell me about storms and other significant inclement weather experiences which occurred before I was born — but none of them have ever related to me anything remotely on the scale of what happened in New York City greater than two weeks ago. Do not let the Category 1 designation of the Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale fool you: Sandy was a major weather event that created historically devastating conditions to portions of New York City and other parts of the northeastern United States. At one point, it was physically the largest hurricane ever in the Atlantic Ocean, covering greater than 1,000 miles, with the lowest barometric pressures ever recorded in many parts of the northeastern United States.

For this reason, I disagree with those who claim that the dangers of this storm were exaggerated and overblown. Sure, the media at times may have sensationalized this weather event rather than simply reported on the forecast and its possible outcomes — but, in this case, the weather forecast was amazingly accurate, with the only anomaly being that the landfall of the storm occurred a few hours earlier than expected in southern New Jersey due to the storm unexpectedly increasing its forward momentum.

Let us not forget that this storm caused approximately 200 fatalities in seven countries, including the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It is also projected to have caused greater than $20 billion in damage, and greater than $50 billion in economic losses to businesses and governments.

I truly believe that the death toll and the billions of dollars in losses were actually mitigated due to the attention given to this historic storm. Many people heeded the dire warnings, for the most part. Could you imagine how much worse this disaster could have been if the transit system and tunnels in New York City were permitted to stay open and operate, or if people did not evacuate from their homes? Who knows how many hundreds or thousands of people might have died due to being trapped and drowned?

There are some people who are critical about the coverage of this storm, saying that worse disasters occur elsewhere in the world with little acknowledgement or fanfare, whether due to location, politics, or the social standing or class of those affected. I would tend to agree. However, the reality is that there are disasters occurring around the world at any given moment. Proof of that is shown by the Hungarian National Association of Radio Distress-Signalling and Infocommunications — or RSOE — map, as well as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordinate System map. Unfortunately — due to human nature, fair or unfair — certain disasters are covered by the media far more than others.

Try telling that to the people who lost their homes, their businesses, their possessions — and their loved ones. No matter how big or small, important or unimportant, popular or unpopular this storm might have been to others — to them, this was the worst disaster they have ever experienced. The residents in Breezy Point, New York — a community on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens where I used to ride by bicycle from Brooklyn across the Marine Parkway Bridge — currently cannot think about those who are displaced in Syria due to the civil war currently being waged there or about those who are starving due to a famine in Africa while they are staring at charred foundations of what used to be their homes, which burned down during the storm. Right now, they are concentrating on attempting to receive assistance so that they can rebuild.

To add insult to injury, the disaster caused by the storm known as Sandy has created what some may consider a macabre industry of intrigued tourists who gawk at the devastation that has substantially hit areas — such as the borough of Staten Island, the coast of Long Island, or the New Jersey shore — leaving some of those residents who are already suffering disturbed and uncomfortable. Would it not be nice if at least there was some way for storm victims to benefit from this temporary tourist trend?

For this reason, it is unfair to compare storms. While there was plenty of devastation to go around in those areas adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina — which was a Category 5 hurricane — there were also those people who suffered less than those affected by the storm known as Sandy. Comparisons do little good. It does not really matter to the person who lost everything but the clothes on his back which storm was actually “worse.” It is all relative.

On a lesser note, FlyerTalk members even now are still feeling the effects of the storm — whether it is about tales from the lines at gasoline stations to get fuel, or a rental car company no longer taking reservations in New York, or whether or not a rental car can be returned partially full due to fuel rationing. Of course, these pale in comparison to those who are truly suffering, but the storm affected millions of people in many different ways.

Some people call for measures to prevent — or, at least mitigate — disasters like those resulting from this storm from happening again. The New York Times, for example, reports on flaws regarding the protection of tunnels vital to moving around the New York City area, and there have been suggestions about installing a system at the entrance to New York Harbor to protect the city and surrounding areas from flooding in the future. The conundrum, however, is the balance of protection of what some consider to be an event that either has never happened before or only occurs once in a lifetime, versus the economics of a huge expenditure of capital to minimize disasters in the future, as some people argue that a storm such as Sandy — or worse — will happen again, as it is simply a matter of time.

Extensive research needs to be done to derive a balanced compromise between safety and expense where it makes sense — and that includes researching the role global warming might play in what seems to be an increase in stronger weather conditions. How does the world become safer without breaking the bank? How do we prevent disasters from happening again — or, at least, how do we minimize them?

I am hard-pressed to think of a location on this planet that is truly safe from harsh weather or human aggression. However, I do believe that we can collectively conjure sensible solutions worldwide to be prepared for the next potentially catastrophic event. Although expensive, one possible solution is to create sounder structures for homes and businesses which can better withstand the forces of nature — especially in locations vulnerable to extreme weather such as hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes — that would actually save money in the long run by mitigating damage and reducing insurance premiums.

What are your thoughts?

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