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Hurricane Sandy and the Transport Specialist: post factum impressions

Virginia Tanase's picture

Almost two weeks ago, when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, the importance of sustainable transport--which is the field I work in--really came home to me.  I was in New York for a UN Working Group meeting on transport’s contribution to sustainable development—one of the priorities for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s second term.

The meeting was disrupted by Hurricane Sandy, which prevented several members of the Group from traveling and limited the possibilities to connect via Skype or other means. Despite the adverse circumstances, including closure of public buildings, suspension of transportation as from Sunday afternoon, and heavy rain, 18 members of the Group (myself included) met in front of the UN HQ on Monday morning at 8.45 am and were allowed to “sneak” into the conference room…for two hours only, because of security reasons.

The meeting continued in a conference room at a hotel in the city—of course most of us had to walk there as taxis were already rare or booked…

I travelled from Washington D.C. to New York for this meeting by bus on the Sunday and my return bus on the Tuesday evening was cancelled, so I had to stay an extra night at the hotel in New York. Besides the additional price for that night, I had to pay an emotional “price” because initially I was put on a waiting list for the room, with a crowd of people begging for accommodation. On Monday the room at the hotel was not cleaned and toiletries were not supplied because, of course, no transport was available for hotel staff to come to work. There were long queues at the few shops that were open, with people buying whatever was left on the shelves. I bought four small bottles of water (the big ones were long gone) and two packs of biscuits that I would not eat in normal conditions, but they were all that was left…

On Tuesday our two colleagues from New York could not come for the meeting because they live on the other side of the river and the bridges were closed. A pessimist could have felt caught in a trap:  airports were closed, trains and buses were suspended, and part of Manhattan was dark and full of traffic police because there was no electricity, so no traffic lights were working… On the streets where there was electricity people were attached like grapes to the plugs available, to recharge their cell phones and other portable devices…

The buses to DC resumed on Wednesday but the morning one was overbooked from the very moment of the announcement that the buses were operating again. So I had to be very convincing to get a seat on the evening bus, but when the bus moved all the passengers had a victorious smile on their faces: we made it!  How little we need to be happy and feel lucky…

As we drove down the highway from New York to DC, through New Jersey, it was appalling to see the long queues at the fuel stations, with police keeping order.  It reminded me of the old, dark and sad times when there was a monthly fuel quota in my country, Romania.

I have a vivid imagination and, while we were in the bus, I asked myself all kind of questions and imagined people who were supposed to travel to their own wedding but were stranded somewhere in the world, or large quantities of perishable goods rotting because of the lack of electricity or transport, or missed transplants because the organs could not be brought to where they were needed…

This real-life example of how a severe weather event can disrupt transport is from a developed country.  I asked myself how things would be managed in the developing world, where the knowledge, tools, and means to deal with such events are often lacking and where transport disruptions not only cause inconvenience but can also threaten lives and livelihoods. I got the answer later in the week when images from Haiti, hit earlier by the same Sandy, started to be broadcast- there, the situation was not managed, transport systems broke down, and people were knocked back once again:  lost lives, crops, material goods…

Does anybody doubt that sustainable transport should be a development goal?