“Superstorm” Sandy passed through the northeast United States earlier this week. High winds and heavy rains caused considerable damage, particularly in New Jersey and New York. High winds damaged buildings and knocked down trees and branches. Falling trees and branches caused more damage, including falling on electrical and telephone wires, breaking them and causing widespread power outages. Further, the winds north of the storm’s center pushed already high tides into repeated surges, some as much as 4.5 m (over 13 feet) above normal high tide. Coastal areas, including parts of Manhattan, were submerged; road and subway tunnels filled with water. Heavy rains caused additional flooding along rivers and coastlines.
As a consequence, many sewers overflowed. Wastewater treatment plants either were unable to handle the volumes of combined sewage and rainwater and overflowed, or were unable to operate because they had no electrical power. In many areas, local authorities issued “contact advisories,” which recommended that people not come into direct contact with floodwater because it was contaminated with sewage, chemicals, oil, and other pollutants.
In spite of this, authorities don’t expect widespread outbreaks of diseases related to water, sanitation, and hygiene. In part, this is a result of high levels of hygiene awareness and of disaster preparedness. Warned early, people had stored drinking water, and emergency shelters were open for those without shelter, power, and/or water. In places where drinking water was polluted, people were warned to boil it before consumption. Also, the water in large parts of New York City is supplied by gravity flow from reservoirs “upstate,” that is, 100 miles and more north of the city. Thus the water supply wasn’t dependent on electrical power, and was not contaminated by the floodwater. Much of the city continued to have access to potable water through the storm, including water for sanitation and hygiene, which simplified relief and recovery.
Disaster preparedness and mitigation is different for every context, but, when well planned and implemented, it pays off. While any loss of life in such an event is tragic, early warnings and evacuations clearly saved lives in the United States.
It reminds us – if a reminder is needed – that we must redouble our efforts to reduce vulnerability in the developing world.
Photo Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
Satellite View of Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy on Oct. 30.