Unstoppable Disasters

Red Hook Irene

Photo: Glynnis MacNicol

If someone told you your house would burn down three days later, you would do whatever you could to prevent that from happening. Your chances would be good, since homes do not spontaneously combust.Unfortunately, fires – like most disastrous accidents – are unpredictable, even if they are foreseeable.

One minute you are going about your business and everything looks good; the next minute you find yourself in trouble. This is true regardless of whether you are the super-cautious type who carefully inspects her Christmas tree lights every year, or the devil-may-care type who stacks cans of old paint next to the basement furnace.

The funny thing about hurricanes (which are not otherwise funny things) is that they are disasters that we can see coming days ahead of time. We cannot stop them, though. We know we are going to take a big hit, and all we can do is try to mitigate the consequences.

I wrote this column Friday afternoon, as the outer bands of Hurricane Irene began crossing the Carolina coastline. I was at our home in Westchester County, N.Y., a few miles north of Manhattan, doing what needed to be done to get ready for problems that I could not really prevent.

The rest of my family was away. My wife was at Walt Disney World with cousins. She was scheduled to return Sunday, just as the storm was expected to move into New York, but because forecasters had such a good handle on the developing storm’s movements, I told her five days earlier that she would almost certainly never make it that day. She could choose between staying longer in Florida or coming back sooner; she opted to move her return to Saturday.

Our daughters planned to drive from Atlanta to New York on Sunday. I warned them too, early last week, that this plan would probably be impossible. They also moved their trip up by a day. It meant a late night on Saturday for me, waiting for them to arrive safely, but I was confident they could avoid trouble by staying well west of the coast until they were past the storm. The could stop en route if the storm outran them.

Another funny thing about hurricanes is that people perceive them very differently depending upon where they happen to be when the storm strikes. In 1985 I helped cover Hurricane Gloria, the last hurricane to make a very close run at Manhattan, for The Associated Press. After a few hours of rain (Central Park received about 3.4 inches) and a couple of blustery gusts, the sun came out at Rockefeller centre and everyone wondered what the fuss had been about. But 50 miles or so to the east, on Long Island, entire neighborhoods were under water from storm surge, and many communities went without power for more than a week. One of my fears this weekend was that residents of the city and its nearby suburbs, remembering Gloria as an underachiever, might not take Irene seriously.

We took it seriously at Palisades Hudson. Even though we are a small business with fewer than 25 employees, we are spread among offices in Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and our Scarsdale headquarters. This lets us keep operating even if one of our communities is paralysed by a blizzard, a hurricane, a tornado or some other disaster.

We have set up backup servers in our Atlanta office, where Jeffrey Joseph, our technology guy, is now based. If Irene knocks out power or Internet service in Scarsdale, Jeffrey should be able to keep us running from the backup servers. New York staff who can still get online can work from home, hotels or wherever they happen to be.

Scarsdale is a good 30 miles from open ocean, and it is not near any tidal waters. Storm surge was not a threat. Direct wind damage from Irene was not much of a risk, either, unless we were unlucky enough to be struck by one of the small tornadoes that landfalling tropical systems often create. The odds of that were very small.

But Irene was still a high-potency threat to our Westchester staff and facilities. High wind was likely to bring down thousands of trees and to knock out power over a wide, heavily populated swath of the Northeast. Utilities that normally lend crews to one another would be unable to do so, and even though help will no doubt come from the Midwest and other distant places, it will not be enough. Power could be off for quite a while, especially at our employees’ homes.

Additionally, it has already been a wet month. My Westchester home is on a well-drained hillside, yet the lawn was a soggy mess before Irene’s first raindrops arrived. Wet ground increases the number of trees that fall over, compounding the problems for utility crews and for anyone who needs to travel.

Further, the saturated ground and high stream flows primed the region for serious flooding. Some tropical systems, especially slow movers like Irene, can produce exorbitant rainfall. That rain often overwhelms Westchester’s small streams, like the Saw Mill River, the Bronx River and the Hutchinson River. Each of these rivers has a parkway of the same name along its banks. Those parkways, which are important commuting routes, were shut down for days after Floyd deluged the region in 1999. Commuter trains use some of the same corridors, and can be knocked out as well.

Hurricanes are unavoidable, but forecasters’ increasingly skilled predictions, together with good planning, helps keep human capital unscathed even when our infrastructure takes a big hit. Infrastructure can be rebuilt. In fact, despite what you may hear about the economic costs of hurricanes, the rebuilding process often provides a healthy dose of economic stimulus and construction jobs. We could use both right now.

No matter what we find when we emerge on Monday morning, we will keep our New York people safe, get them back to work as soon as we can, and go about our business of helping clients with their business. If you were in Irene’s path, we hope you came through safely and in reasonable comfort.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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