N.Y. mostly ignored call for disaster recovery plan

Reports warned big storm would hit, but officials failed to act

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ALBANY, N.Y. -- More than three decades before Superstorm Sandy, a state law and a series of legislative reports began warning New York politicians to prepare for a storm of historic proportions, spelling out scenarios eerily similar to what actually happened: a towering storm surge; overwhelming flooding; swamped subway lines; widespread power outages. The Rockaway peninsula was deemed among the "most at risk."

But most of the warnings and a requirement in a 1978 law to create a regularly updated plan for the restoration of "vital services" after a storm went mostly unheeded, either because of tight budgets or the lack of political will to prepare for a hypothetical storm that may never hit.

Some of the thorniest problems after Sandy, including a gasoline shortage, the lack of temporary housing and the flooding of commuter tunnels, ended up being dealt with largely on the fly.

"I don't know that anyone believed," acknowledged Gov. Andrew Cuomo this past week. "We had never seen a storm like this. So it is very hard to anticipate something that you have never experienced."

Asked how well prepared state officials were for Sandy, Cuomo said, "not well enough."

It wasn't as if the legislative actions over the years were subtle. They all had a common, emphatic theme: Act immediately before it's too late.

The 1978 executive law required a standing state Disaster Preparedness Commission to meet at least twice a year to create and update disaster plans. It mandated the state to address temporary housing needs after a disaster, create a detailed plan to restore services, maintain sewage treatment, prevent fires, assure generators "sufficient to supply" nursing homes and other health facilities, and "protect and assure uninterrupted delivery of services, medicines, water, food, energy and fuel."

Reports in 2005, 2006 and 2010 added urgency. "It's not a question of whether a strong hurricane will hit New York City," the 2006 Assembly report warned. "It's just a question of when."

The Disaster Preparedness Commission met biannually some years, but there are gaps in which there is no record of a meeting. However, some administrations, including Cuomo's, convened many of the same agency heads to discuss emergency management.

Richard Brodsky, a former New York Democratic assemblyman who was chairman of the committee that created the 2006 report, credits administrations with making some improvements to the plan in recent years.

"But on two issues related to Sandy -- prevention and recovery -- they did almost nothing," Brodsky said. "If Goldman Sachs was smart enough to sandbag its building, why wasn't the MTA smart enough to sandbag the Battery Tunnel?"

Sandy flooded both tubes of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, now called the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which was one of the major and longest transportation disruptions of the storm. It also ravaged the Rockaways in Queens, particularly the waterfront community of Breezy Point, where roughly 100 homes burned to the ground in a massive wind-swept fire.

Among the other crises Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg faced on a daily basis during Sandy were the shortage of temporary housing, which continues, the long disruption of electricity and gasoline, generators in health care facilities swamped by floodwaters, restoring power from swamped electrical infrastructure and repairing commuter rail lines.

The warnings touched on many of these areas, but mostly in a broad way with few specific directions for action.

"What you've got here is a great number of consequences that were foreseeable, but unforeseen," Brodsky said. "Prevention is politically less sexy than disaster response.