Over the weekend, the big news was—of course—Hurricane Irene. Prognosticators, weathermen, and news anchors looking to fill hours of live coverage conspired to predict the worst: flooding, deaths, power outages, and billions of dollars in damage. And while Vermont in particular—and much of the eastern seaboard in general—is still dealing with widespread flooding, it seems like, for the most part, Hurricane Irene was the disaster that didn’t happen.
Nevertheless, when facing widespread disruption of essential services, the first thing many of us think of is whether or not the lights will stay on and the water will keep flowing. Governors, mayors, and community leaders all worked diligently to keep disruptions to a minimum, with New York City in particular demonstrating an efficient, citywide plan to manage and monitor water and power resources. Nevertheless, the nature of the storm and the damage it wrought to basic infrastructure inevitably led to power outages and reductions in water service.
Now that the storm has mostly moved on, let’s take a look at the how Hurricane Irene impacted cities and rural enclaves along the East Coast, and how those communities prepared for the storm and managed the aftermath.
According to the Associated Press, “more than half of the power outages from Hurricane Irene have been fixed”—a monumental feat considering that, as of Sunday evening, CNN was reporting that more than 4 million residents on the East Coast were without power.
As of Tuesday morning, there were still entire communities without gas or electricity service, including Cape Cod, MA; Wakefield, NH; and almost half of the homes and businesses in Richmond, VA. It’s no surprise that the first priority for power companies was to restore services to critical facilities likes hospitals, police stations, and emergency call centers. After making sure schools and universities have enough juice to start the fall semester, the next stop will be residential neighborhoods. All in all, the hope is that power will be completely restored by the middle of the week, although power companies warned that some customers may not be up and running for several weeks, due to the difficulty of restoring service to remote or extensively damaged locations.
On a certain level, it seems strange to worry about water shortages amid the torrential downpour spawned by Hurricane Irene (up to 9 inches in some places), but with flooding comes destruction and damage to the network of pipes, pumps, and storage systems that make up the backbone of urban water resource management.
While flooding is the big story to come out of Hurricane Irene, for water purveyors the estimated $7 billion in damage will most certainly adversely impact the conveyance systems that residents depend on to delivery clean, fresh, potable water. In New Jersey for example, the storm surge resulted in significant flooding, which in turn caused power outages resulting in sewage bypasses and sanitary sewer overflows. All of which means that water quality will most definitely be impacted, not just along the Atlantic Ocean, but also inland where the water quality of rivers, streams, and reservoirs will also be compromised.
It is, perhaps, human nature to use tragedies—or in this case near tragedies—as an impetus for self-reflection. As early as Sunday morning, the pundits began to rally around the notion that perhaps the danger had been overstated and the cities and states lying in Irene’s path had “over prepared.” That kind of circular thinking reveals the inherent flaw in the public’s perception of emergency planning. When executed correctly, emergency planning should be almost invisible: When the public and private entities charged with managing and protecting our natural resources effectively avert disaster through careful strategizing and efficient coordination of services and personnel, then the result should always be a general sense that “Hey, that wasn’t so bad after all.”