Blizzard 2013 storm prep sharpened by experience in Katrina and Sandy

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, American storm response has changed dramatically. The blizzard that swept across nine states in the Northeast US this weekend in many ways showed how.

By , Staff writer

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    A woman shovels snow to clear out a car on Third Street in South Boston on Saturday. A behemoth storm packing hurricane-force wind gusts and blizzard conditions swept through the Northeast Friday night.
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    John Silver shovels between buried cars in front of his home in South Boston Saturday. A behemoth storm packing hurricane-force wind gusts and blizzard conditions swept through the Northeast, dumping more than 2 feet of snow on New England and knocking out power to 650,000 homes and businesses.
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With snow still falling and massive waves battering coastal villages in a nine-state New England region, it’s still too early to gauge the true impact of the monster blizzard of 2013.

What’s known, however, is that from airline cancellations to government edicts to a boom in individual disaster “prepping,” the response to the Blizzard of 2013 differed at times dramatically from, say, the Blizzard of ’78, which dumped up to 38 inches of snow on parts of New England, killing 99 people, some of whom died from carbon monoxide poisoning in their stranded cars.

Moreover, even lessons from hurricane Sandy, which raked the Northeast coast last year, killing 132 Americans and causing $71 billion in damages, were utilized in the run-up to the Blizzard of 2013.

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So far, five people are confirmed dead in the New England blizzard and 650,000 have lost power. Authorities are now focusing on a morning storm surge along the Sandwich area of Cape Cod, which will be the focus of the last tendrils of hurricane-like winds that fueled the whiteout conditions last night.

Nearly 40 inches of snow have fallen on some sections of Connecticut and wind gusts topped 80 miles an hour at the peak of the storm. So far, 5,300 flights have been cancelled across the region as most of the major airports, including Logan in Boston and JFK in New York City – were shuttered.

To be sure, critics suggest that far too few Americans are prepared for big storms and other disasters, backed up by a Wakefield Research poll last year that showed 53 of Americans don’t have more than three days of food stashed, and 55 percent believe local authorities will rescue them in case of disaster.

Moreover, in the wake of hurricane Sandy, utility companies especially were raked over the coals for an at-times patchy response and, more critically, poor communications with stranded residents. Sandy also showed that the Northeast had not adopted some key lessons from Katrina, including gasoline stocking, which resulted in rationing. In an information age, storms have also exposed weaknesses in the telecommunications grid, where old-school technologies – landline phones and even ham radio operators – have shown that they’re still relevant.

“It appears that some of the lessons learned from Katrina had no impact on disaster recovery planning in the Northeast,” Darren Hayes, a professor a Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, in New York City, wrote recent in the Hill newspaper.

Yet the Blizzard of 2013, though not nearly as powerful as Sandy, also showed that governments and citizens continue to learn and adapt to what’s become a parade of big storms, including the importance of signing preemptive, sometimes Draconian, executive orders to keep people safe.

In the case of Massachusetts, the most controversial, and potentially life-saving, change came from the reaction of Gov. Deval Patrick, who instituted a preemptive no-drive order at 4 p.m. Friday, punishable by up to a year in jail. The last time a no-drive order was issued was during the Blizzard of ’78, but Gov. Patrick’s decision to use it preemptively pointed to an advancement in both thinking and weather prognosis.

The order confused police, taxi drivers and delivery drivers, and some libertarians called it “tyrannical,” but enforcement wasn’t the point: The fewer cars on the road, the fewer problems.

“We’re very happy this morning that we’re not dealing with clogged arteries, clogged secondary roads, and we can focus where we need to focus,” said Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency director Kurt Schwartz. The order remained in effect Saturday morning, but authorities said they were reviewing it by the hour.

While the media sometimes cries wolf over storms that peter out without much ado, the breathless storm run-up, fueled by new meteorological advancements that help forecasters pinpoint likely landfalls, snowfalls and flooding, also help to get people into survival mode when the prospects of no power or heat become real for millions. That was not necessarily the case in 1978, an already snowy winter in an era when forecasting accuracy was sometimes poor.

“No doubt the Blizzard of ’78 was an enormous storm, but the context in which it arrived made it that much worse,” writes blogger Matt Bowling, who runs the Blizzard of ’78 website. “It is safe to say that by the time February 6th, 1978 came along, New Englanders had been pretty-well trained to not pay much attention to the weathermen.”

Disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have also given rise to a booming “prepper” movement that helps people prepare for practical post-disaster details, in part by creating “bugout” kits with water purifiers and fish hooks to help survive after an apocalypse.

“The Earth isn’t going to crash into Planet X and the Mayan thing never happened” New York City firefighter and prepper group leader Jason Charles told the New York Times last month. “But I’ll tell you this: People here definitely used their preps during Sandy.”

Hurricane Katrina has played a large part in preparing for several big storms, including hurricanes Irene and, just last fall, hurricane Sandy, primarily by forcing dramatic reforms at FEMA that have led to better morale and a quicker, more preemptive response by the federal agency.

But it’s arguably at the local and city level where big storms like Katrina have been changing preparation dynamics the most. Preparedness has improved due to sharper, more data-backed responses from institutions and government, but also improved planning in cities like New York.

Five years ago, New York embarked on a preparation plan called PLaNYC aimed at bolstering seaward defenses and improving data collection, sharing and usage among the city and other agencies. The plan helped to dampen the damage from hurricane Sandy, Daniel Doctoroff, its director, wrote in a recent op-ed.

PLaNYC’s projects, including helping FEMA improve its flooding and evacuation maps in vulnerable sections such as the Rockaways, had an impact on the preparations, and showed “what it takes to successfully prepare New York for the new normal: an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to disrupt the status quo, to make connections and to envision a city prepared for whatever comes its way,” Mr. Doctoroff wrote.

Experienced US travelers, meanwhile, have seen practically a revolution in how airlines handle snow storms. But it wasn’t Katrina or Sandy that sparked the change, but the Valentine’s Day Snow Storm of 2007.

While many airlines made early cancellations, one in particular – JetBlue – was slow to react to likely airport closings. As a result, passengers sat on tarmacs for hours, and it took days for the airline to sort out the mess.

Sensitive to images of people stranded at airports, the industry took note. Since that storm, US airlines have updated their severe weather plans by reprogramming their systems to automatically cancel flights early so passengers won’t get stuck waiting out storms at airports. That system kicked into gear as the Blizzard of 2013 shut down transportation across New England.

Utilities, too, are trying to catch up to what’s been a succession of power-disrupting weather disasters. In some ways, utility companies have led the way for how institutions prepare: In Katrina and Sandy, for example, tens of thousands of out-of-town crews descended on the storm zone to help restore power.

But customer relations remained a struggle after Sandy, when utility websites crashed and left people in an information vacuum about when power would resume.

As the Blizzard of 2013 bore down on the coast, Jersey Central Power & Light spokesman Ron Morano told New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper that the power company has made changes to its storm response protocol, in part by providing local officials with improved electric circuit maps and closing the gap between its liaisons and local disaster response centers.

“We’re prepared in the event there are significant outages to make calls to local officials to provide information,” Mr. Morano said.

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