The Long Awaited Hurricane Sandy

I’m in a Washington, DC, hotel lobby watching a TV rotation we’ve all seen by now: battered NJ shore houses, water snaking through NYC subway tunnels, Gov. Chris Christie in fleece. It’s like a rerun of a horror movie I’ve never been able to get all the way through.

Hurricane Sandy was forecast for days in advance—and predicted for decades. Six years ago, I did a story for Time Magazine about why we don’t prepare for disasters. It contained one small anecdote that bears repeating today:

Every July the country’s leading disaster scientists and emergency planners gather in Boulder, Colo., for an invitation-only workshop. Picture 440 people obsessed with the tragic and the safe, people who get excited about earthquake “shake maps” and righteous about flood insurance. It’s a spirited but wonky crowd that is growing more melancholy every year.

After 9/11, the people at the Boulder conference decried the nation’s myopic focus on terrorism. They lamented the decline of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And they warned to the point of cliché that a major hurricane would destroy New Orleans. It was a convention of prophets without any disciples.

This year, perhaps to make the farce explicit, the event organizers, from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, introduced a parlor game. They placed a ballot box next to the water pitchers and asked everyone to vote: What will be the next mega-disaster? A tsunami, an earthquake, a pandemic flu? And where will it strike? It was an amusing diversion, although not a hard question for this lot.

Because the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them....

The winner, with 32% of the votes, was a hurricane. After all, eight of the 10 costliest disasters in U.S. history have been hurricanes. This time, most of the hurricane voters predicted that the storm would devastate the East Coast, including New York City…

Here’s one thing we know: a serious hurricane is due to strike New York City, just as one did in 1821 and 1938. Experts predict that such a storm would swamp lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J., force the evacuation of more than 3 million people and cost more than twice as much as Katrina. An insurance-industry risk assessment ranked New York City as No. 2 on a list of the worst places for a hurricane to strike; Miami came in first. But in a June survey measuring the readiness of 4,200 insured homeowners living in hurricane zones, New Yorkers came in second to last….

With this storm, we are reminded that the breakthrough we need in disaster planning is not scientific; it’s behavioral. We need to find out how to move people to action—to build subway floodgates, to stop providing federal flood insurance to people who want to buy property in insanely risky areas and to begin reckoning with the storms to come. That is the final frontier.