You can never be too safe…or can you?
On Sunday, I read the forecast of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on Western New York. It said there’s potential for flooding along the lakeshore, isolated flooding elsewhere and maximum winds of 65 miles per hour that could cause power outages. The detailed forecast did not call for widespread problems.
I posted on Facebook this was not a “run to Wegmans” kind of store, yet people were already stocking up on generators, flashlights, bread and bottled water. Did anyone say there was a strong likelihood grocery stores would be closed, roads would be impassable or the municipal water supply could fail? (I realize those with well water are in a different boat.)
Sunday night, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks held a press conference about Sandy preparations and referenced the 1991 ice storm. That horrible event knocked out power for days to 300,000 customers. Brooks said she didn’t want to scare anyone, but the county was getting ready for Sandy “as a precaution.”
Monday morning, the county declared a state of emergency “as a precaution.” The emergency operations center, staffed by dozens of people from 18 agencies, came to life. They gathered sandbags only a couple of towns requested. They set up shelters only a few people used. They opened a bridge a few days early. They robocalled thousands of lakeshore residents to warn them of potential flooding “as a precaution.”
By 4 p.m., they’d gotten every school district in the county to cancel classes the next day “as a precaution.” Superintendents used to set their alarms for 3 a.m. to survey the landscape before making a decision to call off school. Kids used to go to bed praying for a snow day. Now they get one “as a precaution.”
Meanwhile, on the 6 p.m. news, meteorologists said this storm was “manageable,” “doable” and “nothing we can’t handle.”
Despite no change in the forecast, a final “precaution” came at 8 p.m. Monday when the county declared an evacuation for 2,200 lakefront residents. The storm had arrived hours earlier. It was dark and rainy and windy. No one had a lick of water lapping at their doorsteps. In addition to robocalls, police officers went door to door warning residents to get out. They didn’t make it to one street in Hilton until after midnight. One man said he nodded his head and went back to bed.
This was certainly not an insignificant storm locally, as more than 20,000 homes and business lost power. (About half have already been restored.) For people who had property damage or lost beloved trees, this was a horrible day. But this wasn’t a community-wide experience. I went my entire day without encountering a road closure or broken traffic light. There were school districts that absolutely could have opened.
Tuesday morning, we heard a lot of talk about how Monroe County “dodged a bullet.” The bullet was never heading our way. Our forecasters predicted exactly what transpired.
So why did the county – and the rest of us – panic?
I think the news coverage of Sandy’s anticipated impact and resulting devastation may have clouded judgment. I think the emergency personnel in the ops center who’d spent the day waiting got scared as the storm hit downstate. There may have been some “groupthink.” As for Brooks’ leadership, I do not share the cynical view she was boosting her campaign or looking for TV facetime. She was trying to do what she thought was right and no politician wants to be blamed for not doing enough. She wasn’t the only Upstate leader to take some of these precautions.
The larger issue is we live in a very risk-averse society where it’s better to take every “precaution,” even when it’s not necessary. Tomorrow night, police officers will check up on sex offenders, when there’s no evidence children are more at risk on Halloween. State lawmakers are imposing ever-increasing penalties against drunk drivers, even though they don’t work on those who kill. Communities are passing laws against cyberbullying, which is far less common than face-to-face bullying. Parents don’t let their children walk to school alone, even though the odds they’ll be kidnapped and murdered are statistically zero. Kids aren’t allowed to do cartwheels at recess because they could get hurt. There’s an endless parade of recalled products, while real risks to children go ignored.
We often try to control the uncontrollable. We often let fear something could happen run our lives. But there’s reasonably reducing risk and there’s wasting time. This exercise cost families a night’s sleep, many children a day of school and money for personnel. I’m glad our county demonstrated it is prepared for a big emergency. Let’s do this again when there is one.
Links of the Day, Sandy Edition:
My thoughts are with the people of New York City, who will experience hardship for days or weeks to come. It’s painful to see such a mighty and important city struggling with such a disaster.
- The people killed by Hurricane Sandy were victims of sad chance. One woman was burned alive as her neighbors watched.
- Have you noticed in a disaster, cell phones hold up better than electricity?
- “Lady Liberty’s head didn’t come rolling down the street.” Why didn’t Hollywood predict Sandy?
- Plenty of other people predicted Sandy’s devastating impact on New York’s infrastructure.
- “Rats are incredibly good swimmers.” New York’s subways may be rid of rats, but they likely went elsewhere in the city.