Irene Aftermath: NYC Can't Rely On Weakening Storms And Limited Evacuations

It must be said, New York City was very lucky this weekend. The actual impact of hurricane Irene on the health and safety of New Yorkers was much less than had been feared, and for that we're all grateful. 

The reasons we escaped relatively well are two: The storm was less severe than we had feared, and the evacuation plan was in many ways able to cope with the burdens of the moment.  OEM's professionals worked hard and did well, and for that we are similarly appreciative.

But the happy circumstances of less wind and less surge cannot be allowed to mask fundamental questions about the plan. When we in the New York State Assembly did our first review in 2005, the plan was clearly outdated and inadequate.  Improvements were made after the issuance of the Report that markedly improved the City's ability.

The most obvious improvement was in the City's capacity to evacuate the most fragile of our citizens who live in an institutional setting.  In 2005 there was not sufficient transportation, and the evacuation plans of individual institutions like nursing homes were completely inadequate and dangerous. Those problems were clearly resolved and things went well.

However, a more severe storm would have meant exponentially more people being evacuated from the next and neighboring areas, and more demand for shelter space.  The plan’s reliance on mass transit was also not tested in this weaker storm.  If more than Zone A has to be evacuated and the surge can only be estimated late, the lack of MTA service will be a severe problem.  The impact of mass auto evacuation on roads, bridges and tunnels was also not tested by Irene.

It must be said that the city did make some seemingly smaller improvements that did have a good impact on the plan's effectiveness, such as accommodating those who are concerned for the health and safety of their pets, and a very successful effort at public information.  These were useful and important improvements.

In the end, the City's plan calls for most people to self-evacuate well in advance of a storm.  This concept worked this time and may well work in the future.  The most vulnerable and immobile citizens were protected. The City's professionals did well.

But a careful review of the plans strengths and weaknesses must begin now.  We can't rely on weakening storms and limited evacuations to protect us.