After the rain: Irene’s lessons

Published 9:07 pm Saturday, August 25, 2012

Antonia Schreiber is taking no chances on the next big storm.
The remnants of Hurricane Irene turned the 200-year-old building that housed her Catskill Mountains spa boutique into a muddy mess a year ago in Windham, N.Y. She managed to reopen in the same town within months — but this time on higher ground.
“If it happens once, history has a tendency to repeat itself, and I hope it’s a long, long time from now,” Schreiber said, “but that’s not a chance I want to take again.”
Hard lessons have been learned in the year since Irene sent sedans bobbing down rivers, swept away historic covered bridges, put millions in the dark and killed dozens of people along the Eastern Seaboard. Responses range from personal gestures, like buying a home generator, to statewide policy changes, like the tightening of utility regulations.
Many of the reactions are based on the belief that while Irene surprised areas more used to blizzards than tropical weather, future storms are inevitable.
“I think our question for Vermont is: What did we learn from Irene that we would do again and would put us in a better position with future storms in a climate-change future?” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who scrambled after the storm hit his state Aug. 28 to help hill towns cut off from the outside world.
As Irene made landfall in North Carolina and roared up the East Coast, a densely populated corridor loaded with high-rises, suburban sprawl and pricey beach homes, officials in New York City and Long Island braced for storm surges and heavy winds by evacuating low-lying coastal areas and shutting down one of the world’s largest subway systems.
The storm made a direct hit on New York City as a tropical storm, but damage there — and in other big cities such as Philadelphia and Boston — was minimal. That gave many Easterners the impression that the much-feared storm was a dud.
But in the days to follow, it became clear that the lashing rains had saved their most dramatic damage for 100 miles or more inland.
Tree-lined suburban neighborhoods in Connecticut lost power for days as branches crashed down. Surging streams in Vermont and in New York’s Adirondack and Catskill mountains ripped up roads, bridges and homes. New York utilities replaced more than 300 miles of wire after the double whammy of Irene and, shortly afterward, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. In some cases, utility crews could not restore power for a week or more because the roads were gone.
Irene became the costliest Category 1 U.S. hurricane on record since at least 1980, with estimated total damage of $15.8 billion. The storm resulted in $4.3 billion in personal, commercial and auto insurance claims, according to Verisk Analytics, a publicly traded company that assesses risk.
Utilities, which came under scrutiny as crews struggled with extensive and long-lasting power failures, have already changed some of their practices.
Connecticut’s largest utility, Connecticut Light & Power, has nearly doubled its tree-trimming budget, and lawmakers passed a bill that sets new emergency preparation standards for mass blackouts that last for more than two days.
Utilities in Connecticut pledged to do a better job informing customers of when the lights will come back on. Similarly, in New York, utility regulators this summer encouraged the use of text messaging and social media, such as Facebook, to communicate with customers.
But many people left powerless for days by Irene are no longer waiting on the power company.
In Ellicott City, Md., computer programmer Michael Medved contributed to the post-Irene bump in home generator sales. He bought one after more than five days of no power and changing the baby’s diapers by flashlight.
“It was just horrible,” Medved said. “I basically said, ‘I am not going through this again.’”
He spent $7,000 to have a propane generator installed — an investment that paid off this summer when a severe wind storm knocked out power for four days. His lights stayed on, and his 9-year-old son could still play video games.
“I was like a hero to my family,” he said.
Medved, like many others, found a way to manage disaster rather than flee it. That is also true in the hard-hit towns in the mountains of Vermont and New York, where roots can run deep.
In the Catskills, Schreiber said she wouldn’t think of relocating her Windham Spa from its quaint ski town, but also realizes “you can’t stop 20 inches of rain from falling.” She rents down the street from her old location and plans a permanent move to a property nearby that is not so flood-prone.
Governors in the Irene-ravaged states — likely mindful of President George W. Bush’s plunging poll numbers after the government’s criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — became visibly active before the first raindrops fell.
With prodding from statehouses, storm-ripped roads in Vermont and New York were repaired at a breakneck pace. Cars were back on the main route to Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, Route 73, within 15 days. Route 9 in southern Vermont was reopened in 11 days.
Shumlin said Vermont got the big things right in reacting to Irene, but he still sees room for improvement.
He mentioned the installation of larger road culverts and redesigning basements to let floodwater flow through. Vermont also has stepped up efforts to build redundant government computer networks after a close call during Irene.
Even in New York City, where Irene is viewed as the storm that wasn’t, it still gave officials a trial run for their hurricane plan.
Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations, said Irene was useful for working the kinks out of the city’s plan. For example, with the first evacuation order under way, officials discovered supply pallets delivered to schools being used as shelters were too wide to get through some doors.
As a result, some doors are being widened, and some pallets are being swapped out for smaller models.
And while there is concern that aggressively preparing city residents for a storm that never came could make the warning less effective next time — think of the boy who cried wolf — 34-year-old Brooklyn resident Raluca Preda said it’s far better to know.
A year ago, Preda hunkered down in her apartment with her boyfriend and a stash of food, water, and movies, only to find that Irene presented little threat.
Still, Preda has no complaints.
“I think they did a great job,” she said. “They prepared people. There was a lot of information, a lot of live coverage. They were very transparent.”
Hill reported from Albany, N.Y. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Samantha Gross in New York City, Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vt., and John Christoffersen in New Haven, Conn.