This Special Report by The Heritage Foundation Emergency Preparedness Working Group focuses on the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. FEMA must no longer be made to respond to all manner of routine disasters, so that when truly catastrophic disasters stike, such as Hurricane Sandy, FEMA and its pocketbook are prepared. Where FEMA failed in its response efforts and overall preparedness, the National Guard and Coast Guard excelled.
Particularly for disaster response, State Defense Forces offer their states important, low-cost force multipliers.
More responsibility should be returned to the states in terms of disaster response and recovery. These lessons should have been learned before—from Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf oil spill—yet the nation continues to fall short in terms of planning for catastrophic disaster response and recovery. Hurricane Sandy lived up to expectations in October 2012, delivering a powerful punch with heavy rains, strong winds, and significant storm surges. In addition to the Red Cross and Salvation Army, local faith-based and community organizations played vital roles in the emergency response to Sandy.[4] Sandy was certainly a severe storm that will not soon be forgotten. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the federal government responded by doling out more than $60 billion in total emergency spending, an appropriation process driven strongly by politics. When the influence of 24-hour news channels carrying images of suffering citizens is married with politicians eager to squeeze as much out of the federal government as possible, the ability of fiscally responsible politicians to stem the tide of more spending is washed away like the houses built too near the unpredictable ocean.
Nothing typifies the extent to which states rely on the federal government for disaster spending like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s (R) demand that the federal government essentially give him a blank check to deal with Hurricane Sandy.[8] With his charge that Congress’s refusal to give him that blank check was a “dereliction of duty,” Governor Christie fails to appreciate that Congress has an obligation to ensure that precious taxpayers funds are appropriated responsibly. In some ways, it is hard to criticize Governor Christie too much for his expectation that the federal government should pick up the tab for Hurricane Sandy. Without a return of responsibility to the states, the federalization of routine disasters will continue to require FEMA to become involved with a new disaster somewhere in the United States at the current pace of every 2.5 days. The fact is that FEMA spends too much time responding to routine natural disasters, such as small-scale tornadoes and snowstorms, and not enough time preparing for catastrophic natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, which have wide regional impacts. Having learned in recent catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina, the value of “dual-status commanders”—generals that can have both state and federal authority—they were appointed by the governors of Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey prior to Sandy’s landfall. The initiative for dual-status commanders emerged after insufficient direction and coordination between state and federal forces during Hurricane Katrina hampered response efforts.
This command structure, as well as the general state of readiness of the National Guard, allowed it to put 60,000 guardsmen on alert status nationwide as Hurricane Sandy approached the U.S. In Massachusetts, for example, a National Guard Civil Support Team (CST), a unit for emergency preparedness support, was activated to respond to a possible hazardous material threat, but local response forces determined that they had control of the situation.[27] CSTs do not solely respond to hazardous material threats, however. Overall, the National Guard has proven to be a robust amplifier of local response efforts by virtue of its consistently trained force and federal funding stream.
Like the National Guard, the Coast Guard also served a number of critical roles in restoring order and security during and after Hurricane Sandy.
Nothing can be more detrimental to the response to a catastrophe than if first responders must waste vital time and resources taking care of those who could have taken care of themselves.
Once all elements of the community that are capable of doing so have taken care of themselves, then, and only then, can those elements engage with first responders to lend a hand and become part of the broader community response. One of the biggest issues arising after Hurricane Sandy was that many individuals who failed to evacuate did not have enough supplies on hand to survive[33] It did not help that, as was the case during Hurricane Katrina, the evacuation order for New York City came very late in the process. Change the current American mindset of disaster response and relief from overfederalization to civil society.
Like the National Guard, State Defense Forces (SDFs) played an important role in the response to Hurricane Sandy. State and federal policymakers should integrate SDF units into state and federal emergency management planning. Another key lesson that can be learned from Hurricane Sandy is the importance of a vibrant civil society to disaster relief efforts. Nongovernmental organizations such as the American Red Cross, United Way, New York Cares, and countless others quickly responded to the needs of those affected.
Incorporate NGOs, faith-based organizations, and businesses into federal and local disaster plans before disaster strikes.
The nuclear facilities in Hurricane Sandy’s path were designed and built to withstand floods above predicted storm surges and other natural disasters long before Sandy was ever a threat.
Beyond plant design, federal law also requires nuclear plants to have preparedness and emergency response plans with local, state, and federal groups approved by FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) before an operating license is granted. Before and during the storm, the NRC monitored Sandy’s progress from the Incident Response Center from its Region I office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, as well as from the Operations Center at headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. As part of standard NRC policy, reactors must shut down two hours before hurricane winds are forecast to reach the plants, though operators have the prerogative to shut down the reactors earlier as a precaution. One plant, Oyster Creek Generating Station, issued an “unusual event” declaration and then an “alert”—the two lowest of four emergency alert levels—during the course of the storm.

On November 13, 2012, the NRC began a special inspection of the plant’s preparation and management during the storm. As with most hurricanes, the largest cause of outages from Sandy was due to damage to distribution systems. With this in mind, a common reaction to outages caused by hurricanes is often to call for burying distribution lines underground. After a hurricane, power restoration requires clearing away debris, rebuilding distribution circuits, and replacing faulty equipment. Promote contingency planning and training programs that help utilities respond more quickly and efficiently. Training repair crews and utility personnel to modify their responses as circumstances change. On August 2, 2005, NOAA released an updated 2005 Atlantic hurricane season outlook that projected the formation of an additional eleven to fourteen tropical storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes, including three to five major hurricanes. The Federal government began monitoring the storm as a potential hurricane shortly after the NWS announced Tropical Depression Twelve had formed. Given this fact, and building on the success seen during Hurricane Sandy, more states at high risk of natural disaster should look to establish these forces.
He has watched for years as FEMA paid for disasters all over America that were far less damaging than what New Jersey experienced after Hurricane Sandy. That means that states must begin planning for disasters as they once did from 1787 to 1992, before federal disaster declarations skyrocketed.
This high operational tempo is affecting FEMA’s overall preparedness because it keeps FEMA perpetually in a response mode, leaving little time and few resources for catastrophic preparedness.
This increases the likelihood that the federal response to catastrophic events will be insufficient, as once again demonstrated by the response to Hurricane Sandy. In Katrina, active duty and National Guard operations, even those that were seemingly identical in practice, were directed by two separate chains of command.
However, due to the nature of the incident, and the evidently robust state force responses from New York and New Jersey, only 12,000 of the 60,000 guard personnel were activated for Hurricane Sandy.
Indeed, the New Jersey National Guard’s 21st CST was deployed to Brick Township, New Jersey, during the incident to enhance the local responders’ communications systems.[28] This type of support illustrates a critical benefit provided by CSTs. Most notably, the Coast Guard was responsible for rescuing 14 people stranded aboard the distressed HMS Bounty, a tall ship replica that was caught in the storm off the coast of North Carolina.
The Coast Guard’s aging fleet can no longer keep up with the increased mission-set of the service, including disaster response and recovery. Continuing to understand how the National Guard transitions between state and federal duty is vital to maintaining the guard’s success as a response force in the future.
Since the guard’s structure was generally successful in making response efforts more efficient and defined, governors affected by future incidents should feel encouraged in its use.
When it comes to preparing for disasters like Hurricane Sandy, it takes on profound importance.
As Hurricane Sandy showed, America’s communities are far from prepared to deal with the major events. While New York needed a naval militia to assist with its homeland security needs, New Mexico, for example, can focus its SDF on state needs such as border security and forest fire response. States, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security should integrate SDFs into existing and future emergency management plans to ensure that all players in state emergency response are aware of the resources provided by each state’s SDF. Any disaster response must include such organizations, since they are often the greatest source of relief in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. It is quite clear from the emergency spending doled out after both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy that the absolute worst time for Congress to appropriate funds is right after a disaster has occurred.
With this restriction on the federal government’s appetite to engage in emergency spending, Americans should see a bit more responsible treatment of their tax dollars. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits took advantage of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation to advance global warming policies and projects.[55] Their proclamations captured much media attention and helped mobilize the passage of a relief package laced with global warming gestures. As with those who blamed global warming for Hurricane Sandy, many infrastructure concerns turned out to be misguided. Even in the case of serious damage caused by weather, nuclear plants are built with layered safety systems to mitigate and control emergency situations.
Nuclear facilities participate in full emergency exercises with state and local first responders at least once every two years. Of the 34 reactors expected to be in Sandy’s path, 18 continued to operate at 100 percent power, six reduced power output at the request of regional grid operators or in response to the storm, seven were previously shut down for refueling or maintenance, and three successfully shut down manually in response to the storm. Although Hurricane Sandy damaged much of the Northeast’s coastal infrastructure, the nuclear non-event attests to what those in the industry already knew: that America has the best nuclear safety system in the world. Hurricanes generally cause widespread power outages, particularly in highly populated areas.

Having contingency plans in place in the event of a hurricane is a low-cost, straightforward exercise. Although it might be possible to build an electric system that is hurricane-proof, the cost would be prohibitive. Under this act, the federal government pays 75 percent to 100 percent of disaster response bills as long as FEMA has issued a disaster declaration. The first step is for states to allocate money to disaster relief funds that will give them the ability to fund their own disaster response and recovery operations directly.
Through the use of relatively new command structures, streamlining direction and information gathering, and use of specialized units, the National Guard, in conjunction with other state forces as well as active duty military personnel, was poised to respond to Hurricane Sandy well in advance.
The dual-status structure of the National Guard during Hurricane Sandy, however, enabled state and federal military responders to receive the instructions from the same personnel and operate in a more streamlined fashion.
Operations performed by the guard included search and rescue on land (the Coast Guard operates search and rescue at sea), food and water distribution, debris removal and route clearance, traffic control, fuel distribution for response vehicles, power generation support, and assistance in maintaining civil order.
Many members, therefore, have high levels of training and professionalism stemming from past experience that makes them invaluable for high-risk states, acting as force multipliers for response efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters or domestic attacks. There was no system for keeping track of all of this state-owned and leased equipment used for the response effort before activation of the NYG. Further, emergency management plans and exercises will provide the SDF with greater guidance on its role in state response in the event of a disaster. Due to the bureaucratic nature of government responses, these organizations play a crucial role in reaching out to the victims of disaster in a rapid, responsive, and adaptive manner. As such, religious organizations already have the local knowledge and infrastructure needed to respond immediately as well as having the backing of their larger religious denomination which can provide resources and personnel quickly and consistently. Specifically, the roles, responsibilities, and resources of all stakeholders need to be established before a disaster strikes.
Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, nuclear skeptics and opponents were already likening the storm to the Fukushima disaster in Japan and raising alarm about flooding, power outages, and overheating spent fuel pools. Of those three, New York’s Nine Mile Point 1 and Indian Point 3 shut down because of grid disruption, and New Jersey’s Salem 1 shut down because rough waters battered the housing structure for several of the plant’s pumps. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should work with Congress to fully dedicate the resources needed to complete the development of the National Security Cutter, the Offshore Patrol Cutter, and the Fast Response Cutter fleets, and meet stated requirement levels. As was demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, a society fails when it fails those most in need.
Furthermore, these organizations are often not only the first responders, but they are also central to long-term relief and rebuilding efforts. The United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund continues to provide essential supplies to those affected by Sandy. These offices, together with state and local agencies, should work closely with civil society organizations to create disaster response plans that assign roles and responsibilities to best take advantage of all the resources and capabilities that civil society possesses. The storm that hit the Northeast was an infamous combination of a hurricane and a cold front coming across Canada during high tide—a horrendous storm, but according to historical tables not an unprecedented one.[51] Science cannot yet show a connection between Hurricane Sandy (and other severe weather events) and global warming. NRC resident inspectors always staff each reactor facility in America, and independent groups like the Institution of Nuclear Power Operators and the World Association of Nuclear Reactors train, evaluate, and circulate best practices.[59] Because of these preparations and routine refreshing of emergency plans, America’s nuclear reactors are among the world’s safest. Staff at nuclear facilities in Sandy’s path went through routine preparations for severe weather and plants were overstaffed around the clock.[60] The NRC also notified potentially affected reactors and augmented personnel at plants to verify that proper precautions were being made. The widespread outages caused by Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast and Long Island impacted all three parts of the power system—generation, transmission, and local distribution.
Thus, when a hurricane like Sandy causes significant flooding, underground distribution systems can suffer extensive damage. From Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf oil spill Americans have been taught these lessons before, yet the nation continues to fall short in terms of planning for catastrophic disaster response and recovery.
This enables response efforts to run more efficiently as the JISCC quickly establishes a chain of command and enables the various capabilities to work in concert. It means that the system cannot erode the ability of people to first take care of themselves, so that first responders can focus on those who are endangered, injured, and cannot care for themselves. By rebuilding infrastructure, employing local residents, and selling goods and services, businesses are instrumental in the long-term rebuilding efforts and must be integrated into government recovery plans. Rather than try to fix this fundamentally flawed system, the United States needs broad reform in the area of nuclear waste management, which at its basis requires giving nuclear waste producers responsibility for nuclear waste management. This was only aggravated by the fact that Hurricane Sandy made landfall at high tide, causing its particularly destructive storm surge, and resulting in even more significant flooding.

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