Hurricane Sandy, one of the largest storms on record and packing more destructive power than Hurricane Katrina, could very well be a sign of things to come. You can call it climate change instead of global warming and argue that the effects aren’t due to the hand of man, but there’s no denying the impact: the planet is getting warmer, ocean levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more common.
Coastal New York and New Jersey learned that the hard way last week. Despite a litany of warnings over the years that Lower Manhattan and the barrier islands were vulnerable to storm surge, it was business as usual until the borrowed time finally ran out. The ocean overran berms, subway tunnels flooded and electrical infrastructure once thought to be safe ended up under 5 feet of water.
“Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters Oct. 30 as he inspected water damage at the World Trade Center. “We have old infrastructure, we have old systems. That is not a good combination, and that is one of the lessons I will take from this personally.”
The vulnerability of the infrastructure hit home for New York-based SecureWatch 24 on the morning after Sandy came ashore. The company had moved its critical systems to a facility in Texas before the storm, but it still had semi-critical servers at a co-location site in downtown Manhattan. That proved to be a problem when much of the island was inundated and the power failed, said Gene Dellaglio, chief technology officer for SW24.
“They have generators on the 17th floor of this building, diesel generators,” Dellaglio said last week as he traced a time line of the storm. “The pumps that supply the diesel to the 17th floor are in the basement, which is now flooded. Manhattan is flooded. The pumps shut down. By the time we get down there, people are carrying 5-gallon spackle buckets up 17 flights of stairs from a diesel tank downstairs to get the [generators] running. It’s a bucket brigade. I said we’ve got to get out of here.”
Within an hour, SW24 had moved the servers and had them up and running at its new Fusion Centre in Moonachie, N.J., which also served as a command post for emergency responders and local officials displaced by Sandy. While the company was happy to help and was grateful that it had weathered the storm, Dellaglio said it was easy to see that a threshold had been crossed.
“I did 12 years in the NYPD. … I saw the blackout in 2004, I saw Sept. 11 up close and personal, but I’ve never seen [an emergency] as expansive as this, with everything from the gas to the stores to the [shortage of] food,” he said. “And I think there is a lot to be learned here too in the bigger picture about critical infrastructure. How do you put pumps in the basement for diesel when the generators are on the 17th floor? They evacuated Bellevue Hospital for the same reason.”
It’s something that hasn’t gotten enough attention in New York, which relies on an intricate network below ground to drive just about everything above it. But with the region facing what Cuomo calls a “new reality” of extreme weather events, it might be time to rethink the game plan.