Before Hurricane Sandy hit U. S. shores, I heard a few emergency preparedness public service announcements that urged people to collect food, water, and other supplies needed for three days in the event Sandy cut off access to services.
What Sandy–and Katrina for that matter–taught me is this:
- The loss of electricity means more than the absence of lights. Use of gasoline pumps, ATM machines, heaters, cold food storage and other necessities can be lost. Pharmacies close so that those who are ill can’t get prescription medications. Refrigerated or frozen food at home or in grocery stores and restaurants spoil. Banks close so no one has access to their money.
- The loss of access to necessities can last much longer than anyone anticipates. Older or disabled persons living on top stories of buildings without electrical power to run elevators or health-related equipment may be cut off from things they need to stay alive. In the aftermath of Sandy, some communities were told the citizens would have to make do without power for six weeks or more. At the onset of winter, life can get brutal quickly if one has no way to keep warm.
- The destruction of infrastructure impedes the flow of commerce. In the aftermath of Sandy, it was difficult to get food and water to stores or distribution centers because debris clogged roads. Further, disruptions in energy distribution meant folks had a hard time buying gasoline to fill tanks so they could drive outside the destruction zone for supplies. Or vehicles were destroyed by flood waters, leaving owners stranded. One cruise ship that departed before Sandy hit, and was scheduled to sail for seven days, returned to New York to find the port closed and access denied. On the 15th day, the ship was still at sea, uncertain when it could return to its home port. Those on board didn’t know if their cars were still where they left them or washed away.
- To complicate matters more, society breaks down. Tempers flare and fights start over situations where one person attempts to take advantage of another. People cut into line instead of waiting their turn. Vandals use the cover of chaos to steal or damage property. Price gouging is rampant. The vulnerable are fearful. Children are sent to the safety of homes of distant relatives, while parents stay behind to clean and defend the homestead, which may have become a hazardous dump site.
- Few individuals had a plan for how to survive a disaster of Sandy’s magnitude.
When writing about a disaster setting, be accurate about the depth of the devastation. In the days following Sandy, several persons who were directly impacted by the storm said to us, “It’s nothing like you see on TV. It’s much worse.”