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OPINION: Indian cities learning from ‘Sandy’

In an article for the Times of India, CDKN/Panos South Asia Journalist Fellow, Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, writes that Indian cities have much to learn from New York’s disaster response and limitations.

NEW YORK: It took a little more than a day of hurricane-force winds and an almost 14-foot tidal surge to reduce this global financial powerhouse into a city of haves and have-nots—those who had electricity and those who did not.

For almost five days after superstorm  Sandy struck the region, Lower Manhattan’s famous skyline remained dark, its businesses shuttered and its neighbourhoods empty, even as life Uptown carried on much the same. Much of the city’s  subway system, which carries over five million commuters daily, is still offline. And across the waterfront in neighbouring New Jersey, hundreds of homes lie flooded.

The last time I saw a disaster like this up close was on July 26, 2005, when an unexpected monsoon cloudburst submerged Mumbai, stranding commuters and destroying homes.

New York is a city not unlike Mumbai: both are built on reclaimed islands; both are financial capitals and migrant magnets; and both depend on train systems to transport their large workforce. The “resilience” of New Yorkers is as famous as the “spirit of Mumbai”.

Yet these similarities only highlighted the gaps in governance between the cities, especially in disaster management. Recovery from the storm has been slow—gas shortages have kicked in and some areas won’t get power for many more days —but the city authorities’ preparation for and response to the storm was remarkably efficient and comprehensive.  Indian cities, while facing greater challenges with their poorer populations and smaller resources, have much to learn from New York’s disaster response—and its limitations.

Early warning. Hurricanes may be easier to see coming than monsoon rain but the US has also invested heavily in sophisticated forecasting capabilities. Early warning isn’t restricted to weather reports either. Authorities issued areaspecific instructions—residents in flood zones were told to evacuate—as well as valuable information on how to wait the storm out.
The combination of advance warnings, evacuations and first-rate rescue teams helped ensure a relatively small death toll: 40 lives were lost in the city.

Relentless communication. As the storm got closer, New York mayor  Michael Bloomberg appeared frequently on TV with a phalanx of city officials, each with information on power, transit, shelters and neighbourhoods. The press conferences grew in frequency after the storm, helping prevent rumours and keeping people calm.

Expect system failures. The long power outage and subway closures are unprecedented.

They reflect the size of the storm. But New Yorkers aren’t strangers to transit shutdowns or loss of electricity. Despite sophisticated infrastructure, most winters here see some “snow days” when roads are blocked, trains delayed and one may have to work from home or stay away from school.

What was more unusual this time was that authorities closed the subway the night before the storm hit, rather than risk trapped commuters.

A strong mayor helps. As in India, three powers  converge (and clash) in American cities: central, state, municipal. But unlike in India, directly elected mayors wield a lot of power over their cities— and are held accountable for governance. Bloomberg, who has been mayor for more than 10 years, was able to introduce strong measures quickly—like the rule he imposed Wednesday evening forcing cars entering   Manhattan to carry at least three passengers in order to avert traffic gridlock in the absence of a functioning subway.

What New York wasn’t prepared for—a changing climate. All of the city’s mighty resources finally couldn’t prevent the extensive flooding and damage. That’s because New York isn’t built to deal with such a large tidal surge, as officials acknowledged. A government-commissioned climate change study last year noted that much of Manhattan’s infrastructure lies at sea level, including its power stations and major highways (these run along the coastline in the manner of Mumbai’s proposed coastal road). That report predicted almost exactly the damage that occurred this week as part of a scenario of higher storm surges caused by rising seas and more intense storms. Global sea levels have risen by seven inches in the past century (Mumbai and Kolkata top one study of cities that are most likely to be affected).

Some experts have said that New York should consider a system of levees or scale back on waterfront development. In a country where climate change remains contentious, both options perhaps seemed far-fetched and expensive—until this week. The day after the storm, a shaken New York state’s governor called on the city to rethink its policies to cope with “the reality of new weather patterns”.

Contact the journalist at and @winterapples

This article first appeared in the Times of India on Nov 4 2012

CDKN is supporting 24 print, TV, radio and web journalists in South Asia under a Panos ‘South Asia Climate Change Award’ (SACCA) Fellowship.  This is part of a 24-month CDKN project on building climate change awareness in the South Asia media.

Picture courtesy of Stefan Leijon @ flickr creative commons

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