Hurricane Sandy one year on: What have we learned?

Investing in disaster preparedness has saved countless lives, but further investment is necessary.

Hurricane Sandy left widespread damage across the Caribbean, but the death toll could have been much worse [AFP]

This week marks Hurricane Sandy’s first anniversary. Most media attention will understandably focus on the destruction and suffering caused when Sandy struck the United States on October 29 last year, killing more than 110 people and causing more than $50 billion in damages.

But what is likely to get less attention is that the US was just the last of many stops on the hurricane’s tour of destruction. Beginning on October 24, Sandy, one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes on record, rumbled across the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other countries before finally reaching the eastern seaboard of the US.

The impact on this region was enormous. In Jamaica, most of the country was left without electricity, and public infrastructure suffered damages valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Nearby Haiti was even more exposed, with at least 50 dead and millions affected. Cuba, where the storm reached peak intensity, was left with at least $7 billion in damage, including to more than half of the housing in Santiago de Cuba.

And one year on from Sandy, there are many lessons that we should learn from those living in the Caribbean, a region regularly tested by the Atlantic hurricane season.

On a recent visit to Port-au-Prince, I witnessed the tenacity of Haitians who gave me a tour of their newly rebuilt neighbourhood, one of the hardest-hit by the 2010 earthquake. What struck me is that while Haiti suffered a double-hit – with Sandy arriving only two years after the earthquake which killed at least 100,000 people, and affected as many as 3 million more – many measures implemented during the quake recovery helped reduce some of the storm’s impact.

For example, more than 300,000 people in Haiti have been engaged in community clean-up, which aids reconstruction and limits the risk of future events. With the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other organisations, workers have been building riverbank protection against floods, constructing walls to prevent landslides, and planting mangroves and forests to block winds and debris.

While the rates of death and destruction in Haiti were high, the effects could have been much worse. It is widely accepted that measures taken before Sandy arrived, coupled with a culture of contingency, helped mitigate the severity of the storm, saving lives and limiting damage. The same could be said for other countries across the Caribbean.

Cuba is a country that prepares well for the possibility of disasters. Risk reduction management centres, set up by the government with support from UNDP, have helped sustainably manage the impact of hurricanes. In fact, while Cuba has been hit by at least 20 hurricanes and tropical storms since 1996, only 56 lives – a relatively low number – have been lost. While any death is unnecessary, this number could have been much higher had the centres not been in place.

The centres analyse areas of the country that are most at risk from storms and use this information to develop risk reduction measures, such as safer housing policies and urban planning. In order to prepare for emergencies, early warning systems have been implemented and lifesaving information is disseminated. When Sandy struck last year, these systems ushered people away from exposed areas and into shelters. The cumulative effect was a much lower death toll than could have otherwise been the case.

In countries as diverse as Chile, Armenia, Bangladesh and Nepal, it has been proven that preparing for disasters helps mitigate the impact and avoids the heavy costs of cleanup and recovery. This is a lesson that should be adopted in all countries prone to disasters, rich and poor alike. For instance – while estimates vary, the cost of protecting New York City from future storms could be as low as $10 billion, much less than the estimated $18 billion worth of damage Sandy caused to the city.

When you consider the threat of climate change and the potential for many more storms such as Sandy, which both disrupt the well-being of populations and destroy hard-won development gains, the cost of investing in disaster preparedness is more than justified.

Heraldo Muñoz is UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, providing strategic guidance to 26 country offices across the region. He has formerly been Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations, and president of the UN Security Council.

Follow him on Twitter: @HeraldoMunoz