By Michael Yudell
A week ago Monday, Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast, devastating coastal regions of New Jersey and New York, and leaving in its wake more than 100 dead, more than a million who are still without power, and tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged. Sandy’s impact will linger in the months and years to come as people rebuild their homes and begin to heal from the storm’s physical and emotional scars. As the recovery begins, and as we prepare for future storms and other emergencies, there are some things we can do to ensure our safety both immediately and over the long term.
As of Sunday, many in the region were without power: more than 700,000 New Yorkers, almost one million in New Jersey, and another 700,000 in Connecticut. Locally, Bucks and Montgomery counties were hardest hit by Sandy, and between 15,000 and 30,000 customers still had no electricity.
No power means no heat, and with temperatures dropping quickly, no heat, particularly for the elderly and the ill, can be dangerous. Hypothermia (a core body temperature below 95 degrees) can quickly lead to failure of your heart and respiratory system, and death. To prevent hypothermia, make sure that you and your neighbors without power have proper blankets, wear layers, and have adequate food. If you have elderly neighbors, make sure that they find their way (with help if needed) to the nearest shelter (to find the nearest open shelter, text the word SHELTER + your zip code to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at 43362). If you discover that someone is already hypothermic, get him or her to the nearest hospital immediately.
No power also means that, certainly by now, all refrigerated food has gone bad. Consult the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Inspection Service for guidelines about “Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency.”
For some, lack of access to power means an inability to operate home medical equipment. If you or someone you know is dependent upon electricity for health and well-being, make sure they get help immediately. Across the United States, more than two million people use home oxygen machines that depend on power, while millions more are dependent on at-home equipment like ventilators, dialysis machines, heart pumps, nebulizers, and IV pumps. Some of them have short-term backups, but even those can fail. Going forward, make sure that your power provider as well as local police are aware of your situation in the event of an outage.
Another concern: backup generators and other sources of power, light, and heat. According to the American Red Cross, “the primary hazards to avoid when using a generator are carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock or electrocution, and fire.” If you are using a generator in your home or business, or know someone that is, make sure to follow your equipment’s instructions carefully. A few easy steps can keep you and your loved ones safe: make sure to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home and/or place of business to warn you if CO builds up, keep the generator in a dry place to avoid electrocution, and follow local regulations to safely store fuel. And never, ever start a barbeque in the house to keep warm.
There are many opportunities to volunteer your services or donate money to help in the wake of the hurricane. The American Red Cross has relief operations in action across the region, deploying mobile kitchens, distributing food and other relief supplies, and providing health services and psychological support for the storm’s victims. Blood drives were canceled during the storm, so one great way to help is to donate a pint or so of your blood. Another is to donate money directly to the Red Cross or other organizations. Take a look at the National Donations Management Website to see what organizations are active in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
Finally, in the truest spirit of community, you can donate your time and expertise. The American Red Cross is always looking for volunteers, but so are many other organizations. At serve.gov, an “online resource for not only finding volunteer opportunities in your community, but also creating your own,” it’s as simple as typing in your zip code to quickly locate opportunities to volunteer for Sandy relief as well as for other areas of need.
Rebuilding and ensuring our future safety
For those who have survived but have lost their homes or have had their homes severely damaged, FEMA provides disaster assistance. You can apply at disasterassistance.gov or get assistance for filing an application by calling the FEMA helpline at 1-800-621-3362. FEMA is also providing transitional housing for those whose homes are gone or currently uninhabitable.
Going forward, the responsibility falls on us all to address the problems that lie ahead. Based on the brutal hit that coastal regions of the northeast took last week, there clearly needs to be an evaluation of the infrastructure of our region to see what needs to be done to make us safer in the eventuality of future Sandy-like storms and rising seas.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: climate change. It was absent from three presidential debates, dealt with underwhelmingly by President Obama and outright scoffed at by candidate Romney (different than Governor Romney, of course, who once acknowledged the dangers of climate change). The news media have also done a generally poor reporting job. But it must be addressed, and we must seize this moment to do so.
While we can’t blame climate change specifically for the hurricane, we do know that extreme weather events like Sandy are becoming more common. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made this point clear at a post-Sandy news conference, saying “part of learning from [Hurricane Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable, and if we are going to do our job as elected officials we are going to need to make the modifications necessary so we don’t incur this type of damage.” For Cuomo, hiding our heads in the sand no longer works. “For us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be short-sighted,” he said. “I think we need to anticipate more of these extreme weather type situations in the future and we have to take that into consideration in reforming, modifying, our infrastructure.”
We ignore that fact at our future peril.
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