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Lessons in resilience from Superstorm Sandy

North­eastern University’s George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity co- ​​hosted a con­fer­ence on Tuesday to dis­cuss the need to strengthen trans­porta­tion resilience to major dis­as­ters like Super­storm Sandy.

The event, held at the Stevens Insti­tute for Tech­nology in Hoboken, N.J., kicked off a series of four day­long sym­posia focused on enhancing the resilience of trans­porta­tion, energy, health ser­vice, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems in coastal cities. The Kostas Research Insti­tute received a one-​​year, $575,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foun­da­tion to sup­port the project.

Tuesday’s con­fer­ence con­vened public sector trans­porta­tion leaders, emer­gency man­agers, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials from around the country. Speakers included senior offi­cials from Wash­ington and the agency heads of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, and the Met­ro­pol­itan Trans­porta­tion Authority. The meeting’s goal was to iden­tify and share lessons learned from the par­tic­i­pants’ col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence with dis­as­ters in order to strengthen the resilience of the nation’s mass transit, port, and avi­a­tion infrastructure.

Super­storm Sandy wreaked havoc upon the tri-​​state area’s trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture, inflicting mil­lions of dol­lars in damage to tun­nels, bus depots, and sub­ways sys­tems. A $50.5 bil­lion relief bill passed by Con­gress and signed by Pres­i­dent Obama in Jan­uary set aside funds to repair the destruction.

“Sandy high­lighted the extra­or­di­nary extent to which the New York met­ro­pol­itan area depends on trans­porta­tion,” said Stephen Flynn, co-​​director of the George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity and the prin­cipal inves­ti­gator of the $575,000 grant from the Sloan Foun­da­tion. “The pur­pose of this project is to find ways to design resilience into sys­tems and modify oper­a­tions and pro­tocol to speed recovery once they are knocked down.”

“We know that we need to design sys­tems to better with­stand these kinds of storms the next time around,” added Flynn, an expert in com­mu­nity resilience and crit­ical infra­struc­ture pro­tec­tion. “Unfor­tu­nately we have a habit of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again and hoisting him up to teeter on the wall.”

North­eastern, he explained, has the poten­tial to play a large role in mit­i­gating risk and shaping the response to large-​​scale dis­as­ters, noting the university’s ability to “mar­shal and mobi­lize expertise.”

Flynn is a big pro­po­nent of cre­ating a team of experts to inves­ti­gate dis­as­ters like Super­storm Sandy and then share their find­ings with key stake­holders. The non-​​governmental body, he said, would be sim­ilar to the National Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, the inde­pen­dent U.S. gov­ern­ment inves­tiga­tive agency.

To this end, the symposia’s par­tic­i­pants will pub­lish two reports of their find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions; the first report will be released in October to coin­cide with the first anniver­sary of Super­storm Sandy and the second will be released after the final sym­po­sium in the spring of 2014.

“We should treat each and every major dis­aster as an oppor­tu­nity to learn what we can do to adapt to the ongoing risk,” said Flynn.

– by Jason Kornwitz

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