The Long Road to Recovery Environmental Health Impacts of Hurricane Sandy

By Manuel, John | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Long Road to Recovery Environmental Health Impacts of Hurricane Sandy


Manuel, John, Environmental Health Perspectives


Building contractor John Pierciey stands in the gutted interior of a 1950s-era home in Manasquan, New Jersey. Wallboard, two layers of wood flooring, a layer of felt--all of it had to be ripped out to rid the house of mold caused by Hurricane Sandy's storm surge. "This is the sixth house I've gutted in a week," Pierciey says. "Every one is different. You don't know what you're going to find until you take them apart."

So it is with the environmental health impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Every layer of society, every type of building, has felt the impact of the storm, which struck the U.S. East Coast on 29 October 2012. Incidences of death and illness, though small in number compared with some storms, have come in many forms, the effects still unfolding as time goes by.

Immediate Impacts

Hurricane Sandy was the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. It reached more than 1,000 miles in diameter and affected states from Florida to Maine. (1) Sandy was responsible for an estimated 234 deaths in 8 countries and caused potentially $50 billion in property damage in the United States alone. (1) In New York and New Jersey alone, the storm damaged or destroyed more than 375,000 housing units. (2) Months after the storm, power had still not been restored to all areas, and access to towns on the New Jersey barrier islands was limited to contractors and homeowners, and then only during daylight hours. (As of this writing, power has been restored to all customers.)

In terms of immediate impact, the greatest health threat came from the storm surge that swept into densely populated communities along the New Jersey shore, Long Island, and Lower Manhattan. The storm's arrival coincided with a high tide to push onshore a destructive surge of water 12.5 feet high at its peak. (1) Of the 97 deaths recorded in the New York metropolitan area--which includes northern New Jersey and parts of Connecticut--most were from drowning. (3)

Fire posed another hazard. After seawater short-circuited the electrical system in a house in New York's Breezy Point, wind-swept flames spread to 126 homes. Dozens of fires broke out in other areas as a result of the storm. Amazingly, there were no deaths from any of these. (4)

Astute preparations in advance of the storm saved countless lives. Unlike with Hurricane Katrina, which seemed to capture leaders at all levels unprepared, a wide net of government agencies was on hand to deal with the health and security threats posed by Hurricane Sandy. The National Guard deployed 200 troops to keep order in New York City. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent Incident Management Assistance Teams to coordinate federal resources to support the states. The U.S. Coast Guard positioned teams along the coast for search and rescue. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintained watch over nuclear plants, three of which were shut down during the storm. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey governor Chris Christie ordered the evacuation of some coastal areas as well as the closure of bridges and tunnels throughout the metropolitan area, along with subway lines, commuter trains, bus lines, and the three major airports. These closures proved prescient as all road tunnels into Manhattan, except the Lincoln Tunnel, were subsequently flooded, as were subway stations and tunnels in Lower Manhattan.

Immediately following the storm, another wave of agencies sprang into action. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed more than 500 personnel, including 9 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams from 8 states, to provide care at medical shelters across the area. The American Red Cross opened 171 shelters across 13 states, with thousands of volunteers working alongside paid personnel. FEMA set up 68 Disaster Recovery Centers in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey where people could apply for assistance and seek information on alternative housing.

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