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Sandy’s humbling of New York sends a clear message

For a graphic example of why we need to build resilience into critical public infrastructure look no further than New York right now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

It is over a week since the storm swept ashore to wreak havoc across wide sections of the city. Yet today we are still seeing large parts of the public transport systems out of action, road tunnels still flooded, power outages common and, in parts of the city, food parcels being handed out.

Certainly Sandy was a big storm - some say the storm of the century. But for a city like New York - the very heart of capitalism and a major centre of the commercial and financial world - to effectively close down for two days, then remain severely crippled for over a week is a worrying state of affairs.

With the cost of disruption and damage now being conservatively estimated at $50bn (£31bn), some four times the original potential storm damage cost redictions, the post- Sandy lessons that come out of New York over the next weeks and months will important for the whole of the US to learn.

And they will, for that matter, be important lessons for every politician and engineer running and advising major world cities.

Because standing staring at the destruction left behind as the flood waters subside, or talking to the communities and businesses ripped apart by failed transport, power, water or communication infrastructure, is not the moment to start appreciating the value of protecting your critical public infrastructure.

“New York underlines once again that we cannot, as a profession, sit idly by and allow such short-sighted attitudes to prevail”

We see it time and again. The moment to plan and prepare for natural disasters is in advance, well before it ever happens.

Yet just as we are now finding in the UK following the catastrophic flooding in 2007, learning lessons and actually acting upon them are sadly, two different matters.

The 2008 Pitt Review into these 2007 floods made it very clear that UK came very close to witnessing a major weather induced disaster. Power stations were exposed, water treatment plants vulnerable and transport systems lacked resilience.

But while Pitt made many very sensible and practical recommendations to ensure that the UK’s critical infrastructure was defendable against future inevitable flood events, four years later and to the frustration of flood defence experts, there are still a raft of key recommendations that have not been embraced or properly funded.

As NCE reported in July following an ICEbacked meeting on flood preparedness, we are still very much “still waiting for action”.

New York underlines once again that we cannot, as a profession, sit idly by and allow such short-sighted attitudes to prevail.

State governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out that “it’s going to cost money” to build resilience into the city’s infrastructure. But there as here, the cost - financial and human - of failing to make this investment will always be considerably higher in the long run.

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