Editorial: A devastating 'October surprise'

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A devastating Oct. ‘surprise’ 
Political pundits are fond of referring to an “October Surprise” — an unexpected event that reshapes the narrative of presidential races. This October, however, the surprise came churning out of the Atlantic Ocean as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the nation’s northeast coast and a potentially catastrophic collision with two other weather systems. Politics suddenly took a back seat to sandbags and evacuation routes.
As the hurricane churned ashore Monday evening, the question wasn’t whether this would be a devastating storm, but just how widespread the devastation would be. With major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York squarely in Sandy’s sights, emergency officials warned that this storm had the potential for historic disruption and destruction. Striking at the heart of some of the nation’s most heavily populated areas, this so-called “Frankenstorm” was likely to leave millions without power and temporarily paralyze financial, transportation and communication networks, affecting a large chunk of the nation extending from the Carolinas to New England, and inland to the Great Lakes. 
As for the human toll, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley put it in these stark terms: “There will be people who die and are killed in this storm.”
Over the next couple of days, we’ll get an idea of just how extensive the destruction and its aftermath will be. But with high tides battering the Outer Banks, snow blanketing the N.C. mountains and winds whipping across the Piedmont, this is a highly unusual weather event affecting people far beyond the storm’s main path. Emergency officials estimated that up to 10 million people could be without power. Anticipating a massive burden on communication networks as people try to get updates from loved ones, federal officials requested that people communicate via texts rather than calls whenever possible to reduce the broadband load. (The Red Cross also helps with catastrophe communications through its “Safe and Well” website at www.redcross.org/find-help.)
Inevitably, any major storm raises comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 behemoth that battered the Gulf Coast, causing an estimated $75 billion in damages and approximately 1,200 U.S. deaths. That storm prompted a reassessment of how state and federal officials prepare for the possibilty of catastrophic events and respond when they occur. Rightly or wrongly, it became a symbol of dithering public officials and dysfunctional bureaucracy. The rebuilding goes on, even seven years later. Now, the lessons learned from Katrina are going to be put to a severe test on an even greater scale.