Sandy’s Lesson: Preparedness is Key

Rockaway Beach, right after Sandy.

This time last year, hurricane Sandy rumbled up the U.S. East Coast, devastating broad swaths of New Jersey and New York. Floodwaters filled subway stations and basements; fierce winds knocked down power lines, setting houses and even whole neighborhoods on fire. The storm disrupted life in 24 states, killed nearly 148 people, and caused billions of dollars in damage.

(In New York City, all that destruction—including the lower half of Manhattan going dark for days—still couldn’t stop the Apple faithful from lining up outside the company’s Fifth Avenue store to purchase the new iPad Mini.)

The storm’s flooding forced datacenters in lower Manhattan to pump out flooded facilities and ship in supplies of diesel fuel—both much easier said than done. Hosting company Peer1, located at 75 Broad, assembled a now-famous bucket brigade that carried fuel up 18 flights of stairs to generators, in order to keep its systems running; other firms, such as Telx, managed to endure through the whole crisis with adequate supplies. But the general loss of electricity nonetheless downed several Websites and cloud services, including The Huffington Post and Gawker Media network.


In post-Sandy interviews with Slashdot, a number of datacenter operators suggested that surviving the storm was a matter of simply following their disaster checklists. Billie Haggard, CoreSite’s senior vice president of data centers, described how his company had roughly three days’ worth of fuel in reserve when the storm hit, with a contract to have more delivered via truck: “We were on generators from the 29th, which was a Monday, through the week until Sunday morning—the 4th. For any facility, you have to be anticipating at least 24 hours that you’re going to be operating as an island.” (CoreSite also had at least three days’ worth of food in storage, just in case.)

Ted Smith, senior vice president of operations for Peer1, also discussed the importance of preparing for as many contingencies as possible in advance:

“I don’t think that anyone could have been prepared for a situation like this. This is a once-in-a-hundred-years storm. Now, as you said, with some learnings [taken] away from it, we had trouble with sourcing the equipment after the storm, because every company that we talked to one, didn’t know the status of their locations; two, didn’t know where their people were, or their people’s ability to get to their offices and help us with that equipment, and also, they were getting overwhelmed with other calls, too. So having those things sourced in advance is something that you definitely need to be prepared for.”

Outside of New York City, other datacenter operators found their preparedness validated by the storm. IPR operates datacenters in Wilmington, Delaware and Reading, Pennsylvania, relatively close to Sandy’s track after it made landfall. “We have two power grids we sit on top of, so if the power goes we flip over immediately to [backup],” Richard J. Cowell, who runs the company’s business development, told Slashdot a few weeks after the storm. “We have two generators, we have multiple fuel tanks that are full, and we’re built to be 24x7x365.” He said IPR’s facilities didn’t so much as flicker while the storm passed.


In Sandy’s wake, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $20 billion system of flood barriers and other bulkhead systems, which included ways to protect the subway system and subterranean electrical substations; if implemented, that plan could also shield against rising sea levels over the next few decades. “Hurricane Sandy made it all too clear that, no matter how far we’ve come, we still face real, immediate threats,” Bloomberg said at the time. “Much of the work will extend far beyond the next 200 days—but we refuse to pass the responsibility for creating a plan onto the next administration. This is urgent work, and it must begin now.”

How much of that plan will actually end up implemented, however, is an open question: it will require a mix of federal aid and city-capital funding, both of which are often in short supply. In the meantime, some private-public partnerships have taken baby steps toward preparing the city’s infrastructure for the next big disaster: AT&T, Brooklyn design studio Pensa, and portable solar-power maker Goal Zero (with approval by the city’s Parks Department) are installing solar-powered charging stations in various neighborhoods; the designs are modular, and can be modified for lights, advertising and other attachments.

In New Jersey, which was also badly mauled by the storm, the scars remain visible. Infrastructure remains wrecked; residents still fight with insurance companies and the government for payouts so they can rebuild. As in New York City, where the wooden boardwalks in Rockaway Beach (one of the hardest-hit areas by the storm) are being replaced by concrete and metal structures, it’s all but certain that the rebuilt portions of the coast will look radically different than they did before.

Rockaway Beach, today.

Image: Nick Kolakowski