Sobering Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

Some affected homes will be without power for more than 10 days after Hurricane Sandy struck.

This last week saw Hurricane Sandy blow in and through upper New Jersey, lower New York, and parts of CT and other states.  The hurricane was severe in strength, and passed through areas that very rarely encounter such extreme conditions, and so it caused more damage and disruption than ‘normal’.

From a prepper perspective, this was a regional and somewhat minor Level 1 event, although of course, if you were one of the affected people, its immediate impact on you may have been massively more major.

We say it is a small regional Level 1 event because the after-effects of the hurricane were (actually, ‘are’ because we’re writing this while the recovery process is still ongoing) short-term rather than long-term, and only impacted on a very small part of the country and even only on small parts of the affected states.  This means that, notwithstanding short-term disruptions and inconveniences, everyone knows, expects, and hopefully can wait for the restoration of normal conditions.  The overall ‘rule of law’ and society as a whole has not been threatened.

However, the ‘ground zero’ experience was at times devastating, and we can all be thankful that this was ‘merely’ a regional disaster.  Here’s a good article with lots of images of the devastation.

However, it is also an interesting and educational event for us as preppers.  One of the big unknowns we have to try to guess at is ‘what will people do when impacted by a Level 1/2/3 event?’.  With Hurricane Sandy being an unexpected event, we can get some clues as to how people will react in general to other events.

There are, of course, two schools of thought about how people will respond to a major national Level 1/2/3 event.  The optimists say that people will remain orderly and law-abiding, and the noble spirit of humanity, of respect for human life, and of ‘sacrifice above self’ will prevail.  People will help each other, will generously share what resources they have, and that the law enforcement agencies will maintain the peace in any event.  In other words, relax; all will be well.

The pessimists say that society will collapse in an ‘every man for himself’ and ‘dog eat dog’ scenario and the authorities will be helpless to prevent it.  People will riot and loot, with murder and mayhem being the rule.  People will hoard rather than share, and those without resources will do anything, up to and including murder, to get whatever they need and want from people who do have resources.

There are also two schools of thought about the role of external agencies, and ‘the government will help us’.  Will people passively wait for someone, anyone, to come and save them, or will they positively take charge of their lives and the situation and create whatever solutions they need, independently?

The Reality of the Sandy Experience

We can look at what happened as people reacted to the problems and disruptions from Hurricane Sandy and use it to help us better guess as to how people might respond to a more widespread disruptive event.

For example, we have seen only a little rioting or social disorder post-Sandy.  That is the good news – although, as this article indicates, there has been some disruption and the situation is extremely precarious, such that the slightest spark could set off mass rioting and looting.  This other article indicates that a ‘powder keg’ situation is present in other localities too, and note that both articles are silent on the authorities, and instead talk only about the local people being forced to defend themselves.

On the other hand, the scale and scope of the Sandy disruption was not really significant enough to cause rioting, and in particular, with New York City having one of the greatest police concentrations of anywhere in the world, and with the police and public order services all remaining fully functional, there was little opportunity for widespread disruption to occur.

Instead, we saw minor scuffles break out, particularly with the long lines of cars waiting to buy gas from the few gas stations that had both gas in their tanks to sell and also electricity to power the pumps to bring the gas to the cars.  People were waiting four and sometimes even six hours to get gas.

We saw other things, too.  Most of all, we saw an extraordinary and passive sense of entitlement, quickly evolving into resentment.  People would complain about the external help they got as being insufficient, rather than express appreciation for getting any assistance at all.

In particular, it is astonishing that anyone would ever complain about the Red Cross providing relief services, but as this and other articles point out, it was common to criticize the Red Cross for not magically and completely solving all problems for affected people.  Apparently, unless the Red Cross was handing out new big screen televisions and rebuilding people’s homes to a better standard than before, people would complain about the Red Cross ‘not doing enough’.

An interesting thought – how much money have such complainers contributed to the Red Cross themselves, in the decades prior to now?  What right do they have to expect anything at all from any charity group?

Also mentioned in the linked article (above) – people who had made deliberate and conscious decisions not to buy flood insurance now believe that they should not now have to accept the consequences of their earlier bad decisions.  Someone – whether FEMA, the Red Cross, or ‘the government’ in general should now help them, these people say.

Rather than improvising field toilets, and attending to sanitation needs as best possible, we saw apartment dwellers crapping in their corridors.  Not even wild animals do that.

Even more astonishing, at least initially, utility workers from other states who went to help restore power and other services were turned away because they weren’t union members of the local unions.

And when local utility crews – people have been working close to 24 hrs a day in a mad scramble to restore as much service as possible, to as many people as possible, got to some neighborhoods to restore service, the residents pelted them with eggs and other objects to show their displeasure at being without power.

That is beyond stupid.  The utility crews have no control over their companies’ staffing policies; they are doing all they can, personally, to restore power, and instead of being welcomed by the people they are helping, they are forced to leave and wait for police escorts before they can return.

Interpreting These Experiences

So, what did we see?  We saw people acting irrationally, selfishly, dysfunctionally and passively.  We saw people demanding that external sources come and help them and do everything for them, and people complaining that the generous help they did receive from volunteers was insufficient, and calling for more.

We saw people who willfully decided to ‘save money’ and not prepare for or insure against disaster now expecting that they won’t have to personally accept the consequences of their selfish short-sightedness.

We also saw potential collapses of social order, with the peace being maintained by ‘do it yourself’ local residents, rather than by the police, and a few cases where looters actually did strike.

Now try to extend these behaviors to a more severe Level 1 or worse scenario.  Which possible outcome do you think to be more likely?  The ‘noble humanity uniting positively together’ projection or the ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’ projection?

Will the same people who chose not to buy flood insurance, and the same people who chose not to stock up on supplies or emergency equipment just passively watch you deploying your generator, your food, and so on?  Or will they be demanding that you share it all with them?

Note also that the proud American spirit of self-reliance and independence seems to now be replaced by a passive dependence on the government or anyone/anything else to solve people’s problems for them, accompanied by an abdication of personal responsibility.

Will the police be present to maintain law and order?  Or will people be forced to rely on their own resources?  And will some sectors of the community become ‘unruly’ (to put it politely) and may they attempt to inflict harm on you, either for rational or irrational reasons?

The Ugly Bottom Line

We see nothing in the responses to Hurricane Sandy to inspire us to hope that society might respond positively to more widespread disruptive events.  Quite the opposite.

While it is true that most people affected by the hurricane this last week have quietly hunkered down and just got on with their lives as best they can, it is also true that the disruptive effects of those people who responded negatively have been significant, and if the underlying disruption were to be greater, and the magical response and assistance from outside agencies to be smaller, more delayed, and less likely, we think the social problems arising from Hurricane Sandy would become massively more impactful and widespread.

By all means, hope for the best.  Hope we never have a massively disruptive event, and hope that if one does occur, people respond positively.  But – you’re a prepper, right?  Yes, do hope for the best – we all do.  But, to be responsible to yourself and your loved ones and others who depend upon you, you must prepare for the worst – both for the worst disasters, and also for the worst social responses to them.

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