5 lessons from Hurricane Sandy
By Bill Coffin
I live in Oakhurst, New Jersey, about three miles from the shoreline, and as you might imagine, it has been an eventful week for us so far. All things considered, we were fairly lucky in my neighborhood, where we were spared much of Hurricane Sandy's rain, but bore the worst of the storm's winds. As a result, we lost power early on as the big trees began falling like dominoes. And yet, it could have been so much worse. Had it been raining hard all the while, we probably would have lost every tree in Oakhurst. And even then, that would have been small hardship compared to what folks are living with all up and down the Jersey shore right now.
At the time of this writing, I am sitting in my dim and unheated house, having just returned from a trip to the towns of Loch Arbor, Deal and Allenhurst, where the storm surge wrought horrific damage. In Deal, one house on the beach was exploded by the storm; its back half was simply missing and there was a couch on the front lawn. Its insulation was blown all over the neighboring houses. As there were leaves all over my neighborhood, little shreds of this house were likewise distributed on neighbors' lawns and rooftops, a grim reminder of what could have been for any other home along the stretch of beachfront.
In Allenhurst, we found the local beach club's ticket booth intact, but a block inland. The surge and flooding had pushed it off its moorings and left it smack in the middle of the intersection one street over. The street itself leading from the relocated booth to the beach was covered in some two feet of sand. Before anybody living on that street can travel, they will have to excavate their way out.
Overhead, news helicopters and Army Blackhawks surveyed the damage while police tried in vain to keep curious onlookers from crossing caution-taped areas prone to collapse. And as we went back home from all of this, we knew that the damage we saw paled before the utter devastation that had virtually destroyed the towns of Seaside Heights, Sea Bright, Mantoloking and Atlantic City. The barrier islands and most low-lying coastal developments are all gone, either smashed and reclaimed by the ocean, or buried under the tons of sediment washed forward by Sandy's surge.
The house is quiet now, and I have the opportunity to reflect on what this storm has taught me so far. I must get my thoughts down now before night falls and everything goes dark once more. This is what I know today; who knows what I will realize tomorrow?
1. People can and will ignore deadly peril
Governor Chris Christie has done a remarkable job on this storm, and right at the beginning, he was informing the public about the storm's dangers. Anybody in a low-lying area had to get out. Anybody on the barrier islands had to get out. "Tell me I'm wrong from the comfort of your friend's couch," he said in one of his many press conferences, and he was right. He knew only too well that many New Jerseyans felt foolish for fearing Tropical Storm Irene as they did, and as a result, they figured that perhaps Sandy would likewise be a relative non-event. They would be wrong, and Christie tried in vain to warn them. Even the mayor of Atlantic City, which was scheduled to be near to Sandy's landfall, refused to order a mandatory evacuation. The result was that, as the water rose, emergency centers were overwhelmed with distress calls from those who thought they were too smart for the storm. At present, the body count is only a few dozen. As recovery efforts get underway, I suspect that number will climb considerably.
How often have we seen this before, whether it is people second-guessing the severity of an oncoming disaster, or people confronting the planning needs of their own mortality? We all only have so many years; eventually we will leave our family and our loved ones behind. Nobody likes to think it might happen to them sooner rather than later, but everybody owes it to the ones they care about to plan for it, and that is where a solid insurance and financial strategy comes in. Incredibly, many people just don't bother with this, much to the frustration of those in the life insurance business. To meet a prospect with no use for life insurance must be like knocking on the door of a shoreside homeowner with news of an impending hurricane only to have the door slammed in one's face. It makes no sense, and yet it happens. So sad. 2. What we have is more fragile than we think
As I toured my local sea walls, the power of Sandy's storm surge was evident. Anything within the surge's reach was destroyed, as if caught under a giant's fist. Telephone poles were floating in the surf that we figured came from a few towns over. Entire beachfronts had been wiped clean of all development. Even sturdy concrete infrastructure looked like it had been hit by a bomb. There was only one way to survive the harshest effect of Sandy, and that was to get the heck out of its way. There was simply no withstanding power of this magnitude.
This was a clear reminder that, especially in a nation as highly developed as ours, it is easy to forget how thin the line is between comfortable living in the 21st century and something well below that mark. We are a great nation that has built great things, but those things are so easily swept aside, and we forget that time and time and time again. Before the storm, I pruned dead branches from my trees and secured anything vulnerable to high wind because I didn't want some piece of my property turned into a deadly missile aimed right at my living room during the height of the storm. We are safe most of the time, but in reality, we only feel safe. The truth is, we are never more than one really bad day from seeing everything we ever worked for, everything we ever built, and every person we ever loved taken away from us. The peril of life is real, and it is something we must never forget ... even though almost all of us will once the power comes back on.
If only we could keep disasters like this in mind, how much future damage might we avoid? It is impossible to tell, but such mindful preparation would do much to protect our so-easily destroyed achievements. The role insurance has to play in this is obvious, especially for our friends in the property and casualty industry, who will have quite a few checks to sign once this is all over. But it is also true for the life and health world. Insurance has long been sold on the premise of how little we can foretell the future, especially the darker parts of it. And it is something people simply do not like to think about.
That said, while no insurer should seek to callously benefit from this disaster, there is a point to take advantage of the heightened awareness Sandy has left behind to remind people that it really pays to plan ahead. 3. What you know and what you feel are two different things
I had read up on Sandy quite a bit before it arrived. I have covered hurricanes in the past, and I had a decent idea of what to expect, even taking into consideration that this storm was a weird hybrid of hurricane and nor'easter. I knew that the winds of this storm were likely to uproot trees and send loose debris flying, but it was really unlikely to peel my roof back. And even though there was the risk of toppling trees, the truth was that there were none that were big enough and close enough to my home to present any clear and present danger.
I knew these things. And yet, when the storm came, where was I? At my windows, looking at the big trees near my yard, expecting them at any moment to crack in half, falling toward my home like some ancient instrument of revenge. Presented with the inescapable reality of the storm, I had only my fear of the storm's uncertainty and the conviction of how much I had prepared dueling within my head, like the proverbial angel and devil on one's shoulder. Ultimately, the angel won out, as I did not descend into some kind of crazy panic, but this was a keen reminder of how inadequate our plans can feel when they are put to a full and sudden test.
How certain are we to have prepared adequately for the loss of a breadwinner or loved one? What is the line between what we think we need to prepare for, and what we feel like spending on our future security? And then, what is the line between all of that and what we really need when the hard times come? We all have to confront this kind of reality check. Not all of us will fare so well when pressed to it because we are either too optimistic or too cheap to make an accurate assessment of our needs and then see to them appropriately. Those who can make such calls on their own enjoy quite an advantage over those who don't. Thankfully, there is an army of advisors at the ready to help make sure people have what they need when they need it. Whether people can admit to themselves that they have needs, well, that is another question. 4. There is no such thing as being too prepared
In the run-up to the storm, we prepared well in advance. We keep a hurricane preparedness kit in the basement and restock it every year. When storms begin looking certain to visit our area, we get go bags ready, even though we do not live in a flood-prone area and are not at direct risk of storm surge damage. We do a lot to ensure that when it is a day or two before the storm, we are not hitting the store in a frantic search for things people have already bought out. Water. Batteries. Dry goods. Medical supplies.
And yet, for all of that, we could have done better. We don't have a generator of our own; we rely on our neighbor who has one (and, truth be told, rather enjoys being the guy with the generator). We don't even have a long enough extension cord rated for outside use to reach the generator. We don’t keep cans around to stockpile extra fuel. We didn't board our windows, nor did we install storm shutters — something I considered last year after Irene blew through but which I later 86ed, thinking that it would be overkill. Well, it sure would not have felt like overkill Monday night, I can tell you.
The point is, there is a tendency to think that we have prepared too much, that there is a line we might cross between wise pre-planning and paranoid survivalist. But really, should there even be such a line? That we might feel self-conscious about protecting ourselves says much about how little we regard the dangers around us, and how certain we are that bad things only ever happen to other people. This is a mindset we should jettison posthaste. The truth is there is no such thing as being too prepared. Doomsday predictors look like idiots until one day, they don't. That carries over to any kind of preparedness, really. When was the last time anybody ever complained about being over-insured? Surely not when a claim check came in. 5. When hardship hits, community matters
For me, this disaster has been a very local experience. My neighbors are a bunch of good-natured, tightly-knit folks, and when bad things happen, we collectively come together and make sure everybody has whatever they need. It is hard to overstate just how good a feeling it is to know that when things get tough, there are people you know, or a group to which you belong, that will help look out for you. Even if the material aid that group provides is marginal, the psychological aid can be immense. You know you are not isolated, that you are going through the same thing everybody else is and that, together, you are all going to pull through.
Without that kind of backup, disasters — whether a big shared experience like Sandy or a personal disaster such a death or illness in the family — have a way of making you feel isolated and overwhelmed. As much as we can try to prepare tactically for hard times, the wider relationships we build are in some ways our best safety net.
In the life and health world, I often hear agents and brokers speak of their relationship with their clients. To some customers, this might sound like hollow sales talk. But I recall once reading a 100-year-old book on life insurance that began with notes like, "Life insurance is just a contract until it is signed by a widow's tears." To a modern audience, that sounds awfully melodramatic, but it cuts to the heart of what the idea of a proper relationship between agent and client should be. Not one of mere transaction, but one of constant contact, where the mercenary elements of buying and selling are softened by the reminder that behind it is a professional seeing to our well-being. Nostalgic? Idealistic? In a world where life insurance takes a distant back seat to selling retirement products, perhaps. But times like Sandy and the long recovery to follow are stark reminders that sometimes there are needs more pressing than our future retirement. Sometimes there are needs that must be met right now, and industries like insurance are some of the few who can be there for us when we really need them.