On Sunday evening, after thirteen days, the electricity came back on. By the time it returned, my wife, kids, our dog, and I had moved into a neighbor’s den and had adjusted as well as possible. We consider ourselves to be fortunate that we only lost electricity; Sandy’s impact in this area was devastating and there are many people at the University and in the greater community who have lost homes, cars, furnishings, computers, etc. I do believe the local utility was not as well prepared as it should have been and I think the multiple investigations that are taking place are thoroughly justified. There needs to be accountability and there needs to be change; the lessons learned can only serve us well if we are better prepared in the future.
But while the focus is rightly on what the Long Island Power Authority did and did not do, attention should also be paid to rigidities in our system that at key moments can be totally counterproductive. The ability of public schools to reopen and remain open provides a clear example. One of the most challenging side effects of Hurricane Sandy was the momentary gasoline shortage. Deliveries of gas were limited and many gas stations had lost power and were unable to open even though they had gas on hand. For school districts in this area, the busing of students is a mainstay that most parents rely on. But what should happen if there is insufficient gas to power the school buses but the schools are ready in all other aspects to open up and continue educating our kids. The state laws are clear; the schools need to stay closed if the buses are unavailable. Now think about the situation we were facing— almost half the community had lost power for more than a few days. Homes were cold; kids were cold; and the novelty of losing electricity had quickly worn off being replaced by a heightened stress level on the part of kids and adults alike. Most of the schools had power, were warm, had internet access, and were ready to do their part in educating our children. The environment was welcoming, the senses of normalcy important, the teachers able to educate and be supportive, but we could only take advantage of these benefits if the fleet of buses were fully operative.
I know that not having buses would place a strain on parents, especially given the shortage of gasoline for private cars as well as school district buses. I know that our tax money pays for the bus service and this is an important entitlement. The law as noted above is clear, no buses even in an emergency situation, no school, but does this make sense? Having school continue or resume quickly, providing warmth and comfort to our kids even without bus service is better than none of the above. In an exceptional time and at an exceptional moment, our system and our rules and regulations need to be nimble. The post Sandy review needs to look at more than how well we are doing on the electric and gas front; it also needs to look—across the board—at the policies that guide us in these critical moments.