Superstorm Sandy Inspires Hoaxes, Halts Business
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The winds are weaker, the floodwaters receding, but this storm is not over yet. Superstorm Sandy, as it's now being called, continues to dump snow across the Appalachian Mountains and bring heavy rain and winds to the eastern half of the United States.
Lake Michigan saw waves over 20 feet in recent hours, a new record. To the south and west, caravans of utility trucks are arriving to help in recovery efforts. It could be days, though, before life returns to normal in many hard-hit areas. It may be a week or longer in some.
Later in the hour, one estimate puts the combined price tag of Sandy at more than $30 billion. We'll also talk about how we respond to the stress of a storm. And we want to hear from you. What decisions are you going to have to make now? Give us a call. Tell us about the decisions you're going to have to make about your family, your neighborhood, your work and your business. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
In the last hour, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NOAA's National Hurricane Center, the Red Cross and U.S. Coast Guard began a news conference with the latest storm details, response and cleanup efforts. NPR's Claudio Sanchez was listening in, and joins us here in Studio 3.
Nice to have you with us today.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And millions are going to have a question, Claudio, about power, and I guess that falls mostly to FEMA.
SANCHEZ: Yes and no. FEMA officials were saying that they're obviously coordinating all their efforts in terms of power outages with both states, governors and private power companies. The latest in - as far as Sandy was concerned was that according to FEMA, the system is now over central Pennsylvania. The coastal impact is much less now than it was last night.
Strong winds, though, are still hurting the New England coastline. There are 18 to 20-foot seas in that area. Strong winds throughout the impacted area, especially now as far west as Lake Michigan, are really creating treacherous conditions. The snow in West Virginia could reach two to three feet, which again is making some areas impassable.
Flooding is still a huge concern in the next few days, and, of course, New York and New Jersey are still inaccessible. The Coast Guard there is monitoring the coastal conditions, especially. There were tons of questions that reporters had for FEMA, especially about the capabilities to restore power. But there was also a question about how many people were left homeless.
And FEMA made the point that it's a very inaccurate count at this point, and that just watching the people who are in shelters is not necessarily a good way to count the number of homeless, because no one really knows how many homes are really, really damaged.
Public health concerns was also the topic. Those concerns are wide-ranging, including conditions in hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control has apparently mobilized to help move people into safer areas if those hospitals are near or close to being flooded. Health care systems, apparently, according to FEMA, are coming back online.
FEMA is warning the public, though, to stay home, because more people get injured when they come out and get hurt during the recovery efforts. As far as the flooding, that is the greatest concern in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But again, many other areas are still vulnerable according to FEMA, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and in a wide, huge area.
The number of employees that FEMA has deployed initially was 1,500, but that's gone way up. Nobody's really sure about the numbers at this point. And then there was some discussion about President Obama's conversation with the governors. Mr. Obama acted, according to FEMA, on the declaration of emergency conditions based exclusively on what the governors have told him.
And the overall death toll, according to FEMA, it's again somewhat vague, but the latest is that there have been 30 deaths, although those have not been verified.
And finally, a final question, Neal, on the National Flood Insurance Program, how many had it and what the costs are estimated to be, FEMA was only able to say that it has a borrowing authority of $17 billion, but that number might go up. And it has obviously the authority to borrow more.
CONAN: So that, obviously, the federal program on flood insurance covers people because a lot of private insurance companies will not cover people. And there's always confusion between was it wind damage, was it...
SANCHEZ: Exactly, that gets into such a gray area. There was at least one question about whether FEMA was prepared to deal with what has historically been a problem with fraud, and FEMA directors said that, you know, they are better now at doing that and verifying the identity of people claiming damage, and so forth. And so they feel they're better prepared.
CONAN: And, of course, flooding, there's going to be less coastal flooding because the storm has moved on. And now the rain dumping into streams and rivers in places like central Pennsylvania, upstate New York, the flooding concern is going to be shifting north and west, as well.
CONAN: And as you look at the questions, were there concerns about beach erosion? Obviously, this is a major factor along the East Coast.
SANCHEZ: Beach erosion did not come up specifically, but I think that the Coast Guard was - made the point that they were monitoring the damage along those areas, even though some of them are essentially looking for, you know, life-threatening conditions still and maybe even people who have not been - or who have been reported missing.
But clearly, the damage along those beaches is extensive, and who knows when they're going to know what the restoration's going to entail.
CONAN: Claudio Sanchez, thank you very much for your time.
SANCHEZ: You're welcome.
CONAN: NPR correspondent Claudio Sanchez, with us here in studio 3A. Of course, not just what FEMA directors say, but how they actually carry out their duties, that's going to be a major focus on NPR News not just today, but in the days and weeks ahead. So stay with us for that.
If you followed Hurricane Sandy on Facebook and Twitter, chances are you saw photos of the Statue of Liberty ducking for cover or a sea monster rising out of the Atlantic, all of those, of course, Photoshopped. Andy Carvin is a senior strategist for NPR's social media desk, joins us by phone from Burtonsville, Maryland.
And Andy, nice to have you back on the program.
ANDY CARVIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And another popular photo was a building in Manhattan that had the front ripped completely off.
CARVIN: That's right, yeah. It was one of a number of photos that circulated pretty early on in the evening, and they kept popping up all night. It's one of the strange situations that happens whenever there's a breaking news event. There always seems to be a certain amount of black humor, with people coming up with images that have nothing to do with the event and are Photoshopped.
And on this particular occasion, some of them got passed along again and again because people assumed that they were just simply real.
CONAN: And a lot of strange things were happening, so people might believe there was a shark swimming in the streets.
CARVIN: Right, yes. The sharks were definitely a theme last night. I think I saw three or four different photos of sharks swimming at the bottom of subway stations, a shark swimming in front of someone's balcony. People started then cutting and pasting sharks into other absurd locations.
You also had the Statue of Liberty getting itself into a lot of trouble, including one photo that was actually screenshot from the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," yet nonetheless, it didn't stop people from circulating it as real.
CONAN: And I guess people are ready to believe all sorts of things in these circumstances.
CARVIN: Yeah, absolutely. But, you know, and sometimes people assume the worst, given how horrific the coverage is, and there are some photos that got passed around that were legitimate photos. They were just taken out of context.
I saw photos that came from previous hurricanes. In one particular case, there was an absolutely amazing photo of a soldier standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during the storm. Unfortunately, it wasn't this particular storm. So the photo wasn't fake. It's just the context was incorrect.
CONAN: And I'm curious, there were also a lot of cell phone outages through this, and that may have affected people's ability to be in contact with each other on social media, too.
CARVIN: Yeah, it's one of those things that people don't necessarily pay attention to until it's too late. When you have power going down left and right, it's not hard for you to start losing Internet access, as well. Sometimes you have the cell phone networks going down, and ultimately, what's often left standing is either text messaging or ham radios. And so in really big disasters, you often start getting the best information through those sources. And so for those of us who were on Twitter last night, I saw a disproportionate number of tweets that were referencing scanner traffic and ham radios simply because that was one of the ways you could communicate.
CONAN: Scanners, Channel 16, that sort of thing, and ham radios, definitely older technology.
CARVIN: Old-school technology, but, you know, when everything else is coming down and crashing, they seem to stand up pretty well.
CONAN: I was curious, as you were watching Twitter and Facebook last night, were people getting in touch with each other? Were people using this as a real medium? Or were people using it, as usual, just to comment on the world outside?
CARVIN: You know, I think, actually, the joking that took place on Twitter was really just a subset of the conversations that were taking place. I saw a lot of serious engagement happening, people talking, trying to track down friends, find out where they can donate money, getting information from the Red Cross, seeing if there were places where they can volunteer.
Occasionally, you would see certain Twitter accounts coming from governmental sources that were very effective at passing along information. FDNY, the fire department in New York, truly excelled last night when it came to interacting with the public. Same thing with Corey Booker, who's a bit of a legend on Twitter. He's the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He's very much a Twitter native and is comfortable relaying and talking to people on Twitter in times of crisis, or on average days.
And so there's definitely been an increase in government institutions and individuals who recognize the potential of these technologies to actually hopefully save lives.
CONAN: Andy Carvin, thanks very much for your time, as usual.
CARVIN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Andy Carvin, a senior strategist for NPR's social media desk, joined us by phone from Burtonsville, Maryland. 800-989-8255. What decisions are you making now and about your family and about your business, your work and your neighborhood? Let's go to Gavin, Gavin with us from Roan Mountain in Tennessee.
GAVIN: Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
GAVIN: Yes, we're sitting here looking at about eight inches of snow, and it's still coming down lightly. And...
CONAN: And that's a little unusual before Halloween.
GAVIN: Not really in the mountains. This is - it's a little unusual to have eight inches of snow at this time of year, but not unusual to have a snow.
CONAN: And how is your community reacting? What decisions are you having to make?
GAVIN: Well, the only decision I made, because we're kind of used to this, is bring in more firewood last night. We always stock up with extra water and food, but I brought in some more firewood. But we didn't need it. The power never went out. And I went for a little ride just to see what it looked like, because it is beautiful up here. The roads are clear. Even the secondary and tertiary roads are clear. Schools have been closed, but that's about it.
CONAN: Well, that's good to hear, and it's nice to hear that a community was - and people were prepared and reacted well to circumstances that, well, as you say, aren't that far out of the ordinary.
GAVIN: Not really. Two years ago, on our property, we had a total of 80 inches of snow for the season. So snow is not unusual.
CONAN: Well, glad to hear it, Gavin. Thanks very much for the phone call.
GAVIN: Oh, thank you, Neal.
CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who are maybe in a little bit more dire circumstances. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Both of the candidates for president called a temporary truce as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast, and that continued today. President Obama has been monitoring events from the White House here in Washington, D.C. Last hour, he paid a visit to the headquarters of the American Red Cross, and here's a little bit of what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A few things I want to emphasize to the public at the top. This storm is not yet over. We've gotten briefings from the National Hurricane Center. It is still moving north. There are still communities that could be affected. And so I want to emphasize there's still risks of flooding. There are still risks of downed power lines, risks of high winds, and so it is very important for the public to continue to monitor the situation in your local community, listen to your state and local officials, follow instructions.
The more you follow instructions, the easier it is for our first responders to make sure that they are dealing with true emergency situations. So the better prepared individual families are for the situation, the easier it is going to be for us to deal with it.
Next, obviously, I want to talk about the extraordinary hardship that we've seen over the last 48 hours. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families who've lost loved ones. Unfortunately, there have been fatalities as a consequence of Hurricane Sandy, and it's not clear that we've counted up all the fatalities at this point. And, obviously, this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation.
And we certainly feel profoundly for all the families whose lives have been upended and are going to be going through some very tough times over the next several days, and perhaps several weeks and months. The most important message I have for them is that America's with you. We are standing behind you, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet.
Earlier today, I had a conversation with the governors and many of the mayors in the affected areas, including Governor Christie, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg. I want to praise them for the extraordinary work that they have done. You know, sadly, we are getting more experienced with these kinds of big-impact storms along the East Coast, and the preparation shows.
Were it not for the outstanding work that they and their teams have already done and will continue to do in the affected regions, we could have seen more deaths and more property damage. So they have done extraordinary work, working around the clock. The coordination between the state, local and federal governments has been outstanding.
Obviously, we're now moving into the recovery phase in a lot of the most severely affected areas. New Jersey, New York in particular have been pounded by this storm. Connecticut has taken a big hit. Because of some of the work that had been done ahead of time, we've been able to get over 1,000 FEMA officials in place, pre-positioned.
We've been able to get supplies, food, medicine, water, emergency generators to ensure that hospitals and law enforcement offices are able to stay up and running as they are out there responding.
We are going to continue to push as hard as we can to make sure that power is up throughout the region. And, obviously, this is mostly a local responsibility, and the private utilities are going to have to lean forward, but we are doing everything we can to provide them additional resources so that we can expedite getting power up and running in many of these communities.
There are places like Newark, New Jersey, for example, where you've got 80, 90 percent of the people without power. We can't have a situation where that lasts for days on end. And so my instructions to the federal agency has been: Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something.
I want you to cut through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy. There's no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they need - where they're needed as quickly as possible.
So I want to repeat my message to the federal government: No bureaucracy; no red tape. Get resources where they're needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process, obviously, in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time. The recovery process in Lower Manhattan is going to take a lot of time.
And part of what we're trying to do here is also to see where are some resources that can be brought to bear that maybe traditionally are not used in these kind of disaster situations. For example, there may be military assets that allow us to help move equipment to ensure that pumping and getting the flooding out of New York subway systems can proceed more quickly.
There may be resources that we can bring to bear to help some of the private utilities get their personnel and their equipment in place more swiftly so that we can get power up and running as soon as possible.
So my message to the governors and the mayors, and, through them, to the communities that have been hit so hard is that we are going to do everything we can to get resources to you and make sure that any unmet need that is identified, we are responding to it as quickly as possible. And I told the mayors and the governors if they're getting no for an answer somewhere in the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House.
Now, obviously, you know, the state, local, federal response is important, but what we do as a community, what we do as neighbors and as fellow citizens is equally important. So a couple of things that I want the public to know they can do.
First of all, because, you know, our local law enforcement, our first responders are being swamped, to the extent that everybody can be out there looking out for their neighbors, especially older folks, I think that's really important.
You know, if you've got a neighbor nearby, you're not sure how they're handling a power outage, flooding, et cetera, go over, visit them, knock on their door, make sure that they're doing okay. That can make a big difference. The public can be the eyes and ears in terms of identifying unmet needs.
Second thing, the reason we're here is because the Red Cross knows what it's doing when it comes to emergency response. And so for people all across the country who have not been affected, now's the time to show the kind of generosity that, you know, makes America the greatest nation on Earth. And a good place to express that generosity is by contributing to the Red Cross.
Obviously, you can go on their website. The Red Cross knows what they're doing. They're in close contact with federal, state and local officials. They will make sure that we get the resources to those families as swiftly as possible. And again, I want to thank everybody here who is doing such a great job when it comes to the disaster response.
The final message I'd just say is, you know, during the darkness of the storm, I think we also saw what's brightest in America. I mean, I think all of us obviously have been shocked by the force of Mother Nature as we watch it on television. At the same time, we've also seen nurses at NYU Hospital carrying fragile newborns to safety. We've seen incredibly brave firefighters in Queens, waist-deep in water, battling infernos and rescuing people in boats.
You know, one of my favorite stories is down in North Carolina, the Coast Guard going out to save a sinking ship. They sent a rescue swimmer out, and the rescue swimmer said: Hi, I'm Dan. I understand you guys need a ride. You know, that kind of spirit of resilience and strength, but most importantly looking out for one another, that's why we always bounce back from these kinds of disasters.
You know, this is a tough time for a lot of people, millions of folks all across the Eastern Seaboard. But America's tougher, and we're tougher because we pull together. We leave nobody behind. We make sure that we respond as a nation and remind ourselves that whenever an American is in need, all of us stand together to make sure that we're providing the help that's necessary.
So I just want to thank the incredible response that we've already seen, but I do want to remind people this is going to take - this is going to take some time. It is not going to be easy for a lot of these communities to recovery swiftly, and so it's going to be important that we sustain that spirit of resilience, that we continue to be good neighbors for the duration until everybody's back on their feet. All right? Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you, Red Cross.
CONAN: President Obama about an hour ago at the headquarters of the American Red Cross here in Washington. What decisions are you having to make now? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The full scope of the damage from Hurricane Sandy remains to be assessed. Economists, though, put a preliminary price tag on the disaster. NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax joins us now from her home in Maryland. Nice to have you back on the program.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And what we're hearing is, well, just billions of losses on the stock market alone.
GEEWAX: Well, the stock market is a little bit confusing right now because it's been closed for two days, and we've never had a weather-related closing of the stock market for two straight days since 1888. So it's pretty unusual, and we are in that month. You know, the month of October is typically the time when the stock market is - holds surprises for us, let's say.
In 1929, there was a big surprise on the negative side. In 1987, we had a stock market crash. Five years ago, the market was peaking in October. So October is always kind of a dicey time, and now we've had the market closed for two days. It's supposed to reopen tomorrow, and, you know, it could have surprises again. There's not any way to tell exactly how this is all going to play out once it reopens.
CONAN: In terms of government reports, those obviously affect a lot of people's decisions. The employment numbers - those filing for unemployment and employment numbers due out Friday - those, we're told, could be delayed.
GEEWAX: Yeah. That's kind of a confusing thing where government offices - those of us who live here in Washington are kind of amazed to see the government shut down for two days. It's - you know, there are a lot of workers who have to hustle to put together those reports on consumer confidence, on the labor situation. And with offices being closed for two days - and a lot of people being without power.
I mean, one thing is you could think, well, they could work from home, but you can't really work from home if your lights are out. So there are - government reports that are very important, and we've had this delay now in people's ability to do their work. We've had a delay in trading. Stocks haven't traded since last Friday. So, you know, it'll be kind of interesting to see how the rest of the week goes.
But, you know, people are very serious about their work. They - the government workers don't want to drop the ball. They want to get that government - the labor report out on Friday if they can. Stock workers - definitely at the New York Stock Exchange - they don't want to drop the ball there. They absolutely want to continue to be a respected market. So I'm sure everybody's hustling as much as they possibly can.
CONAN: NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, with us from her home in Maryland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we have a caller on the line who may have a question for you. This is Lauren(ph), Lauren with us from Nashville.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Lauren.
LAUREN: So I have been in contact with my parents who live about 45 minutes outside of New York City in Florham Park, New Jersey, and there is no power for miles, miles. So they actually - the decision that they made was to go with the generator, which they made maybe hours before the last few generators disappeared out of Home Depot. And so they have power. My mother's two co-workers are staying with them because they don't have power.
But now the new issue is that generators require gasoline. And so my father had to drive around for about 45 minutes to an hour to actually find an open gas station, and then waited an additional 45 minutes to actually get gas because the lines were so long.
CONAN: So these are going to be questions, Marilyn, that are going to be appearing to a lot of people.
GEEWAX: Yeah. Well, the thing is that's interesting about that is, you know, that's a great example of the kind of redundancies and opportunities we have to keep working - that is, you can often work from home, but only if you have a generator, and then your generator only works if you have the gasoline. So we do have lots of ways to keep the economy going, but it's not always smooth.
And that's where the economic friction comes in. There - there's, as economists refer to it, the loss of business activity - that is, you're not having a very productive day if you're running around in circles just trying to get your systems up and working. So there are going to be costs associated with all of this.
The estimates right now are something in the range of 30 to $50 billion in losses. Now that's - I talked to someone from the insurance institute. They said that the direct losses - that is, you know, cars got smashed, houses fell into the ocean, those kind of private losses - are somewhere between four and $10 billion. There's probably another $10 billion in public infrastructure that has been destroyed.
Then the rest of that 30 to 50 billion comes in in things that are just considered lost business opportunities, lost productivity as you run around in circles trying to make things work. And, you know, if you're an office worker, sometimes, well, maybe you can make up your work by just putting in a few extra hours tomorrow.
But if you're a waitress and you depend on tips for your livelihood, if the restaurant wasn't open today, you didn't get those tips, and people aren't going to get in the time machine and go back and eat on Tuesday. That day is just gone, so your tips are out the window.
And it really - it hurts people who are - everyone from, you know, hospitality workers to people, you know, working on cruises, hotels, whatever, all the things that got cancelled. And that's just - that's lost inventory. You can never get it back.
CONAN: Well, obviously, those people are not going to get their tips back. But is there a boomlet on the other side in reconstruction as people, well, go to all those Home Depots and get lumber and other things to fix things up?
GEEWAX: See, Neal, now you're thinking like an economist. You knew there was going to be another hand. All right. So, on the other hand, yes, there will - there are all those losses, but then again, there will be some business people and some workers who will really benefit. This might be a great week to be a tree cutter. It's probably a great week to be in the business of selling gasoline and generators. So a lot of businesses do see a real up tick. It's, you know, Home Depot, Lowe's, all these sorts of stores will see a surge in business.
But I was talking to a grocer, a guy who owns his own grocery store. And he said if he had all things considered, he would not want to have these storms. Because on the one hand, yes, he did see a surge in sales of ice and batteries and all of that. But on the other hand, when it's all done and people are done cleaning up, they have a little bit less money in their pockets because they've bought batteries that they used up and threw away. So that's not very productive. And then they can't come back and maybe spend as much money for a Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving or whatever.
So there is a surge of activity in some things, but it's not an economically efficient way to boost the economy. I wouldn't say that a hurricane is a good idea.
CONAN: Nobody has more hands, we're reminded in these situations, than economists on the one hand, on the other hand, and yet there's always another hand. Marilyn Geewax, thank you very much for your time.
GEEWAX: You're welcome.
CONAN: NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax joins us from her home in Maryland. We're talking about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on cities, states and on you. Call and tell us: What decisions are you making right now? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Up next, Amanda Ripley tells us what happens when our survival instincts kick in. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Health officials today warn that flooding from Hurricane Sandy resulted in some untreated and partially treated sewage being dumped into the Hudson River. The Westchester County Health Department issued a warning against direct contact with the river near the shore in Westchester. According to the Associated Press, flooding led to the shutdown of sewage pumping stations in Croton-on-Hudson and in Yonkers, and of a sewage treatment plant in Yonkers.
We're talking today about the effects of the storm. But as we're talking, there are signs of the times that things are returning to normal. The District of Columbia Public Schools will be opening tomorrow, and organizers of the New York City marathon say that race will go on as scheduled despite the effects of the storm.
When hurricanes like Sandy approach, there are any number of things we can predict: trees will fall, power will go out, emergency responders will be on constant call. We can't predict, with any clarity, as how we will respond in a crisis. Bridie Hatch and her wife, Amy, were at a hospital at NYU yesterday in New York. Amy was in labor with the couple's second child when the power went out, then the backup generator failed.
Bridie joins us now by phone from Mt. Sinai Hospital. Nice to have you with us today. Bridie Hatch, are you there? And evidently, we're having some difficulties getting in touch with her. We'll hope to bring you that story in a few minutes.
Time Magazine contributor Amanda Ripley has done a lot of research into how we respond under extreme duress. She covered disasters from Hurricane Katrina and Rita, to 9/11 and the D.C. sniper attacks 10 year ago. She wrote the book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why?" And joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
AMANDA RIPLEY: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And I'm sure, as you've been listening to stories from Hurricane Sandy and super storm Sandy, as it's gone up and down the coast, what struck you?
RIPLEY: It was interesting to see, first of all, the way that we can predict some behaviors. For example, I was amused to see - this happens in every city no matter where it is - in advance, some of the media coverage will say, well, you see typical New Yorker behavior, typical London - wherever it is, it's ascribed to the place. And their, you know, for example, The New York Times had a story about how New Yorkers seemed, you know, kind of indifferent, unfazed, some of them, by the approaching storm.
And in fact, what happens in most cases is that most people are indifferent and unfazed until it gets a little unpleasant and a little bit scary. So our brains are sort of well-designed to deal with these kinds of threats but not when we live in dense, vertical cities near water. So we sort of have an ancient way of dealing with these threats, and it takes us a while to get past the denial.
CONAN: And a previous experience, last year, a tropical storm cried wolf as it were.
CONAN: It didn't turn out to be anywhere near as bad as people feared.
RIPLEY: Right. So we'll always prioritize our previous experience, especially recent experience. So we'll always use that as a, you know, that makes sense. It's not an irrational response except you know when it is.
CONAN: Except when it is. So what happens to our thought processes during these events?
RIPLEY: There's usually three phases that we go through, and the first one is a very creative form of downplaying or disbelief. And it doesn't even matter, I mean, you see it even in really very serious threats where there's smoke curling across the ceiling. I mean, people will, in general, come up with creative explanations for what's happening that are non-threatening, benign. And then the second phase that most people go through is the phase of deliberation, where people will get very social. They want to talk to each other. They want to, you know, see what your neighbor's doing, see what Anderson Cooper says, you know, get - collect information, which is very valuable. This is - and you saw this happen here, of course.
And then comes decision point. And more often than not, what you see is not panic but people not doing anything. I think you did see a lot of people evacuate here, and you do see that before most hurricanes. But most often, people have a hard time making that decision. It's a very hard decision to make.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on that point. Chuck is with us on the line from Salisbury, Maryland.
CHUCK: Actually Ocean City, Maryland, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CHUCK: Neal, are you there?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHUCK: Yeah, Ocean City, Maryland, actually. And thanks for taking my call. And my best wishes and prayers to those north of me who were not so lucky.
CONAN: And were you among those one to make a decision about evacuation?
CHUCK: Yeah, I think that a decision that we always make, and depending on the front that's coming in - we actually live on the waterfront behind Ocean City, Maryland, and there was an advisory for us to evacuate if we're down in the waterfront property. But we instead chose to stay and try to protect our property (unintelligible). Our real threat was the rising water from the creek due to the winds from the northeast, forcing water up in the creeks into that place.
CONAN: And did it turn out to be a wise decision?
CHUCK: It turned out to be a wise decision. Actually, we found out I think (unintelligible) a few of my friends that did not lose power, which is unusual. We almost always lose power when nobody else does. We had one other decision. In the midst of it was a mother (unintelligible) facility about seven miles away from us that was being evacuated, and we had to make the decision that she really shouldn't come to us. She should go to a shelter where she could get medical care. Nobody would be in danger trying to get to her.
CONAN: So you've actually survived OK, though?
CHUCK: Yeah. And I'm now on the road actually. (Unintelligible) of Hurricane Sandy right now that's coming from the south. I'm heading south into the eastern shore of Virginia to check on some property down here that may very well had been more at risk than my property on the coast. We've had a lot of flooding on the western - actually, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, the western shore of Delmarva.
When the winds came around to the northwest and west from Sandy, it actually protected my house in Ocean City and forced the water back down. But unfortunately for others, like those in Crisfield, Maryland, and Stafford, Virginia, they experienced probably the worst flooding they've ever had. And I'm going to check on our property now, which unfortunately had similar characteristics to those areas.
CONAN: Well, good luck, Chuck. Thanks very much for the phone call.
CHUCK: All right. Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And, Amanda Ripley, that decision whether or not to evacuate, we kept hearing, for example, from Mayor Bloomberg, about people making that decision. He said we can't put first responders at risk. If you don't get out now, somebody is going to have to go in and get you. And inevitably, a significant percentage of people decide to stay.
RIPLEY: Right. And it's a hard - that's an important point to make, and I'm glad he made it. On the other hand, the people - the reason they're not evacuating is because they think they're going to be fine. And they have reasons for thinking that. And so they don't think a first responder is going to have to save them, right?
And so it's important I think to - and some politicians are getting better at this, to address why they think it's going to be fine, you know, to talk explicitly about Hurricane Irene and what's different, for example, to talk explicitly about the fact that the most at risk are the elderly. The elderly that are the least likely to evacuate before every kind of risk, really even nuclear, they don't want to leave. And you understand, right?
I mean, so it's important to speak directly to them, just to make it clear that that's the biggest risk, and to tail our communications of warnings to them. There are places that have gone to great lengths to try to make this point more emotionally salient by going door to door and delivering toe tags, for example, to people who haven't evacuated and trying to really bring it home to people. And sometimes that works.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you also that we're talking about people making decisions as individuals or small groups. As they get into bigger groups, dynamics change.
RIPLEY: Yes. And actually we know that before most hurricanes. If people are told - once they're told to evacuate, they check with four to five different sources of information, on average. So it is a group effort in every case, but they can be larger or smaller groups for sure.
CONAN: And I wonder, as you see our response to this storm, no different because it was New York City, no different because it was in Ocracoke in - along with the outer banks of North Carolina, or as we just heard, on the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware, it's one place after another.
RIPLEY: It's interesting when you have big storms like this hit media centers, you know, the place where reporters live, you do tend to get much more emotionally salient coverage of the event, of course. And so there was, I think, a level of build-up around this event that you wouldn't have seen if it were happening in, you know, the Gulf Coast even.
CONAN: Amanda Ripley, thank you very much for your time today.
RIPLEY: Thank you.
CONAN: Amanda Ripley, contributing writer for Time magazine, Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why."
We've managed to reestablish contact with Bridie Hatch. As we mentioned, she and her wife were awaiting the birth of their second child at NYU Hospital as the storm was coming in and had to relocate. And they - she joins us now from Mount Sinai Hospital, further uptown in New York. Nice to have you with us.
BRIDIE HATCH: Yes. Hi.
CONAN: Tell us...
HATCH: I'm here in the postpartum for - out in Mount Sinai.
CONAN: And first thing's first. How's the child?
HATCH: The baby is perfect and happy and healthy.
CONAN: Have you decided to use the name Sandy?
HATCH: We have not.
HATCH: Sandy, Cane(ph), a lot of different versions that were thrown out to us we decided against.
CONAN: Well, tell us what happened. What stage of the proceedings were you at when you found out you had to evacuate?
HATCH: So my wife Amy(ph) was in active labor at NYU when the - first the power went out. Second, the generators stopped working. And we realized that the escalation of labor cases can be such that it would be dangerous to be in the hospital and evacuations were ordered. And she was in the middle of active labor when that evacuation took place.
CONAN: So we're talking centimeters dilation?
HATCH: And she was six centimeters dilated during - in the move.
CONAN: So how were you actually transported?
HATCH: We were transported by a - it's a red medical - basically, a plastic-type cocoon that they tie around a patient. She was laid on the floor, and the straps were put around her and tightened so that she was in a little cocoon. And then about five men and women both pulled her down and sort of pulleyed her down each of the eight floors that we were...
CONAN: Oh, because the generators had failed, of course, the elevators weren't working.
HATCH: The elevators were not working. This is only while she had an epidural in her back.
CONAN: Oh, my goodness.
HATCH: So something on the hard, plastic cocoon right on her back.
CONAN: And then into an ambulance?
HATCH: And then out into the blowing winds and into the ambulance.
CONAN: And then zoomed uptown. I assume traffic was not a problem.
HATCH: Not a problem. Once we got an ambulance, it was pretty smooth dealing from there.
CONAN: And then by the time you got to Mount Sinai everything was still going OK?
HATCH: They had wonderful coordination of services there and regular nurses coordinating with Mount Sinai medical providers. Everyone was really working in sync at that point. The medical care was fantastic on both ends. And for that, we felt really, really appreciative.
CONAN: I understand both you and your wife are nurse practitioners. Difficult not to try to tell people what to do in such circumstances.
HATCH: We might have got our voice heard in a couple of instances along the way. Yeah.
CONAN: So, OK. You told us the baby's fine, boy or a girl, and what did the name turned out to be?
HATCH: The baby's name is Kadam Knox Hatch(ph).
HATCH: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bridie Hatch with us from Mount Sinai Hospital where her wife, Amy, gave birth yesterday after being evacuated in the middle of delivery. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we want to hear more from you about what decisions you're making as the storm is proceeding, going up into central Pennsylvania on into New York state. And let's go to - this is Kyle(ph). Kyle with us from Athens, Ohio.
KYLE: Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
KYLE: Yeah. We are about 350 miles inland, but we're still getting some pretty heavy rains and some snow and just making everything all sloppy and dirty here. And we've had the power flicker and go and off. But just like a pretty severe storm that happened back in June, once the hysteria wore off and everyone decided that, hey, we're stuck in this for a little while and it's going to be a little bit before everything gets back on, neighbors started helping each other out.
People who did have generators were inviting others over to spend the night, while my wife and I personally went and spent the night with our pastor for a couple of nights because he had a generator at his house, and there was plenty of food to go around. Thank God for the Red Cross as well. They donated many, many cases of water and food supplies and health for all of us as well.
CONAN: So as you look ahead to the days and the week ahead, any changes you're going to have to make?
KYLE: Not necessarily. We have a strong, close community. And I believe that just along the East Coast, as long as everyone just keeps the faith in the country that has provided for us for a long time, as long as we just trust those who are experienced in these kinds of situations, we'll definitely be able to get through everything together.
CONAN: Kyle, thanks very much for the call and for that expression of faith.
KYLE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to Tom(ph). Tom's with us on the line from Davidson in North Carolina.
TOM: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TOM: I'm one of the 47,000 people that have been training for six months for Sunday's marathon, and I have it easy because I can drive up from North Carolina. But, you know, I'm thinking about the people on the West Coast, the people flying in from Europe. The airports are closed now. Will there be hotel rooms in southern Manhattan? It's a real nightmare for a few people.
CONAN: Do you have a place to stay?
TOM: I'm borrowing an apartment on 37th Street. There's no power south of 39th Street, so I'm going to have to camp out in the apartment, I suppose.
CONAN: Bring some candles.
TOM: Yeah. But we all started training around May, and, you know, we get the big build-up off to 50 miles a week. And now, we're tapering down, and we're taking lots of carbs, and now this happens. It's like, would it be canceled? Will they delay it a week? I don't know.
Well, as we've mentioned just a few minutes ago, the organizers, the Road Runners Club of New York, has said they plan to go ahead with the marathon as scheduled and don't think that the aftermath of the storm is going to take effect. But obviously, people like you have to make decisions about whether to arrive from places like Asheville and even more remote places.
Yeah. Well, you know, that's good news for me, and I hope people - this is the largest sporting event in the world. And so I hope people from around the world who count on it can still make it.
CONAN: Well, good luck. If you're driving, when do you have to leave?
TOM: It takes 12 hours from Charlotte with a good road, so I'd leave Friday morning and get there by Friday night, and the race is on Sunday.
CONAN: Drive carefully and good luck to you.
TOM: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And Russell(ph) with us from Asheville in North Carolina. This email that we got to clarify a point earlier about boiling water: Whenever there's concern that drinking water may be contaminated, public health officials recommend people boil their water before drinking to make it safe.
And this also we got - this is an emailer named Vicky(ph), who writes: I'm safe and sound in California. I want to thank the tree guy who called earlier. She reminds us that all the people are working hard to help in the aftermath of the storm, and then we should ask everybody in the audience to be patient and kind with each other.
Roughly half of the United States was affected by Hurricane Sandy's record-storm surge in New York, massive flooding in New Jersey, blizzard conditions in West Virginia and Maryland, heavy rains and winds from Maine to Michigan. The storm continues to march north and west. Stay tuned to NPR News as we continue to monitor the stories of the people who've experienced this event and those who are just experiencing it now. Thanks to everybody who called and wrote. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.