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Lessons in resilience from Superstorm Sandy

Northeastern University’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security co-hosted a conference on Tuesday to discuss the need to strengthen transportation resilience to major disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

The event, held at the Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken, N.J., kicked off a series of four daylong symposia focused on enhancing the resilience of transportation, energy, health service, and communications systems in coastal cities. The Kostas Research Institute received a one-year, $575,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support the project.

Tuesday’s conference convened public sector transportation leaders, emergency managers, and government officials from around the country. Speakers included senior officials from Washington and the agency heads of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The meeting’s goal was to identify and share lessons learned from the participants’ collective experience with disasters in order to strengthen the resilience of the nation’s mass transit, port, and aviation infrastructure.

Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc upon the tri-state area’s transportation infrastructure, inflicting millions of dollars in damage to tunnels, bus depots, and subways systems. A $50.5 billion relief bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in January set aside funds to repair the destruction.

“Sandy highlighted the extraordinary extent to which the New York metropolitan area depends on transportation,” said Stephen Flynn, co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security and the principal investigator of the $575,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation. “The purpose of this project is to find ways to design resilience into systems and modify operations and protocol to speed recovery once they are knocked down.”

“We know that we need to design systems to better withstand these kinds of storms the next time around,” added Flynn, an expert in community resilience and critical infrastructure protection. “Unfortunately we have a habit of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again and hoisting him up to teeter on the wall.”

Northeastern, he explained, has the potential to play a large role in mitigating risk and shaping the response to large-scale disasters, noting the university’s ability to “marshal and mobilize expertise.”

Flynn is a big proponent of creating a team of experts to investigate disasters like Superstorm Sandy and then share their findings with key stakeholders. The non-governmental body, he said, would be similar to the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent U.S. government investigative agency.

To this end, the symposia’s participants will publish two reports of their findings and recommendations; the first report will be released in October to coincide with the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy and the second will be released after the final symposium in the spring of 2014.

“We should treat each and every major disaster as an opportunity to learn what we can do to adapt to the ongoing risk,” said Flynn.