The final tally of destruction from these two storms is not yet in, but there are some striking differences already.
Some of these stem from the physical differences between New Orleans and New York/New Jersey. As my wife says of her native city, New Orleans is a bowl that sits below sea level. Once the Katrina water came in, it wasn’t going to leave; instead, it had to be pumped out. Katrina didn’t blow by — she stayed, as a practical matter, for months. In distinction, the damaged areas of New York and New Jersey are mostly above sea level (at least for now). With the exception of basements, tunnels and other underground facilities, when the storm left, the water drained away by gravity. Consequently and fortunately, the recovery from Sandy should be more rapid if, for no other reason, as that recovery efforts were able to start immediately.
Another difference worth noting is the comparative effectiveness of the local governments. As Huey Long said about his own state, “One of these days the people of Louisiana are going to get good government — and they ain't going to like it.” Neither Louisiana nor New Orleans had the reputation of having a particularly effective government in place before Katrina and the storm did nothing to challenge this conclusion. Both New Jersey and New York, on the other hand, appear in normal times to provide relatively competent government services. All of the state and local government leaders were there immediately after Sandy and had started to work on recovery. It seems very unlikely that the U.S. Army will have to be sent in to gain control of the situation as local police and state-commanded National Guard units were immediately deployed and have maintain order.
But there is also a developing similarity that is disturbing. In the response to Katrina, many commented that support and money for restoration was far more available along the gulf coast of Mississippi than it was to the completely damaged City of New Orleans. The argument was made that casinos and rich people’s vacation homes were more important than housing for the less fortunate. Again with Sandy, Wall Street and other Manhattan neighborhoods seem to have gotten priority over less well off regions in the outer boroughs.
I can’t say that I have drawn any firm conclusions from the comparison of these two devastating storms. What has been welcome is the fact that the lessons learned seven years ago in Katrina do not seem to have been lost as Sandy struck. Both the government and private sector response to Sandy has been immediate, and the pace of the overall recovery is heartening. We can only hope that the nor'easter expected today will not prove to be a major hindrance.