If I’ve been hard to reach

For my clients who have found me a bit hard to reach this past week, I wanted to let you know it’s not from lack of concern, but I’ve been busy. As many of you know, I joined the Civil Air Patrol (the USAF Auxiliary) after 9/11. In the years since, I’ve been trained as a mission pilot, and this past week after Hurricane Sandy made its landfall, I have flown 5 damage assessment flights over Delaware and New Jersey, while crewmembers have captured thousands of images for analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. On Sunday, 6 days after the hurricane made landfall, the Civil Air Patrol launched over 70 aircraft on photo missions from Port Elizabeth, NC to Cape Cod. Flying at 3000 ft above the ground, and shooting geo-referenced photos every 5 seconds, we systematically recorded hundreds of miles of conditions on the ground. It is expected that FEMA will use computer analysis of these photos to identify areas of need for remediation and recovery efforts.

Seeing the destruction from the air has been a somber experience. The force of the wind, waves, and water seems almost impossible to imagine. Flying from Rehoboth Beach to Dewey Beach, DE, the bridge over the Indian River inlet appeared undamaged, but there was 3 to 4 feet of sand covering the road. We spotted two houses on the Delaware Bay that had been pushed off their foundations, but only 2. Flying back to the airport on Tuesday evening, less than 24 hours after the storm’s landfall, it was surprising to see that some beach towns still had lights on. But up and down the coast, the dunes that previously protected the shoreline and beachfront properties were mostly gone.

Flying Sunday over Barnegat Light and Long Beach Island, the force of the storm on the north side of landfall was more evident. Because winds in a hurricane rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, the winds north of landfall were pushing water toward the coast. The first impression was that the beach was gone, and little remained of the dunes. At high tide, only a narrow strip of beach is visible: at low tide, not much more. Sand had been pushed by the tidal surge blocks into the towns, to the point where many streets that were perpendicular to the ocean and driveways opening from them were simply buried. Like a snow drift had covered the ground and obliterated the outlines of sidewalks and driveways, but this one was composed of sand.

Still, most of the houses were standing. Docks, boat slips, boats in the water, all appeared normal. Occasionally, there was a dock where the boards were gone, or a boat sitting on land where apparently it should not have been, but the roads were open and passable. There weren’t many cars on the streets, but then many of these homes are second homes, and there are fewer residents than in the summer.

Visibility was superb all day yesterday. From 3000 ft over the beach, you could look out of the aircraft and see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the taller buildings in Philadelphia, the casinos in Atlantic City, even as far as Wilmington. What was eerie, though, was as dusk fell and we finished our mission and turned back to Wilmington, was to look up and down the coast, and see only scattered pockets of light. Normally, the lights are continuous from Cape May in the south all the way up Sandy Hook, and then to the Verrazano Bridge, but last night, there were very few lights. It then occurred to me that in the 180 sq mile area that we had photographed that day, I hadn’t seen a single utility crew working. There is so much yet for them to do. The weather in the Northeast has turned cold. Temperatures yesterday were in the 40s, and colder overnight. With a nor’easter due in the middle of this week, and the protection of the dunes gone on the barrier islands, this could get worse before it gets better.

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