FORTUNE — A burning question for domestic disaster professionals — and just about anyone with a wandering imagination — has always been, “What would happen if a catastrophic event hit the island of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs?”
Last October, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in the Tristate Area, prompting a mandatory evacuation order for hundreds of thousands of New York City residents and inducing visions of a bad Will Smith end-of-the-world movie. For many in the Northeast, that is exactly how it must have felt.
As we mark the anniversary of the storm, what are the questions we should be asking about disaster preparation? Certainly not the ones to which we already know the answers. Many convenings set in commemoration of the one-year anniversary are asking, “Why did only 20-25% of those in the mandatory evacuation zones leave their homes?” People did not leave for many reasons, some of which include fear of leaving their belongings, or a belief that God would protect them, and, my personal favorite, “This storm can’t touch me!”
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I understand why local leaders focus on this question. During the evacuation, all eyes are on them, and there is political and public pressure to get it “right.” However, New York can fix logistical issues, such as traffic lights, subways, ferries, and housing. However, New York cannot make the perils of being surrounded by water and unpredictable storm surges go away. Nor can any of us prevent the increase in catastrophic events. In preparation for disaster, these are the questions that we must address.
One is that of resettlement: Where are all of the people that had to leave their homes? And how are they doing? Have people come back home? Are businesses reopening? There is no concrete data on this. We are so concerned about getting people out of harm’s way when the media is focused on the storm, but when the press leaves, no one pays any attention to people’s safe return.
The nature of local government contributes to this problem. As new leaders are elected, the slate is wiped clean, and people are never brought home. Philanthropy is the one sector that tends to concern itself with people’s long-term recovery. Unlike elected officials, philanthropic organizations serve as a consistent source of support and continuity for vulnerable populations, providing honest brokering, agile flexibility, and leadership across sectors. Philanthropy is particularly effective when individuals pool their funding and act as one agent. We are seeing this happen after Superstorm Sandy with organizations like Philanthropy New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (full disclosure: I co-founded this organization), and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.
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“Relocation” is another taboo word: Should we relocate entire communities out of harm’s way because of the environmental perils they face? This question has global implications. According to the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center at Columbia University, which is part of the U.S. Aeronautics and Space Administration, 40% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast. Although we hear talk of New York and New Jersey’s sinking coastline, their coast is not the only one that’s threatened. Stipulations of the heavily contested 2012 Biggert-Waters Act are likely to impose major flood tax insurance hikes on coastal communities in the U.S. — up to 3,000%, according to estimates by Greater New Orleans, Inc.
At the same time, what would be the consequences of permanent relocation for entire coastal communities? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), if U.S. Coastal Shoreline Counties were considered an individual country, they would be ranked third in global GDP, after only the whole U.S. and China. So is relocation really an option? And what would happen to the people who have built their lives on the coast?
We have lived through enough disasters in recent years to anticipate the consequences that follow. Remember Sandy, of course, but also keep in mind why we are remembering Sandy: as an opportunity to reflect not just on the lessons learned in the Tristate Area, but the global solutions which we are now forced to seek to protect our future.
Lori Bertman is president and CEO of the Baton Rouge-based Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, and the board chair of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Follow Lori on Twitter @LoriBertman.