Revisiting Superstorm Sandy, Part 3: Political Actions

Revisiting Superstorm Sandy, Part 3: Political Actions
February 12, 2013

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is a senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and... (read full bio)

[Patrick Moffitt is the co-author of this piece. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.]

 In Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath – with millions freezing and hungry in dark devastation, including nursing home patients that he failed to evacuate – Mayor Bloomberg sidetracked police and sanitation workers for the NYC Marathon, until public outrage forced him to reconsider.

While federal emergency teams struggled to get water, food, and gasoline to victims, companies, religious groups, charities, local citizens, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and other state and local agencies worked tirelessly to raise money, truck in food and water, and organize countless relief efforts.

The hard reality, however, was how ill-prepared the region was for another major storm. The political body pretended the great storms had not occurred, virtually assuring that any repeat of the 1893, 1938, 1944, and 1992 storms, among others, would bring devastation far worse than before.

Opportunity Costs

In one of the most obvious, architects, city planners, mayors and governors alike thought nothing of placing generators in the basements of hospitals and skyscrapers built in areas that are barely above sea level. Past storms have brought surges 12 to 18 feet high onto Long Island, and studies have warned that a category 3 direct hit could put much of New York City and its key infrastructure under 30 feet of water.

Sandy’s 9-foot surges (on top of five feet of high tide) flooded those basements, rendering generators useless, and leaving buildings cold and dark. Perhaps if Mayor Bloomberg had worried less about 32-oz sodas and seas that are rising a mere foot per century, he could have devoted more time to critical issues. 

The mayor has also obsessed about urban sprawl. However, when new developments mean high rents, high taxes and photo-op ground breakings, he has often expounded a different philosophy.

Mr. Bloomberg’s Arverne by the Sea initiative transformed what he called “a swath of vacant land” into a “vibrant and growing oceanfront community,” with “affordable” homes starting at $559,000. (The land was vacant in large part because a 1950 storm wiped it clean of structures.) The new homes were built on 167 acres of land raised five feet above the surrounding Far Rockaway area.

Those Arverne homes mostly survived Sandy. But Arverne’s high ground most likely caused storm surges to rise higher and move faster elsewhere than they would have on Rockaway lowlands that are always hit head-on by northward moving storms.

If Sandy had been a Category 3 hurricane like its 1821 ancestor, the devastation would have been of biblical proportions – as winds, waves and surges slammed into expensive homes, businesses, and high-rises, and roared up waterways rendered progressively narrower by hundreds of construction projects. Hard questions need to be asked as to whether NYC is capable of handling a Category 2 or 3 storm.

Lower Manhattan has doubled in width over the centuries. World Trade Center construction alone contributed 1.2 million cubic yards to buildBattery Park City, narrowing the Hudson River by another 700 feet. The East River has likewise been hemmed in, while other water channels have been completely filled. Buildings, malls and raised roadways constructed on former potato fields, forests, grasslands and marshlands have further constricted passageways for storm surges and runoff.

As a result, storms like Sandy or the Long Island Express send monstrous volumes of water up ever more confined corridors. With nowhere else to go, the surges rise higher, travel faster, and pack more power. It’s elementary physics – which governors, mayors, planners and developers ignore at citizens’ peril.

Confused though they undoubtedly were by the imprecise and conflicting storm warnings, area residents should nonetheless have been better prepared – and the news media could have done a much better job, by repeatedly underscoring the enormous damage wrought by previous monster storms, frequently emphasizing proper storm preparation, and doing so days and weeks before Sandy arrived.

Perhaps then people would have learned from history, listened more attentively, been able to add storm and tide surges, stockpiled empty milk jugs and filled them and bathtubs with water before Sandy hit, set aside sufficient flashlights and batteries and nonperishable food, and bought generators, installed them above high water marks, and tested them ahead of time to ensure that they would work when needed.

(We must reduce reliance on the Saffir-Simpson scale to judge risk. Extra-tropical storms can be more dangerous than hurricanes. That Sandy had switched its energy source from a tropical air mass to a cold front was small comfort to storm-ravaged citizens, as its winds and surge remained at hurricane force.)

Seven years after Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still was not able to put sufficient boots and supplies on the ground in a timely fashion, nor were state and city governments and first responders properly prepared to provide water, food, gasoline and other supplies.

However, federal agencies had ample funds to assist New York and New Jersey through 2012; battles over congressional appropriations were for 2013 assistance. House Speaker John Boehner and others were nonetheless vilified for putting “a knife in the back” of Sandy survivors, when the House rejected a $60-billion relief bill that the Wall Street Journal said had become “cover for Congress to revive earmarks and the pork machine,” including $150 million for Alaskan fisheries, $2 million for repairing Smithsonian Museum roofs, and $17 billion for liberal activists under the guise of “community development” funds and “social service” grants.

A less pork-laden bill for $50-billion in additional aid was enacted by Congress on January 28. Meanwhile, thankfully, neighbors pitched in, private donations rolled in, and the rebuilding continued.

Sandy was merely the latest “confluence” (tropical storm, northeaster and full-moon high tide) to blast the New York-New Jersey area. It was never a matter of if, but only of when, such a storm would hit – and when one will hit again in the not too distant future.

Even if they want to blame the devastation on global warming, people still need to be better prepared.

Misrepresenting Facts, Deflecting Responsibility

People, planners, and politicians should have been better prepared. Instead, we have been deluged by statements designed to dodge responsibility and culpability, by trying to blame global warming. Of course, it’s no wonder Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, and other politicos prefer to talk about global warming, rising seas, and worsening weather. They want to deflect attention and blame from decisions that put more people in the path of greater danger, and lay a foundation for maximum disaster relief from the federal government and private insurance companies.

Politicians are also increasingly and intentionally obscuring and misrepresenting the nature, frequency, and severity of storm, flood and surge risks, so that they can promote and permit more construction in high-risk areas, and secure more money and power. In truth, the very notion of packing more and more people into “sustainable, energy-efficient” coastal cities in the NY-NJ area – as Mayor Bloomberg and the Sierra Club have advocated – is itself madness on steroids.

These politicians and activists insist that they can prevent or control climate change and sea level rise, by regulating CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, they ignore real, known dangers that have arisen before and will arise again, exacerbated by their political decisions and proof that they cannot manage storm risks.

As a result, unsuspecting business and home owners continue to buy, build and rebuild in areas that are increasingly at risk from hurricanes, northeasters and “perfect storms” of natural and political events. Even worse, as the population density increases in this NY-NJ area, the ability to evacuate people plummets, especially when roadways, tunnels and other escape routes are submerged.

Responsible Leaders & Citizens Must Take Action

Those who live and work in these areas must become better students of history, more knowledgeable about the risks they face, more keenly attentive to imminent dangers from the forces of nature, more willing to build homes and businesses and site generators to survive storms, more willing to evacuate – and much better prepared to confront the storms’ aftermath, when residences are destroyed, food and water are in short supply, and electricity may be knocked out for days or weeks.

Citizens must also hold elected officials and unelected bureaucrats accountable for their failures and misrepresentations. They must demand that changes be made in how New York, New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut and nearby areas prepare for future “super storms.” They must demand that people be warned of impending dangers in a manner that is timely, accurate, complete and appropriately urgent.

Local governments or private groups should mark high water levels from storms like Sandy on buildings or sign posts, to remind people just how high tide and storm surges can get, and what levels are associated with particular winds, tides, surges, and imminent dangers to property and lives.

 

Equally important, people themselves need to take responsibility for their own lives, families, neighbors and storm preparation – and not simply depend on government. They should study what happened and learn from it; listen and respond to official advisories and private weather services; read and follow disaster preparedness books and manuals; have home generators; be prepared with emergency stocks of clothing and blankets, flashlights and batteries, suitcases packed with these items, and bathtubs and bottles filled with drinking water; and be ready to evacuate before it’s too late, along previously arranged routes to previously arranged meeting points.

The lives and property saved by doing this will be priceless.

Lead Responsibly, Stop Hunting Witches

Continued development in the Metropolitan New York region is an imperative that we support. More than 19 million people live and work in this 6,700-square-mile area. Nearly one quarter of the United States’ entire GDP passes through the city’s financial district. Its car, truck, rail, train and aircraft ports and throughways carry people, food and consumer goods of every description.

However, we strongly question year-round residential development in the highest risk areas – and the environmental regulations that currently prevent development on the much safer higher elevation areas within the Metro Region, such as the New Jersey “Highlands.”

We need to ask: What risks we are we willing to assume, and at what cost? Who pays, and who decides? When do we pull back, when do we rebuild, and when do we harden our coastal infrastructure? We must be willing to ask these and other politically incorrect questions – and find a way to avoid “political” answers to these questions.

Sandy may have been a rare (but hardly unprecedented) confluence of weather events. However, the political decisions and blame avoidance are an all-too-common confluence of human tendencies – made worse by steadily declining government transparency, accountability and liability, even in the wake of disasters that result in great loss of life and property.

These politicians are fortunate to have convenient scapegoats like “dangerous manmade global warming” and insurance companies – today’s equivalent of the witches whom our predecessors blamed for storms, droughts, crop failures, disease and destruction. This can no longer be tolerated.

It’s time to use the witches’ brooms to clean house, and then implement changes – agreed to by honest analysis and communication – that will better safeguard property and lives in the future.

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Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black Death. Patrick Moffitt is president of Moffitt Consulting LLC, an environmental services company.

[First published at Master Resource.]

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is a senior policy advisor with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and... (read full bio)