Monday, November 12, 2012

Expect a Long, Slow, Expensive Recovery from the Sandy-Athena Train Wreck

"We're going to have some real, real challenges ahead of us... This is going to be long and it's going to be expensive and it's going to be hard and it's going to be frustrating at times."   ~ Gov. Chris Christie, Nov. 9  LINK TO STORY

He's absolutely right. There will be no fast-fixes for the metropolitan northeast after Hurricane Sandy packed a solid punch from the east, and winter storm Athena* quickly followed with an icy punch from the west. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano agreed: "We are now in the recovery mode, response and recovery... It will be...if not the most extensive and expensive, one of the most in our nation's history."

What we've just witnessed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and beyond - centers of commerce, home of Wall Street - is the initial crash, the crunching of souped-up-weather-fury against the heavy metal of urban living. There were over a hundred immediate casualties counted spread over nine states, but, nearly two weeks later, the death count keeps rising as bodies, primarily among the elderly, are discovered. And as long as the more fragile and feeble go without electricity, more will likely fall prey to the twin storms.

The poor, especially those relegated to public housing, are particularly vulnerable. The New York Times, in a Nov. 8 pointed editorial, took Mayor Bloomberg to task for its lackluster relief efforts for the less-monied:
For all the efforts of federal, state and local officials to help people after Hurricane Sandy, unacceptable pockets of suffering remain. Ten days after the hurricane struck, thousands of people in New York City’s public housing are still without heat, water, electricity or food. Many people needed assistance after the storm, but the most vulnerable of the city’s inhabitants seem to be among the last in line to get it.
The aftermath and all that it entails is just beginning: it will likely take years, perhaps even a decade or more, to feel the comfort of near-complete recovery. We know this from experience: just look at the out-years following super-sized Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Andrew (1992).

Seven years hence, New Orleans and surrounding areas are still recovering from Katrina-Rita -- and may never fully recover, depending on how you define recovery. The Big Easy is certainly not as big anymore -- many residents left and never returned -- and there's been nothing easy, Brad Pitt's laudable efforts aside, about rebuilding, restoring, renewing. The effort goes on today: the 2010 US Census revealed that a full 25% of all residences in the City of New Orleans were still vacant, and earlier this year Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared as priority razing 40,000 abandoned homes and buildings to make way for new development.

More than two decades have passed since 1992's Category 5 Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida, inflicting 44 deaths, damaging 25,000 properties, impacting 100,000 jobs, and rendering up to 180,000 people homeless. August 24, 2012 marked its 20th anniversary: with two decades of recovery under its belt, much has been rebuilt, but scars remain. For example, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, [pdf] over 8,000 residents from Homestead, FL - nearly a third of its pre-hurricane population - permanently left the city, leaving behind many abandoned properties that created lingering redevelopment challenges.

Some would argue, myself included, that deciding to pick up and move further inland so as to be out of harm's way is an evolutionarily wise choice, Darwin-style. Nonetheless, sudden vacancy of large blocks of building stock creates economic, public health, and other problems for communities. Unscrupulous contractors employing shoddy building practices and materials poured into post-Andrew south Florida and exacerbated human vulnerability: building codes and practices should result in more resilient structures, not weaker ones. More orderly, non-emergency-state migrations to higher, safer ground would make more sense while existing and new buildings are built to withstand gale force winds and deadly floods.

This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to ask President Obama for $30 billion in federal disaster assistance to help cover what his administration claims are more than $50 billion in damages and costs associated with Sandy. But will $30,000,000,000 even be enough? Outyear supplemental appropriations for housing, infrastructure, and other rebuilding are not uncommon after major disasters.  And all the money in the world can't bring back loved ones, or for that matter, beloved pets, or innumerable, irreplaceable personal treasures like family heirlooms, photo albums, and other valued keepsakes.

Furthermore, Atlantic seaboard mayors and governors, as well as our national leaders, must brace themselves for the possibility - strike that, the probability - of more extreme weather in the months and years to come. Preparedness for climate-related disasters must take a more prominent seat at the table. The survival of many depends on it.

Lest we too quickly forget and move on to the next headline, here are some images for our collective national scrapbook.


A super-late-season, super-large Hurricane formed in the Atlantic Ocean:

For two days, from October 24-26, Hurricane Sandy swept through the Caribbean, leaving a trail of death and devastation:
The death toll reached 69 in the Caribbean before it reached the US. Source

Packing 90-mph-winds, Sandy struck the continental United States:

Oct. 29, 8 pm EDT: Sandy made landfall 5 mi. south of Atlantic City. Source

From the sky and from the turbulent sea came water, water, everywhere water:

Oct 30: Cars drown in NYC's financial district. Source

Oct. 30: The entire NY subway system drowns. Source

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo went out on a limb by making this sensible but politically risky declaration, linking Sandy with climate change:
"It’s a longer conversation.. But I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable. Climate change is a controversial subject, right? People will debate whether there is climate change … that’s a whole political debate that I don’t want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political.. There’s only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime and it’s not going to happen again.’.. The frequency is way up. It is not prudent to sit here, I believe, to sit here and say it’s not going to happen again. Protecting this state from coastal flooding is a massive, massive undertaking. But it’s a conversation I think is overdue.” Source

October 31: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hitched a ride on Air Force One with POTUS:
Christie profusely praised Pres. Obama publicly, and later took heat from the GOP. Source

November 2: In the city, just getting from Point A to B got trickier and trickier:
Brooklyn commuters waiting in line for hours to ride the bus to work. Source

President Barack Obama handily won his re-election bid. Pundits speculated on the effects the major storms may have had on the vote count.

November 7: In one of his many press conferences, Gov. Christie faced the prospect of a nor'easter winter storm approaching, and quipped: “So we're getting ready for another storm. I'm waiting for the locusts and pestilence next."


November 8: Nor'easter wintry storm "Athena" (so-named by The Weather Channel, but not the National Weather Service) hit the northeast from the west, adding onslaught-to-injury with her freezing temps, biting winds, and more storm surges.

Many an experienced meteorologist gasped incredulity. Wunderblog's highly respected Jeff Masters seemed to be speaking for many seasoned weather experts when he wrote: "How often do you see snow falling on hurricane-damaged coasts? This sort of one-two weather punch is unprecedented in my lifetime."

Climate chaos, indeed.


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