Monday, November 5, 2012

QB'ing Sandy's Aftermath

And this was just a Category One.

Yet one week after Hurricane Sandy, over one million people across metropolitan New York remain without a combination of electricity, land line phones, cell phone service, mass transit, or even cars and homes.

Some families are grieving the loss of loved ones.  Others are trying to find temporary shelter, or cooking on the street, or burning chunks of their destroyed furniture to stay warm.  Perhaps one of the most striking realities after last week's unprecedented storm involves how unprepared so many government agencies, utilities, and even the region's coastal residents appear to have been.

Considering the level of destruction and the loss of human life, perhaps we could wait for another time to ponder the lessons to be learned, and assume that, the longer we delay the discussion, the more polite we're being.

Or we could wait until everything has been built back the way it was, and then wonder why the next Sandy seems like déjà vu all over again.

Or we could just ignore the enormous elephants in the room - a room still gritty with sand on its floor.  Keep sweeping up that sand, and hope another Sandy doesn't blow through in our lifetime.  Or a storm even worse than Sandy.  Remember, she was "only" a Category One hurricane.

A sobering thought.

Sandy's Destruction Didn't Necessarily Happen Overnight

To a certain extent, it's really easy to armchair-quarterback this whole thing from the comfy, balmy suburbs of Dallas, Texas.  When hurricanes make their way this far north from the Gulf of Mexico, we actually welcome the rain they bring our otherwise parched climate.  We curse our traffic-choked freeways, but at least the mass transit daily commuters would love to have doesn't exist to get flooded out.  We don't have beautiful geography around us, but then again, our lack of broad rivers and scenic bays means we're not cut off from ready supplies of fuel.

We're also a gun-friendly state, meaning that looting is hardly ever a problem here.

Up in New York, however, reality is a lot colder, darker, frustrating, and unsafe.  Some of the region's angst comes from the unavoidable reality that many of the problems continuing to plague its short-term recovery efforts are, well... unavoidable.

But does that mean the region's long-term recovery can't be pursued in a sustainable way?  I'm no economist, but some of the facts are so obvious, maybe they're easy to ignore.

First, New York City exists where it does because of its ready access to the sea.  We can't change that.  It was founded by the Dutch in the 1600's as their key trading port in the New World.  As the city grew from a hardscrabble fort to a bustling commercial crossroads, a considerable amount of what we now call the Financial District was reclaimed from the bay, built on landfill of dubious stability.  Indeed, many other low-lying parts of the city reflect not only the natural topography of a continent meeting the sea, but mankind's ambitious - albeit insufficient - attempts at filling in that topography.

Fortunately, New York's famous buildings have been built on rock, not sand.  Even the skyscrapers near Wall Street whose basements flooded are bolted onto bedrock.  One wonders if raising all of the affected streets and sidewalks 10 feet and re-building every skyscraper's lobby on their second floors would be cheaper and as effective as some of the far-fetched tidal buffers being proposed out in the bay.

Second, approximately twenty million people live in the Tri-State area comprising the New York metropolitan statistical area.  The population density in this region is extraordinarily high, and while some urban planners say high population densities are a good thing, having so many people in such close proximity to each other can be problematic, especially during an emergency.  If the region's hefty taxes had gone to maintaining a state-of-the-art transportation system with robust disaster preparedness failsafes, such a dense population could have worked in everyone's favor, and perhaps even ameliorated the current crisis that we're seeing at the area's gas pumps.

Unfortunately, the region's third reality is its sprawling, unwieldy bureaucracies, which have ossified into stagnant, self-serving, and profoundly non-innovative oligarchies.  Officials in the region have called for calm in Sandy's wake by reminding people that it takes time for the many branches of government to get coordinated on such short notice.  Which actually only proves what many conservatives have been warning for years:  bigger government isn't better government.

It has been said that "big government" proves its worth in times of catastrophe, but if that were the case, would we be seeing the many obvious failures that we're seeing in the governmental response to Hurricane Sandy?  If there's any region of the United States that has a big government to be proud of, it's metropolitan New York.  Taxpayers across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut pay through the nose in taxes of all sorts, plus high tolls on most bridges, tunnels, and freeways.  For all that they spend on their government, however, these taxpayers have found themselves victims of a blatantly uneven patchwork of electrical grid restoration, absurdly long lines at gasoline stations, and ridiculous waits for whatever mass transit they can find.  Local legislators are complaining that FEMA has yet to visit some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

All this institutionalized incompetence, and only a tiny fraction of this population lost their homes.  The vast majority of residents have already had their utilities restored, even if the celebrity neighborhoods of Manhattan were first in line.  What if the devastation had been on a broader scale?  Officials sound relieved that what progress has been made has been made at all.  Instead, considering the high tax burden under which New Yorkers suffer, shouldn't officials be embarrassed that things are taking this long?

Obviously, there is waste, corruption, and misplaced priorities in the government agencies the region's taxpayers are funding.  Sandy, not conservative pundits, is proving it.

Shore 'Nuff

That said, a big part of the problem is that New York City is old.  It's staring back over three hundred years of remarkable - yet chaotic - development that has been as much organic happenstance as cold, calculated economics.  Modern zoning and building codes can't uniformly fix the ways generations of residents from all over the world have built the city.  Robert Moses, the city's reviled urban planner, razed dozens of neighborhoods during the middle of the Twentieth Century to construct massive public works projects, including the city's outmoded system of freeways.  He attracted a lot of public attention to core communities across New York, but virtually ignored the waterfront.  One reason was it had already been commandeered by the city's burly shipping industry in Manhattan and Brooklyn, or relegated as an outlier for rickety summer cottages in Queens and Staten Island, where ordinary New Yorkers would go to escape summer's oppressive heat.

The piers are largely gone from New York City proper, having shifted across the harbor to New Jersey, where rail lines and freeways to the rest of the country make the loading and unloading of ships that much less complicated.  Meanwhile, those summer colonies along New York's "outer banks" quietly transitioned from adequate seasonal cottages to winterized bungalows.  That's how many of the properties in Breezy Point got started, and helps explain why they were built so close together, and on such flimsy foundations, considering how close to the sea they were.

As housing costs continued to price blue collar families out and away from Manhattan, these bungalows provided relatively affordable permanent homes to generations of civil servants, like police officers and firefighters.  Being far enough away from "the City," these neighborhoods never attracted Manhattanites wanting to gentrify them, and the distance didn't matter to residents, since their jobs weren't necessarily in Manhattan, either.

Back in the 1990's, when I was considering a move from Brooklyn to Staten Island, I took several trips over to the city's westernmost borough, and witnessed first-hand the often shoddy workmanship exhibited by homes across the island's southern, ocean-facing shore:  the part of Staten Island that today lies in ruins.

Now, please let me clarify:  if these homes were in Upstate New York, away from tides and hurricane-force winds, they would probably be considered fairly sturdy.  Many of them were also nicely painted, with modern windows and decorative shutters.  But aesthetics can't compensate for a foundation and structure that hasn't been designed and constructed for such a high-risk location.  Being located practically on a beach, only a couple of feet above sea level, these homes didn't stand a chance against Sandy.

When I visited, it was late winter; snow was melting, we'd probably had some rain, and perhaps even a high tide.  I recall one city bus I rode went block after block, its wheels in standing water the whole time.  Our bus driver drove at a crawl, so as to keep the wake being made by our Grumman behemoth as minimal as possible.  After all, the water was lapping at the steps of some homes.  Cars were parked within inches of the highest ripples of water.  Brittle, brown stalks of reeds and tall grass rustled as the water would lap into estuaries enveloping these low-lying neighborhoods.  I couldn't believe then that the city allowed people to live there, in such obvious peril of flooding.  Even if families had lived there for generations without being hit by a disaster.

Not too long after that, I was traveling through the borough with my aunt, who lived in Brooklyn at the time, and we saw gaudy new McMansions being built on marshland developers had tried to reclaim for new, more affluent neighborhoods.  From some of the photos I've seen of the destruction on Staten Island, it appears some of those neighborhoods were hit by floodwaters, too.  Except those homes didn't crumble apart and wash away.  I guess modern building codes do come in handy, even for structures built practically on sand.

Like Never Before, New York Has Something to Prove

My love for New York City doesn't blind me to its faults.  And a lot of those faults have contributed to the crisis now being visited upon its residents by this Category One hurricane.  Sandy's storm may have taken place over the course of a few hours one week ago tonight, but the factors that led up to how much destruction Sandy caused were building for centuries.

If the New York region still wants to be called the capital of the world, it's going to have to prove it can answer these questions in a sustainable way:
  • How will the city deal with all of the private property that has been developed practically on sand bars? Should owners be allowed to rebuild, and if so, to what standards?  Less litigious, more affluent communities all along the United States coastline have tried to deal with this quandary, and mostly unsuccessfully.  
  • How can the city upgrade its transportation infrastructure to keep its workforce mobile after another disaster?  It's bad enough if you're paying taxes for inadequate subway tunnels; it hurts even more since international business is increasingly intolerant of such localized problems.
  • What solutions can be found to restore electricity after a disaster, or indeed, to keep from losing it to begin with?  How can technology improve emergency energy generation for appliances in apartments, for example?  Or individual hospital rooms?
  • Can the region's taxpayers rally around an insistence that paying for all of these solutions be done with no new taxes?  It would mean serious reductions in other parts of their bureaucratic sacred cows.  New priorities - which of course, are the basic priorities many of them have forgotten - will have to emerge.
Since I'm an armchair quarterback, calling this mess in my hometown as I see it from down here in Texas, I can tell New York this:  most Texans have gotten used to having Yankee transplants comin' here.  Undoubtedly, Sandy may be the last straw for many exasperated New Yorkers.  But if they're thinking of relocating down here, just know that Texans aren't crazy about New Yorkers bringin' their problems with 'em.

Sometimes you just gotta hunker down, bite the bullet, and fix those problems where you're at.

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