Tuesday, January 8th 2013, 5:53 PM EST
“Superstorm” Sandy killed more than 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and left millions without food, water, electricity, sanitation or shelter for days or even weeks. Our thoughts and prayers remain focused on its victims, many of whom are still grieving as they struggle with the storm’s wintry aftermath and try to rebuild their lives.
Unfortunately, too many politicians continue to use the storm to advance agendas, deflect blame for incompetence and mistakes, and obfuscate and magnify future risks from building and development projects that they have designed, promoted, permitted and profited from.
Sandy was “unprecedented,” the result of “weather on steroids,” various “experts” insist. “It’s global warming, stupid,” intoned Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared. We must protect the great NY metropolis from rising oceans, said the Washington Post. This storm should “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action” on climate change, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pronounced.
Unfortunately for the politicians and spin-meisters, the facts do not support this obscene posturing.
North America’s northeastern coast has been battered by hurricanes and other major storms throughout history. A 1775 hurricane killed 4,000 people in Newfoundland; an 1873 monster left 600 dead in Nova Scotia; others pummeled Canada’s Maritime Provinces in 1866, 1886, 1893, 1939, 1959, 1963 and 2003.
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Manhattan got pounded in 1667 and by the Great Storm of 1693. They were followed by more behemoths in 1788, 1821, 1893, 1944, 1954 and 1992. Other “confluences of severe weather events” brought killer storms like the four-day Great Blizzard of 1888. The 1893 storm largely eradicated Hog Island, and the 1938 “Long Island Express” hit LI as a category 3 hurricane with wind gusts up to 180 mph.
Experts say such winds today would rip windows from skyscrapers and cause a deadly blizzard of flying glass, masonry, chairs, desks and other debris from high-rise offices and apartments. People would seek safety in subway tunnels, where they would drown as the tunnels flood.
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.
People, planners and politicians should have been better prepared. Instead, we are feted with statements designed to dodge responsibility and culpability, by trying to blame global warming. The reality is, even as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose to 391 ppm (0.0391%) today, average global temperatures have not changed in 16 years, and sea levels are rising no faster than in 1900. Even with Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 marked the quietest long-term hurricane period since the Civil War, with only one major hurricane strike on the US mainland in seven years. This is global warming and unprecedented weather on steroids?
In Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath – with millions freezing hungry in dark devastation – 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 and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie worked tirelessly to raise money and organize countless relief efforts.
Most outrageous of all, though, was how ill-prepared the region was for another major storm – and how many political decisions had virtually ensured that any repeat of the 1893, 1938, 1944 and other storms would bring devastation far worse than would likely have occurred in the absence of those decisions.
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 surges12 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 (plus 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 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 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 the high ground 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 1938 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.
Lower Manhattan has doubled in width over the centuries. World Trade Center construction alone contributed 1.2 million cubic yards to build Battery 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 their peril.
No wonder, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo and other politicos prefer to talk about global warming, rising seas and worsening weather – to deflect attention and blame from decisions that have put more people in the path of greater danger. Indeed, the very notion of packing more and more people into “sustainable, energy-efficient” coastal cities in the NY-NJ area is itself madness on steroids.
Worst of all, politicians are 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. They insist that they can prevent or control climate change and sea level rise, by regulating CO2 emission – while they ignore real, known dangers that have arisen before and will arise again, exacerbated by their politicized decisions.
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. And 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. Let the buyer beware.
Sandy may have been a rare (but hardly unprecedented) confluence of weather events. But the political decisions and blame avoidance are an all-too-common confluence of human tendencies – worsened by the dogged determination of our ruling classes to acquire greater power and control, coupled with steadily declining transparency, accountability and liability.
How nice it must be 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. It’s time to use the witches’ brooms to clean house.