People climbed to the upper floors of Manhattan high-rises to check on elderly shut-ins. Down on the streets food shops gave away fresh produce that they could no longer refrigerate. In the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey homeowners strung power cords from their home generators onto their lawns so that neighbors could plug in and power up.
These individual acts of kindness were far more than random; they were deliberate and selfless – but no less than Americans expect of each other as they rise to the challenge of a crisis.
These last few days have been a time when neighbors who barely knew each other have pooled their food and sat down to meals together. Those with chain saws helped those without clear trees from lawns and driveways. At least one child on Halloween asked for donations to the Red Cross rather than candy.
“I have power and hot water. If anyone needs a shower or to charge some gadgets or just wants to bask in the beauty of artificial light, hit me up,” one resident of the hard-hit New York borough of Staten Island wrote on Facebook.
Yes, there were testy motorists forced to wait in long lines at gas stations. And some people in dire need, despite all the good efforts generally, are still in need. “There’s a lot of anger out there,” acknowledged Newark (N.J.) Mayor Cory Booker, who opened his own home to those seeking a place to stay. But overall, he said, “I’m seeing extraordinary acts of kindness.”
Superstorm Sandy sent a historic 14-foot wave of water into New York Harbor and onto city streets, filling subway and utility tunnels with water and knocking out power to the lower part of Manhattan. Across the US East Coast, it left 8.5 million homes and businesses without electricity, a number that had dropped to 3.8 million by midday Friday. Sandy’s death toll in the United States alone rose to at least 92.
Though far from perfect, the efforts of government from the federal level down to the states and municipalities show that the lessons taught by earlier storms, from hurricane Katrina to last year’s hurricane Irene, have been learned, both in preparing the public beforehand and in helping them afterward.
President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie symbolized that federal and state officials can work together in harmony (and across party lines). For its part, the US military has already mobilized 12,000 National Guard troops in a dozen states. The US Army Corps of Engineers is hard at work assessing damage to infrastructure, and the Pentagon says it’s ready to step in further with manpower and equipment as needed.
And at least so far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency seems to be operating much better than it did during Katrina.
But even as these emergency efforts continue, it’s not too early to ask: How do we minimize such disasters in the future? Cities along the Atlantic Coast from Philadelphia to Boston must reassess their plans to protect their cities from storms. Washington, D.C., built on a low-lying swamp, must ponder how to protect its vital federal buildings and iconic monuments. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already said that government must begin to think about new ways to defend New York from what may be increasingly frequent superstorms.
“Our climate is changing,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be – given the devastation it is wreaking – should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
The likelihood that sea levels will continue to rise and severe storms will pummel the East Coast more frequently should start new conversations about possible solutions. Should all those shorefront homes destroyed by Sandy be rebuilt, with the possibility of being demolished in a future storm? Should New York or other American cities install sea barriers, such as those in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Netherlands?
Such multibillion-dollar projects may at first look hard to justify. But Sandy just handed New York City a cleanup bill sure to tally in the billions. An infrastructure project that would keep future storms out of the Big Apple might prove to be cost-effective insurance.