Letter from the US: Global warming hits home with a vengeance

November 1, 2012
People wait in line for fuel on November 1, in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Hurricane Sandy was the largest tropical storm to ever hit mainland United States.

Its extent, power and the fact that it formed so late in the hurricane season so far north in the Atlantic ocean can only be understood in light of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

For many years, scientists have been warning that the rise in water temperature in the oceans would create more powerful storms, and that is what happened in the case of Hurricane Sandy.

That such a huge storm hit the northeastern part of the United States itself was unusual, and is due to the Atlantic being nearly 3° Celsius above normal. Most large storms hit the Gulf coast or the southern states.

It is also abnormal for a hurricane to hit so far north in late October. One meteorologist likened it to a snowstorm hitting Saudi Arabia in the summer.

The storm’s diameter was nearly 1000 miles. This itself could not have developed without the Atlantic being so much warmer than the historical norm.

The destruction of the coastline, especially on the northern side of the storm, was vast. The direction of the winds on the northern side of the storm forced a huge wall of water to slam into the coastline.

It was this surge of water, together with the high winds, that caused the most damage all along the coast. The extent of the destruction has not been assessed yet, but it is clear it is enormous.

Many towns and cities were flooded by the surge. Shots of different areas on TV give some idea of the damage: boardwalks ripped up; whole beeches gone; Ferris wheels on their sides and roller coasters under water at ocean-side amusement parks; vast stretches of flooded streets and splintered homes; untold tens of thousands of trees blown over.

A sewage treatment plant was flooded, with raw sewage pouring out. A big oil spill at a refinery in New Jersey has been reported.

The flooding and downed trees mean electric power lines down. At its height, more than 8 million people were without power. Two-and-a-half days after the eye of the storm came inland on the evening of October 29, 6 million are still without power, from the northernmost state of Maine down to south of Washington.

As of November 1, 98 people had been confirmed killed, and the number is climbing. More bodies will be found. This devastation comes after Hurricane Sandy had already wrecked havoc across the Caribbean.

Many were killed by falling trees. Others by downed power lines. One woman in New York stepped on a live wire, and witnesses say she burst into flames. A boy inland in Pennsylvania went out to check on a newborn calf on his family’s farm and was crushed by a tree.

Another man was swept out of his home by the surge, down a street and was fatally smashed into a store window. Three people were found dead in a flooded basement apartment.

Another cause of power failure is electrical equipment destroyed by the flooding. I saw a scene on TV the night of the storm’s landfall looking out across a flooded area, with powerful flashes of blue-white light coming every few seconds. These were electric transformers exploding.

The downed power lines and exploding transformers have created fires. The most devastating was in the Bay Breeze section of the borough of Queens in New York City on Monday night.

Flooded streets around the area, coupled with high winds, kept firefighters away. Block by block, in spite of the rain but driven by the winds, the fire spread, until it consumed at least 111 homes.

As the storm moved inland, it brought high winds as far away as Chicago. These winds generated surges on the inland Great Lakes. Trees toppled over a vast area inland, too, creating more power outages.

The storm then encountered on its west side a mass of cold air that had come south from Canada. The result was another bizarre phenomenon, a big snow storm resulting from a hurricane with high winds, a blizzard.

It may seem that this was a fortuitous event, not connected to global warming. That is true about the mass of cold air coming south from Canada, not unusual for this time of year. But the fact that this cold air met a huge mass of water-logged air from the hurricane was a unique event directly tied to global warming.

The confluence of these two weather systems created a new type of storm, with continued high winds, which has now moved into Canada.

The eye of the storm came ashore at the southern part of New Jersey, which is south of New York City. The states of New Jersey and New York have born the brunt of the storm’s damage.

In the square mile city of Hoboken, New Jersey, where I once lived, the whole city is still under water as I write. Hundreds are stranded in their homes.

But the most spectacular impact has been in New York City, just across the Hudson River from New Jersey.

There were some special circumstances that coincided to worsen the damage. One was that because the storm landed south of the city, its winds were well aimed to cause a huge surge of water into New York Harbor. This collided with the flow of the Hudson River coming in the opposite direction into the harbor.

Another was that high tide coincided with the surge, and the full moon meant the tide was higher again.

With the Hudson River on its west and the East River on its east, Manhattan had two rivers flowing directly into New York Harbor, meeting the surge from the south. The result was massive flooding in lower Manhattan from both the east and west.

On the west, the Hudson River surge flooded Hoboken and other cities in New Jersey.

As late as October 29, as the storm approached, the New York Times predicted that the flooding in lower Manhattan, taking account of the high tide, would be about seven feet. In fact, it was double that.

This was the highest recorded in the two centuries record s have been kept.

The city had halted the underground trains, called the subway, as a precaution. But no one was prepared for what happened.

The surging salt water flooded the tunnels, preventing resumption of service. More than 5 million people rely on the subway system for transportation each day.

Most of the system remained closed as of November 1. Besides having to pump out the water, the electrical equipment that has been flooded by salt water is undoubtedly corroded. It will all have to be cleaned, repaired or replaced.

Some of these tunnels are flooded with water 40 feet deep.

A tunnel for vehicles that goes under the harbor connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn is flooded. A train connecting Hoboken and Manhattan through a tunnel under the Hudson River is flooded shut. A photo of a station in Hoboken where I once boarded the train shows water pouring in.

Bridges into the city were closed in the high winds, and are being slowly reopened. Regular trains into the city were halted.

Power was cut off for the lower fourth of Manhattan. The financial centre was under water. Sections of Wall Street were flooded — somewhat ironic since Wall Street put million of homes “under water”, to where more is owed on their mortgages than the selling price of the homes.

The Stock Exchange has reopened with power from emergency generators.

Hospitals were flooded or had their power cut off. Thousands of patients had to be evacuated in the midst of the rain, flooding and wind.

Another danger was that along the affected coast there are 16 nuclear power plants, some of the Fukushima type. As that catastrophe demonstrated, if external power is down, and emergency generators flooded, such plants are in great peril of over-heating. I have heard that three such plants along the coast were shut down.

What Hurricane Sandy did to New York City demonstrates that what could happen as a result of the global-warming-driven storms did happen.

The storm impacted workers and especially the poorest disproportionally. Many people in New York City do not have cars, and depend on public transportation to get to work. They were more likely to not be able to follow evacuation orders.

In an example of solidarity among ordinary people, The Nation reported: "Occupy Wall Street and [climate action group] 350.org have teamed up with Recovers.org, a disaster relief platform, to help coordinate response to Hurricane Sandy ... At the interoccupy.net hub, users can make financial donations to victims, volunteer their efforts or locate an emergency shelter."

The article reported on Occupy Sandy, "a now burgeoning offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement" that seeks to organise volunteers to help in clean-up efforts.

As in much of the world, many US cities were built up around harbors, and are low-lying. In Washington, for example, the National Mall, Reagan National Airport, and surrounding suburbs are all below sea level.

Writing in The Nation, Mike Tidwell wrote before the storm hit: “The presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, but climate change has decided to speak to them. And what is a thousand-mile-wide storm pushing eleven feet of water [it turned out to be higher] toward our country’s biggest population center saying just days before the election?

“It is this: we are all from New Orleans now. Climate change — through measurable rise of sea levels and a documented increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms — has made 100 million Americans virtually as vulnerable to catastrophe as the victims of Hurricane Katrina were seven years ago….

“Unless we rapidly phase out our use of fossil fuels, most Americans within shouting distance of an ocean will — in the coming years — live behind the massive levees and floodgates that mark Louisiana today.”

For the first time during this election campaign, some in the mass media have begun timidly raised whether climate change has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy. Also yesterday, one important politician raised the issue, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

It is to be hoped that a positive outcome from this disaster which has harmed millions will be greater public awareness of global warming and willingness to fight Big Oil, Gas and Coal to save ourselves.

[Barry Sheppard is a long-time socialist and a former leader of the Socialist Workers Party who lives in San Francisco.]

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