United States: After Sandy — the storm next time

Relief organised by Occupy Sandy.

On October 20 last year, I did stand up at a party in Chelsea, Manhattan, for the book I had just written called America's Got Democracy!

The joke that got the biggest laugh, which I will now ruin by writing it out, was about how the supposedly “stark choice” between Democrats and Republicans around global warming isn't the different things they're going to do about it, but the different ways they say they're not going to do anything about it.

Republicans still pander to the climate change deniers but, I said, the Democrats have a different approach — they say: “You're wrong, Republicans — climate change is real, and it's very serious. And we're not going to do anything about it. But somebody really should because it's quite scary. Maybe we could write a letter or something.”

Nine days later, Hurricane Sandy put whole swaths of the coastal north-east United States underwater, Chelsea was blacked out for days, and parts of the outer boroughs for much longer, and my joke didn't seem so funny.

Sandy bluntly confirmed that climate change and rising sea temperatures are not terrible things of the future, but terrible things right now. It made New Yorkers much more aware of our geography — specifically, that most of us live on an archipelago or a series of islands.

It suddenly mattered that the names of many of our neighbourhoods end in “Beach” or “Island”.

Living a part of Queens that ends with “Heights”, I was fortunate to experience the hurricane as little more than a heavy rain, so I volunteered in the Rockaways, an 11-mile long strip of land home to 130,000 people.

At the height of the storm, most of it was under five feet of water. When a local told me this on my first day there, I didn't quite believe him until he pointed out clearly visible five-feet-high water mark on every building — except those destroyed by fire.

I ended up in Rockaway through my friendship with the incredible Nastaran Mohit, an Occupy and union activist who within days of the storm had set up a medical clinic in Rockaway Beach.

Nastaran's team of volunteer nurses and social workers found hundreds of frightened people with serious medical needs trapped in blacked-out, high-rise apartments, without elevator service.

Meanwhile, government and NGO relief agencies were nowhere in sight. For a solid week after Sandy hit, the only government officials who would venture beyond the FEMA trailer parks were National Guard troops on patrol to prevent looting.

One morning, I heard Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the radio announce that the city had sent mobile health teams to the Rockaways. Nastaran assigned me to find these teams so we could coordinate our efforts.

I spent hours leaving unreturned messages with city agencies and walking to parking lots, where officials from city and federal emergency agencies told me they had no idea about any such teams.

The official disarray and neglect was shocking, even for some of us who were radicals. It was sobering and scary that three decades of budget cuts and “big government is the problem” ideology has rendered the state incapable of the basic function of protecting and aiding the population — not just under George W Bush in majority Black New Orleans, but under Barack Obama in the wealthiest city in the world.

After a few days of “look at these crazy pictures” gawking, the media focus shifted to how Sandy would impact Obama's re-election hopes (look, he and Chris Christie are praising each other!) and the efforts to get the financial district running again. 

As Sean Petty pointed out at the time, Bloomberg set this tone by choosing to attend the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange instead of the dramatic evacuation of hundreds of patients from two blacked-out hospitals that occurred on the same day.

Bloomberg faced some backlash for his ill-fated attempt to let the New York Marathon happen as scheduled, within miles of Staten Island neighbourhoods that had seen the highest death tolls in the city.

Bloomberg attempted to justify by saying: “I think for those who were lost ... you've got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind.”

Overall, however, the plight of poor and working-class areas of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens that were rocked by Sandy faded into the background, especially as the problems created by the storm blended into the already existing crises of poverty and a frayed social safety net.

One of the Rockaways' two hospitals, for example, had closed down earlier in the year, which meant that the emergency room of the other hospital was overburdened before Sandy even hit.

The incredible relief efforts organised by Occupy Sandy and other volunteer efforts were occasionally acknowledged in the media. But it was usually in feel-good stories about the nobility of the relief workers rather than exposes of the scandalous conditions that made their work necessary.

Some Occupy Sandy activists tried to resist this marginalisation by organising protests and media campaigns, but they had limited success.

A year since Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, little has changed beyond public relations. Bloomberg, as is his specialty, garnered headlines and applause for a couple of statements regarding climate change that he has shown little sign of backing up with action.

Within days of Sandy, Bloomberg announced that he would endorse Obama for president based on Obama's having a better position on climate change than Mitt Romney. (I'm back to thinking that my joke was funny, by the way.)

Then this summer, the mayor announced a decades — long US$20 billion plan to protect New York City from future storms sure to arise due to global warming.

But in Bloomberg's final months in office, there has been a flurry of plans for more buildings built on the water's edge across Queens, from Long Island City to Astoria to Flushing —as if Sandy never happened.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg and his “Independence PAC” have been silent as Obama has deliberated on whether to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This would enable the emission of so much carbon from the Canadian tar sands that NASA climate scientist James Hansen said it would be “game over” for preventing catastrophic climate change if the project goes through.

And New York City continues to lose hospitals, even as we know we are going to face more climate-related health emergencies. Three hospitals in Brooklyn are facing closure, which would leave a borough of 2.5 million people with only five emergency rooms.

Incredibly, St. John's Episcopal, the lone remaining hospital in the Rockaways, is facing closure.

It feels like we are on a ship heading into a storm with no one at the helm. We know that hurricanes and floods will continue and grow worse because we are increasing the emission of carbon through hydro-fracking and deep-sea drilling. Yet we are making ourselves less prepared for these disasters by building more on the waterfront and weakening our health care infrastructure.

More than any other experience in my life, Hurricane Sandy strengthened my resolve to keep working towards the day that the people will be strong enough to break into the control room and turn this boat around.

[Abridged from Socialist Worker.]