Opinion: It’s a matter of when

By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders

Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of the devastating Super Storm Sandy that ravaged much of New York City and the lower part of Manhattan in particular. The fury of that storm battered the low lying areas, caused the East River and Hudson River to overflow their banks and flooded miles of the coast line and interior blocks. Streets saw four feet of water. Cars parked on Avenue C and nearby streets were virtually swallowed up. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were swamped and suffered a loss of power and heat for a week. Residents, especially the elderly were stranded in their buildings, without elevator service. To make matters worse, that week was unusually cold with temperatures plunging into the 40s at night. It was hard to escape the chill.  I was there, we all were there… and it was harrowing and it was dangerous. Eventually the lights went back on and the steam heat was restored. But the flooding destroyed basements and the cleanup took over a year at a cost of billions of dollars in the affected metropolitan region.

This community suffered mightily that week, but we also discovered much as well. On the good side, we realized once again that New Yorkers are at their best in a crisis. Neighbor helping neighbor and reaching out to strangers to help keep them safe. We witnessed this same resilience after the September 11, 2001 attack on our city. The character of New York City residents is tough but caring. In an emergency, the famous aloofness and at time gruffness of New Yorkers gives way to acts of kindness and genuine concern.

But we also learned that our city, its topography and infrastructure is totally insufficient to ward off such devastating storms. And we know that with the changing climate, which is undeniable except perhaps by some politicians in Washington D.C., such severe storms will become more frequent in the future. The oceans are rising, the global temperatures are warming and these conditions will make hurricanes and superstorms worse and worse and regularly threaten the Atlantic coastal areas. It is not a matter of “if,” but rather a matter of when and where.

In the short run there will be no remedy or even common sense preparation coming from the federal government. The Trump Administration has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords which would have required this country along with all other countries to do more to limit the emission of greenhouse gases and other causal actions that threaten our ecosystem and environment. For the most part our national leaders are taking an ostrich-like approach to this issue, burying its head along with any studies that substantiate climate change. So if New York wants to protect itself it will need to act alone.

We will need to build higher barriers along the low-lying areas of the East River and the Hudson River to guard against storm surge and over flow. Sadly some of the vulnerable areas in Queens, Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn that border on ocean or bays will be hard to defend. Some of those areas are just too open and vulnerable.

We also must undertake to better protect our underground subway system by installing the most efficient pumping apparatus so that our tunnels can remain operational. None of this will be cheap or fast, but it is essential. Mayoral candidates should be talking about this now.

The alternative is to just leave ourselves at the mercy of Mother Nature who seems increasingly angry with us.

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