Superstorm Sandy Demands We Pay Attention to Climate Change - and the Nexus

Editor’s note: We are happy to report that all our staffers weathered the storm without too much worse than the inconvenience of relocating for a few nights and a few close calls with flood waters, though we've yet to be able to return to our midtown office, which incurred some water damage. Our thoughts are with all who did not fare as well, including our fellow New Yorkers.

“It’s ironic,” my dad laughed from Ohio, as we touched base Tuesday, the day after the superstorm called Sandy made its way through the mid-Atlantic, and into the Midwest. “We figured you'd be the one without power.”  I agreed from Astoria (Queens) NY. We had cell phone signals, internet and cable (though these were, throughout the storm and still are, as we publish this post Thursday, intermittent). The lights had flickered madly but never gone out, and while some of my neighbors were not so lucky, once the winds stopped howling, my Superstorm Sandy was over in many respects. Not so for my parents in Cleveland, or friends in West Virginia, who Wednesday found themselves digging out from two feet of snow, or colleagues across the East River in lower Manhattan who've been in the dark ever since the storm passed.

In Haiti, with flooding comes cholera, once again, with many earthquake refugees still living in tents, and at least seventy people have died in the Caribbean. Then there’s New Jersey.  Down the shore not far from New York City, the floods, wind, fire and storm damage is altogether unthinkable, as NJ Governor Chris Christie emotionally noted. Thousands are still stranded by flood waters in Hoboken, NJ, just across the Hudson from Manhattan.

After the notable absence of climate change in this year’s debates (the first time the subject has gone un-broached since the 1980s), I couldn’t help but notice that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo brought it up early and often. He’s not been shy about connecting the dots between the intensity and scope of Superstorm Sandy and climate change. During his Wednesday morning press conference, he answered a question about climate change and politicizing the issue as follows:

Climate change is a controversial subject…I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations which is not political, which are way up. We just went through Hurricane Irene a year ago. Then we say it’s once in a lifetime that [a hurricane] happens, but it’s every two years. Every two years, we have a 100 year flood. Frequency is way up. It’s not prudent to say it’s not going to happen again, I pray it’s not but I think it is. Once you have that recognition what do you do about it? What design and construction changes do you make about it?

Right now, it’s hard to even see how the subway tunnels will be pumped out and the city sat right side up again, but Cuomo makes an important point here. Today’s Bloomberg Business News also got right to the point in an attention-grabbing headline: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” What are planners and policymakers going to do about the effects of climate change? As the Arctic melts, oceans rise and temperatures warm, bringing more moisture into the atmosphere, it’s the intensity of storms that becomes a concern, not only their frequency. With so much attention being paid to deficits and budget planning, do we account for needed funds for damages ahead of time as disaster relief, or do we spend more money on infrastructure improvements like levees, higher seawalls, modernizing electric grids and wastewater treatment? Do we plan to rebuild structures in the same places where they are more susceptible to rising seas?

Here at Ecocentric, we like to talk about the nexus between food, water and energy systems. This week, Superstorm Sandy forces us again to see how the nexus affects our daily lives. A few examples: grocery stores flooded or without power, or both. Electric substations swamped, causing explosions and as we've seen, days-long outages. In NJ, Gov. Christie has imposed water use restrictions as power outages challenge the state’s wastewater treatment facilities.  Without electricity, flushing the toilet gets complicated, as does pumping water out of New York City’s famous subway system. Especially as days pass, we're thinking of elderly high-rise residents without powered elevators and limited rations of food and water.

Food systems and supplies are likely to be affected in a larger sense; ensuring a steady food supply in the face of such disasters has not really been discussed much, either. While summer harvests have mostly been completed, which should mitigate the kinds of losses we saw last year with Irene, Tom Philpott rounded up other possible concerns as to soil impacts in his terrific Mother Jones piece.  While most of the news has focused on New York City, hurricanes impact rural areas too, and many of the issues that concern us, including the overuse of agro-chemicals in industrial-scale farming and the production of toxic wastewater from hydrofracking, have serious implications during times like this.

As storm systems become more intense and far-reaching, we're all going to be affected by climate change, as Governor Cuomo said. We'll also be affected by choices made about how our energy system works – hydrofracking is a nexus issue too, after all, and that decision looms large on the Governor’s plate.

We'll be talking about the nexus more this fall and winter. How are you all faring post-Sandy? Are there new connections you've thought about in terms of our food, water and energy?

How can you help those affected by Sandy?

Go to http://www.redcross.org to donate funds or learn where you can donate blood. Or, to donate $10, text REDCROSS to 90999.

To help the Humane Society of the United States in their work in NJ and NY to help animals during this disaster, visit their site. Or: follow @humanesociety on Twitter, #sandypets for immediate needs/volunteer opportunities.

For more ways to help, see this great roundup on Gothamist or Time’s list here.

 

Responses to "Superstorm Sandy Demands We Pay Attention to Climate Change - and the Nexus"

  1. Kristen Demaline

    Kai - it doesn’t feel adequate, but know that we’re all thinking of your family and everyone who is still in the cold and dark tonight during what’s probably been a too-long week - or those who braved this with no homes to begin with. Hang tight. Robin, your photo sums up what most of my neighborhood looks like right now, and I think a key criteria we must have in evaluating our policy is scale. Regardless of next week’s electoral outcome, we must continue the conversation about climate change and our infrastructure that this disaster has prompted.

  2. Leslie Hatfield

    So glad you made it through, Kai, and thanks for the amazing photo, Robin. I have to say, even from where I’m sitting -- like Kristen, I never even lost power -- the awful images, the inability to push a single phone call through for days, the apocalyptic lines outside the gas station near my apartment and the near-constant sirens have me rattled, and I’m really worried about our fair city, and everywhere else. This cannot be the normal, we can’t let it be. If there is a silver lining, it’s that it has forced open a conversation that this election cycle has seen swept under the rug.

  3. Kai

    Ecocentric greetings from devastated NJ. Just a little over a year ago many of us in the Northeast experienced the brunt of Irene and here we sit in the midst of Sandy’s wake. The Jersey Shore is truly decimated and I’m almost afraid to head down there w

  4. Robin

    This storm is indeed highlighting the nexus. Our food, water and energy systems are very connected and we push those systems beyond their limits. it’s no wonder that big storms like this have such catastrophic impacts. We need big changes to our infrastructure. We need a return to decentralized, localized services and systems with adequate funding by the government at all levels. These big disasters are just too crippling for us to continue to rely on big, centralized systems.

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