Hurricane Sandy devastation: An unnatural disaster

Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. It left a trail of destruction from the Caribbean and across the Eastern seaboard of the United States all the way to Canada.

The worst devastation in the US was in New York and New Jersey where landfall occurred on October 29. In New York City alone up to 40,000 people were made homeless and for weeks after tens of thousands remained without power. The Jersey shore essentially has to be rebuilt. Current estimates of the total cost of Sandy-related damage are at least $50 billion for New York City alone.

Sandy exposed the woefully inadequate and antiquated state of the region’s infrastructure including power distribution, public transport, the lack of effective barriers to the storm surge, etc. Several hospitals had to evacuate patients because their generators were in basements and exposed to flooding. The island of Manhattan was almost entirely cut off because of flooded train and car tunnels, as was Long Island which includes the city boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. The situation was even worse in New Jersey. Nearly a month after Sandy hit the critical PATH train system which brings hundreds of thousands from New Jersey to New York City is still not fully functioning. Both New Jersey and New York were forced to introduce petrol rationing. In New York City a police officer was placed at each open petrol station to prevent violence due to attempted queue jumping, as lines stretched for blocks and people waited for hours on end.

It is true that the response of the state and federal authorities was more effective than in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when hundreds of poor people, overwhelmingly black, were left to die in New Orleans and over 100,000 forced into a semi-permanent diaspora. But the circumstances this time were quite different. Crucially, New York City is of strategic importance to US finance capital. Also with a looming election, President Obama was determined to show that the federal government was moving swiftly to provide assistance. Images of Obama embracing the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, may have helped to seal Mitt Romney’s fate.

But despite all the rhetoric about ‘standing together’ it was blatantly obvious that the first priority of the ruling class after Sandy hit was restoring power to Wall Street. The images that alarmed them were of lower Manhattan (where Wall Street is located) completely in the dark. Frantic efforts were made and within two days the New York Stock Exchange was open for business. As the days went by, however, anger increased in working class communities like Far Rockaway, Coney Island and Red Hook who could see the lights coming back on in Manhattan while they were still in the dark, many without heat or adequate food. Even more affluent communities in Long Island felt abandoned.

Many of the areas worst hit were heavily white working-class communities like Breezy Point in Queens where over a hundred homes burned to the ground in a terrible fire. The high winds spread the fire and fire fighters were unable to gain access.

But some of the worst misery occurred in public housing tower blocks in low lying areas like Red Hook. The residents of public housing in New York City are overwhelmingly poor African Americans and Latinos. As the buildings’ electricity and power were knocked out, elevators stopped running and residents were forced to brave pitch black stairwells in order to go out and look for supplies. Electrical pumps were not working with the result that, in the upper floors of these buildings, there was no running water and toilets could not be flushed. The elderly and sick were trapped. Only in mid-November were city authorities knocking on doors in many of these buildings for the first time to see who needed help!

Meanwhile there was an outpouring of volunteers from less affected working-class and middle-class areas who came by in their thousands to try to help their fellow citizens with food, clothing or simply digging out. One of the most effective networks was created by Occupy Wall Street activists who established Occupy Sandy to show real solidarity to many of those hardest hit. In the process they showed up the inadequacy of Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) and the local authorities. Occupy Sandy focused first on residents of public housing in Red Hook but as the New York Times commented, “The counterculture activists of the Occupy Wall Street movement found themselves tearing up sodden drywall in Rockaway houses owned by police officers, whom this time last year they despised only slightly less than the 1%”.

It has been revealed that in the days leading up to Sandy’s US landfall, the meteorological scientists did not seem willing to fully believe what was unfolding before their eyes. Their scepticism contributed to initial complacency by the authorities. In New York City evacuation orders were issued for 200,000 people but nursing homes and hospitals in low lying areas were not evacuated sending mixed signals to residents, large numbers of whom decided to stay.

But far more serious was the complete failure over recent years to prepare for a disaster which has been predicted by scientists numerous times. For example, in 2009 city mayor Mike Bloomberg convened a panel to investigate the likely impact of climate change on New York. It reported that the average temperature in New York City had already gone up 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years, while sea levels have gone up by a foot in the same period. They projected that by 2020 there could be a further increase of 1.5 to three degrees and a rise of five to six inches. The warmer air and rising water levels are precisely the conditions that created Sandy and will inevitably create further devastating storms.

Despite the ridiculous attempts of the right wing in the US to deny the existence of climate change, the evidence is becoming more and more concrete for ordinary Americans. It is not just devastating storms but also the record heat wave last summer which devastated crops in the Midwest and will lead to increased food prices internationally. It is not a surprise, therefore, that polls show a significant shift in popular perception that Sandy will reinforce. In a November poll, 68% of Americans say that climate change is a serious problem.

The aftermath of Sandy will make it impossible for capitalist politicians to completely avoid the question of the impact of global warming. If nothing else they will invest to protect lower Manhattan. But the needs of working people and the environment will remain completely subordinated to the profit-driven logic of the system.

There is an urgent need for progressive trade unionists, Occupy Sandy and other left activists to come together and formulate a clear alternative for rebuilding in the interests of the people not the banks. This must then become the basis for an independent left political challenge to the corporate-dominated political establishment at local level. At the heart of this plan must be environmentally sustainable measures such as rebuilding the heavily depleted oyster beds that used to provide a natural barrier to storm surge. The relief centre in the Rockaways that remained functional because of its solar power panels while all around had lost power illustrates the need to radically rework the energy infrastructure based on alternatives to fossil fuels.

Hurricane Sandy, like Katrina, was not ‘an act of God’. It was a disaster created, or a least severely intensified, by global warming produced by capitalist activity. Dealing with such events and their terrible aftermath requires the overturning of capitalism.

We call for:

  • Federal help in repairing or rebuilding homes, whether it is good public housing or providing interest free loans.
  • No profiting from rebuilding. For publically-owned entities to do the work. Union rates of pay for all reconstruction and repair workers.
  • For massive investment in infrastructure, including expanding public transit, refitting buildings with solar panels and building storm defences; to be paid for by Wall Street and the 1%.
  • End the reliance on fossil fuels. For a massive jobs program to retool the economy based on green technology.

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December 2012