Editorial: Let Sandy's lessons protect us next time
Two months ago Sandy was dying down and the extent of the damage was becoming clear. Millions of lives were disrupted, some devastated. In Westchester and Rockland counties and on the South Shore of Long Island and in New York City, people died, homes were uninhabitable, workplaces disappeared, schools were battered.
Much normalcy is restored. For most the impact --- no power, no school, no gas --- is over. But the public-policy questions Sandy raised remain unanswered.
We risk losing the moment and the momentum. Eventually the fears, the frustrations and the promises to do more, to do better, will fade.
Sandy threw everything about our relatively safe shoreline existence into question. We are uncertain about how to go forward, and how much we can trust our institutions to prepare for extreme weather and respond to its aftermath. To regain confidence, we must chart a path that will make our hurricane-vulnerable region safer and more secure.
The challenges are clear, but time is trotting on and the big issues have not been tackled. A few commissions have been formed but nothing we have seen or heard so far convinces us their conclusions will be thorough, or lead to action. If a comprehensive and convincing plan isn't available soon, we'll construct shoddy buildings in the wrong places, and fail to fix our institutions, by default.
-- Do we rebuild as if Sandy was an exception, or the introduction to an era when such storms are common and higher oceans make them more destructive? The water in New York Harbor, up a foot in the last century, rises still. The climate is changing. We must plan accordingly.
-- What can we allow to be built, where, and according to what standards? Construction near the water -- the Hudson River and Long Island Sound -- that doesn't heed the dangers can't be encouraged any longer.
-- How do we insure risky properties, and who bears the risk? It has to fall on the property owners, which was the intent when the National Flood Insurance Program was established. Now it's about $20 billion in debt and politicians have kept the rates low to keep flood-threatened voters happy. This can't continue.
-- How do we turn our utility companies into agencies we can rely on? The weeks without power after Sandy were bad, but the lack of information for many people was a travesty.
-- How do we improve the reliability of our gasoline supply? More local storage, an additional terminal to receive fuel on-Island, and incentives to gas stations to purchase generators would help a lot. And the same attitude must be taken toward other staples the region needs to survive catastrophes: food, equipment, water, medicine. When a storm is coming, the materials needed to survive must be on hand.
-- How can a region of fiefdoms unite during disasters, working with state and federal resources to protect and rebuild? There was no shortage of Sandy response, but there was a lack of coordination. The answer is planning, practice and cooperation. Police departments, municipal governments and emergency service providers need to draw up and rehearse scenarios that will enable a more organized response next time.
-- How do we harden our sewage plants against catastrophe, so they can keep functioning or can be brought back online quickly after storms, and not dump millions of gallons of waste into our waters?
-- How do we improve our mass transit to stand up to inclement weather? Metro-North Railroad recovered fairly well from Sandy, but the days it was down reinforced our vulnerability.
-- Will our elected officials get us the help we need? Washington must pitch in to repair this region, which for so long has paid the federal taxes used to help other places in times of trouble. The $60 billion requested is facing opposition in Congress, notably the House of Representatives, which has not yet taken a vote. Our representatives must overcome that opposition.
These are answerable questions and surmountable challenges. We are a tough region, one that can adapt and rebuild, but the lack of progress thus far is disturbing. We must improve before we forget.
If we don't, the next storm may bring waves of damage that never recede.