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Henry Henderson’s Blog

Shelter from the Storm? The Entire Nation Has Infrastructure Lessons to Learn from Hurricane Sandy

Henry Henderson

Posted November 2, 2012 in Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Spectacular storm Sandy immobilizes the biggest city in America, along with large swaths of the East Coast, and I find myself thinking about the most unspectacular stuff…infrastructure.

Disasters like we saw this week laid bare the hidden systems that we take for granted. On a daily basis New York, and our other cities, depends on pumps to keep water from filling subways, tunnels and basements. Sewers to evacuate waste and storm water from our streets.  Complex systems to deliver electricity, and allow us to communicate around the Globe. It’s a wondrous system that regularly proves itself to be vulnerable to wear and tear, error and misuse.  And on a regular basis, we take for granted that the vulnerability of our infrastructure is an irritation, rather than a growing threat to our health, safety and well being. But as Sandy plunged much of the east coast into a sustained wet darkness, the extent of the vulnerability of critical, fallible infrastructure seems like a new revelation.

It is not a new revelation, of course.  However, this furious storm has clearly demonstrated (1) our deep dependence on fallible infrastructure, (2) the fundamental inadequacy of the infrastructure we assume will serve our needs, and (3) that we are in the midst of seriously changing weather and climate conditions that our infrastructure must address to protect our safety and well being. New York Governor Cuomo had it right when he said that ignoring "dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality. We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”

The news media is finally catching up to the changes in our climate and how this reality is connected to the devastating storms, fires, droughts and floods we are seeing across the country (and world). But the implications of these changes for public policy have not been grasped. 

The impact of Hurricane Sandy is a sharp rebuke of willful ignorance, cynicism and political malfeasance. The storm has wreaked billions in damage on our economy and the systems we rely upon in daily American life. And billions will be spent to rebuild. The question before us, not just on the East coast, is should we simply be rebuilding the patchwork that exists, or finally pushing towards something newer and stronger?

Consider the matter of energy. Consolidated Edison predicted that it could take two weeks to get all of the power back up in New York after the damage inflicted by the storm. After rebukes from the Mayor and Governor, they have backed off that timeline, as they should---it is simply too long for America’s biggest city to be without a functioning electrical grid. But the vulnerability on display is not limited to New York. It is a national problem, made clear every time we have heavy thunderstorms here in Chicago that knocks out service for tens of thousands of homes...

While watching the storm hit Manhattan, and seeing reporters standing nearly waist-deep in Battery Park flood waters, I could not help but think of my home town in the Midwest. Chicago’s combined sewer system begins to overflow after less than 1.5 inches of rain. And while the drought we have suffered through has prevented the issue in 2012, incidences of the Chicago River becoming overwhelmed by the storm water routed into it and reverting to its original flow back into Lake Michigan (brining billions of gallons of sewage into the body of water millions rely on) have been rapidly increasing in recent years.

Here, in Chicago, we are also about to make massive infrastructure investments. Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has begun to move on this issue, putting together an infrastructure trust and ramping up the sewer replacement program to eliminate some of the century-plus infrastructure still under our streets. It’s a beginning. And other big investments are on the near horizon as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation district begins replumbing their facilities on the river to stop dumping undisinfected waste into the waterway; Chicago’s grid will undergo significant changes with the decommissioning of two ancient coal plants that had been at its core; and ComEd will be undertaking a smart grid process throughout the region. Those add up to change---but what kind? There is much work to rethink how we deal with water and energy in our metropolis to meet the new challenges of a changed global environment, and the increasing strains we will encounter in a transforming climate regime. 

We need to get serious about the real nature of the challenges that we face as a people and nation. We need to make decisions, and invest in critical infrastructure and policies that are grounded in reality, science and the moral values that respect citizens as irreplaceable members of a vital, just society. We need to rethink, redesign and reinvest in effective infrastructure that makes modern life possible has not yet made it into the national discussion and decision-making mix.

As we watch the travails on the East Coast, we are reminded what it means to be forcefully removed from the cocoon of safety and comfort afforded to us by these systems. It is ugly and we hope conditions change quickly. No doubt, Hurricane Sandy was a monster storm. But we know more monsters are coming. We’ve been schooled by this storm, like we were by the unprecedented tornados, floods, and fires over the past several years. It is time to learn our lessons, and prepare on the East Cost, here in Chicago and across the nation. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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