[OPINION] Sandy, Katrina, and Climate Justice

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by Andy Willner

It is nearly two months since Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast. The media cameras have moved on. But the suffering remains. Perhaps the most heart wrenching unspoken question arising out of the wreckage is how do we address the gulf between the region’s very rich and very poor – a yawning abyss deepened by Super Storm Sandy and one that threatens to grow even wider as climate change worsens in coming years.

There are two reasons people live along our Mid-Atlantic coasts. Some are there because they can afford to be: Those with the means to have summer homes in the Hamptons or on Fire Island, NY, or on Long Island Beach Island NJ, vie for the prestige of placing their homes closest to the roaring surf. They can afford the luxury of putting themselves in harms way. They can probably pay for federal flood insurance, have the money to rebuild, and get a significant amount of attention from authorities and media when a storm like Sandy sweeps ashore.

The other reason to live on the coast is because it’s on the wrong side of the tracks, or rather, at the end of the tracks. The big New York City public housing projects like the Ocean Bay Apartments, once known as Arverne/Edgemere, were built in Far Rockaway, where the poor were packed into high rises, sometimes 40,000 to a project, out of sight and out of mind far from the centers of commerce, at the end of the mass transit system, in neighborhoods with high crime and minimal services. When Sandy hit, it knocked out electricity, elevators, heat and hot water leaving the poor, minorities, and elderly cold and in the dark.

Similarly on New Jersey’s blue collar coast, where families bought affordable homes in towns like Union Beach, Highlands, and Keansburg, saw their investments were swept away. When I visited Union Beach just days after the storm, it looked like New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Halfway collapsed houses knocked from foundations were plastered with red stickers reading “uninhabitable.” A stench of mold filled the air. Some who owned those homes couldn’t afford or didn’t have flood insurance, and can’t afford to rebuild. Renters lost all their possessions, with no hope of replacing them.

Climate change, with its rising seas and its fiercer, more frequent storms, is broadening the already wide economic cracks in our civilization. The rich have money and power enough to be resilient to extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy; the poor do not.

The gulf deepened even as the storm arrived. Officials and the media urged us to flee the coasts, to buy batteries and provisions for a week – easy for the middle and upper classes. But for the poor and elderly? Many had no spare cash to buy supplies, or had no cars in which to escape, and often had no place to go.

Once the storm passed, it was the poor and working class who often got the last response. Long after electricity was restored to Manhattan, Rockaway remained in the dark. In the Belford Section of Middletown, NJ – a well to do community –blue collar commercial fishermen were furious that the lights were coming on in the nearby condos and in the ferry terminal that takes commuters to Wall Street, but not at the seafood cooperative where the inability to make ice and refrigerate the catch put fishermen out of business for many days.

I saw the same slow response two weeks after Sandy when I visited Rockaway, where significant aid had still not arrived from major relief agencies. Hundreds of people stood patiently in line for hours, awaiting volunteers from small local non-profits, offering up what food, blankets, and other supplies they had. The only major City presence came in the form of a very large contingent of police.

The gulf between rich and poor will likely widen even further as the region asks: how do we rebuild from Sandy? How do we create an orderly retreat from the Shore in the face of climate change?

Do we tear down public housing projects like those in Rockaway and replace them with parks and storm surge areas? Where will the thousands who lived there go? Should those with the means to do so be allowed to rebuild their coastal homes when there is near certainty that those homes will be destroyed? And how do you rebuild in places like along the Raritan Bayshore, where post-Sandy municipal services are essentially non-existent? Where will the property tax money to fund the replacement of wrecked police and fire departments, sewage treatment plants and other lost infrastructure come from? Should such towns be rebuilt at all, putting people again into harms way?

What do we do with Shore towns and their waterfront economies, with seafood restaurants, recreational and commercial fishing businesses, marinas, fishing docks, clam depuration plants and other water dependent industries? How do we insure those towns and businesses when the climate change models tell us that storms like Sandy are likely to become the New Normal? What do we do when already strapped federal, state and private insurance, relief and recovery programs are bankrupted by future disasters and disappear?

And what if we build expensive sea gates protecting Manhattan, New York Harbor, and New Jersey’s Gold Coast? What about those outside the gates on Long Island, on the Jersey Bayshore and along the rest of the blue collar coast? Will we all pay our tax dollars to protect some behind those multi-billion dollar walls? And how long will it be before climate change and rising seas overwhelm even those defenses?

Most importantly, how do we address economic inequity in an age of climate change, when the next super storm could literally mean that the rich will live, and the poor could die? That’s a question places like Bangladesh have faced for decades, which New Orleans faced after Katrina, which we face now.

New York Gov. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Christie have declared that they will rebuild the Shore. I honestly don’t think they mean to retreat from the coast – to build dunes, create wetlands and oyster reefs that will help protect us from super storm surges. I think they mean to put things back the way they were. But it is a dangerous nostalgic fantasy to imagine that we can remake the Shore of our childhoods – with its wooden boardwalks, hot dog stands, Ferris wheels and roller coasters.

States, coastal towns, residents and business owners are baffled. Humanity has never faced such a crisis. We must find new ways now to protect infrastructure and the public – both rich and poor – without destroying the environment and wrecking the economy.

That’s why we need a gathering of our best minds, to meet and seek truly innovative solutions for the New York City Bioregion. It is long past time to gather the brightest most committed people from all parts of the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut/and Pennsylvania Bioregion for a series of charrettes, an open space dialogue and analysis, to discuss the best, most pragmatic route to a better future for our communities.

Working together, we can develop a new blueprint, an implementable comprehensive and equitable plan based on redevelopment for resilient economic prosperity, social justice, and human and ecological health. We need vibrant sustainable, small business, main street economy solutions; with a focus on local energy, local food, and local people. Together we must seek positive economic, social, and environmental outcomes for all of our citizens.
The participants in this great gathering must be many, varied and inclusive. We must invite not just government officials, but entrepreneurs and social venture capital investors; environmentalists and economists; planners and co-housing/eco village developers; Transition Town advocates, Permaculture practitioners and foodshed advocates; charitable foundation directors and futurists; students and union members; social service agency directors and religious leaders; fishermen; organic and biodynamic, rural, suburban, and urban farmers; academics, and local business people. All points of view are needed to come up with implementable visionary ideas that can lead us safely through the impending economic and climate change crises and into A Bright Green Future.

Intensifying climate change, with its rising oceans and killer storms, with its catastrophic wave and wind damage coming again soon, tell us we can’t wait. Now is the time to narrow the gulf between rich and poor, or that gulf will rend the very fabric of society. We’re all in this together. It’s time we brought everyone to the table and made a start.

Andy Willner of Keyport, NJ, is spearheading an action agenda for A Bright Green Future for the New York City Bioregion. See more at: www.andrewwillner.com

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