30 October 2012

A passing glance at Superstorm Sandy

Unlike last year, Albany got off easy. My neighborhood got hit hard by heavy rains and flooding when Tropical Storm Irene plowed through in August 2011, but the region was in an anomalous sweet spot that minimized rainfall from "Post-Tropical Superstorm Sandy" and kept the winds at bearable speeds. Downstate fared much worse, as everyone knows, and the relatively easy time we had from Sandy up here was an exception to the rule. But we worried with everyone else through the hype that built up from Thursday on. I noticed an odd trend in the online coverage -- not from the reporting but from the commentaries. Typically, on the sites I read, the first comment would be from someone linking Sandy to climate change and global warming, usually in a snarky way to reproach the skeptics. One of the first replies would then reproach the former writer for politicizing the impending disaster. There is an element of bad taste in using an event that was expected and as it happened did kill people to make a political point. But at a certain point the discussion of climate change must cease to be "political." From what I've read, scientists are understandably uncertain of whether climate change did factor in Sandy's atypical origin -- it's not their job to jump to conclusions. But Governor Cuomo's content that no one should be shocked by unusual weather after Irene and Sandy points to an awareness that there has been an important change, or that one is under way. If the point is politicized, the people to blame are those whose skepticism, if you can even call it that in this case, has always been tainted with conspiracy theory. The issue has been politicized by the people who presume that others have politicized it to justify some massive power grab. Those who've politicized the climate question see the looming imperative to change their lifestyles as politics rather than practical necessity; so long as it threatens to leave them less "free" than they are now, the response to climate change can only be an evil plot, and if that, why not an outright lie? But storms like Sandy aren't hoaxes, although for the moment, perhaps a moment soon passing, they can still be dismissed as freak events. There are such things as freak events, but two in two years allows us to at least consider the possibility of a trend.

Whether Sandy will influence the election, or even change minds, is hard to say. It seems like the sort of event that would remind people of the desirability of "big" government and leave them unconvinced of the private sector's competence to solve all the resulting problems. But I don't know if anyone will actually think in terms of Republicans making it more difficult to deal with major storms, and Republicans themselves are unlikely to claim that storm relief is something the private sector could do better. They'll have to add that to waging war on the list of things that the public sector does better -- if the public sector actually does better over the next week. For now, you have an exceptional state of affairs in which Gov. Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, unconditionally compliments the President, a Democrat, for the federal health extended to his state. But few people will think of the President -- the job, not the man -- as someone whose primary job is to save us from storm damage. Strangely enough, Republicans as well as Democrats have encouraged a view of the President as steward of the economy, and how the federal government handles Sandy probably won't change anyone's opinion of President Obama. Some may say that President Bush's perceived poor handling of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans changed people's opinions toward Republicans, but people are more likely to punish incompetence than reward competence. The only real political consequence of the storm, apart from the effect it may have on early voting, is the welcome lull it gave us, and the two principal candidates, from the numbing routine of stump speeches and negative campaigning. Surrogates have still been squabbling over some pro-Romney commercial's claims about car jobs going to China, but Obama and Romney themselves have gone above the fray for the time being. Just as in Albany there was something almost refreshing about the spritz of rain and the stiff breeze Sandy sent us, even as many more people suffered from the storm, so this pause in the campaign routine has been a calm reprieve before a final weekend storm about which all predictions are certain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"There is an element of bad taste in using an event that was expected and as it happened did kill people to make a political point."
Unfortunately, pretty much everything has now become a political point, to some extent or other. But when something like this happens, it is the perfect time to make a political point.

People died. Much damage was done - both in the private and public sector - and it will bear certain financial costs to fix. The questions remain the same.
1) What could have been done to better prepare for this?
2) Who should pay for what?
3) Who should be responsible for handling emergencies; what is their primary motivation and to whom are they primarily responsible to?
Not to mention a plethora of other questions, all of which must be handled, politically, in the public sphere. At least initially.