by Barry Edelson
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Notes from a Disaster Zone


The Candle is Mightier than the Comb

It is remarkable how a week or two without electricity focuses one's attention on the essentials of living. Or rather, how it distracts one's attention entirely from most of the "modern conveniences" that we have come to expect as not only vital to a normal life, but ours by right. This is not to suggest that living with a functioning hot water heater (which most of the millions left without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy did not enjoy), a gas grill with an ample supply of propane, a fireplace, an abundance of candles and flashlights, and coolers filled with ice purchased at local stores within a day or two of the storm, in any way approximates the conditions of life of our primeval ancestors. Not to mention mobile phones, restaurants and, for some, gasoline-powered generators.

Not too many years ago, there were a series of programs that aimed to depict how people really lived in the past. The first of these was "1900 House", a British production in which a modern-day family moved into a London row house for several months and attempted to keep house as an actual family from the turn of the 20th century would have had to do. What started as an exotic adventure devolved into a variety of diurnal misery with which denizens of the New York and New Jersey coastal regions can now identify. The first time a 21st-century suburbanite attempts to clean a floor without the aid of a vacuum cleaner, or cook on a coal-fired stove, or read by the glaring and unreliable light of a gas lamp, or do the laundry by boiling an impossibly large pot of water (a universal practice, we learned, that scalded 1,000 British children a year to death in the Victorian and Edwardian eras), life takes on an entirely different character. Subsequently, there were sequels called "Prairie House" and the like, in which we learned what kind of mettle it took for our forebears to keep body and soul together in various pre-modern settings.

As we are the unrecognizable descendants of people who spent a great deal more of their waking hours than we have to on the basic tasks of survival, these programs were, in their way, indebted to George Orwell's rather astonishing book about living as a pauper, "Down and Out in Paris and London." For a considerable period of months in the early 1930s, Orwell lived with no money except what he could earn by his own toil. Unlike the families in televised reenactments of pre-modern life, he had no lifeline to emergency medical care or financial rescue should circumstances spiral out of control. He depicted the filthy conditions in which the poor lived and worked at a level of detail previously unknown in the annals of prose. He worked long hours for slave wages as a dishwasher in the fetid kitchen of an elegant Paris hotel, in which roasted chickens that fell to the unswept floor were brushed off and put back on plates that were served to the unwitting wealthy patrons upstairs. He later tramped around the rural towns of England by foot (which is of course what "tramp" originally meant), testing the patience and generosity, or lack thereof, of his countrymen.

Orwell's main purpose was to dispel the myth of the "idle poor", a commonly held prejudice against the destitute. He demonstrated plainly that the poor must constantly ration their scarce energies to find enough food, rest and shelter to get them through each day, and have to make innumerable difficult choices upon which their lives quite literally depend: Do I go out of my way to the post office to mail an important letter, taking the chance that I will get fired from my job for being late? If it rains on my way to work, and I spend the few pennies that I have on a bus instead of walking, will I be able to make it all day without eating? If I don't take the bus and get soaked, will I be risking illness if I work in my wet clothes all day? In books and movies, the rich habitually recoil from the poor because they are dirty and unkempt, and no wonder. What choice did the poor have but to disregard the luxuries of good grooming? Without the labor of servants to perform the menial tasks of cooking, cleaning, mending and so on, dishevelment would have been the condition of every living person.

A brief time without access to hot water, or a hair dryer, or a washer and drier, will inevitably leave the modern dweller feeling somewhat dirty and unkempt, a reality to which those who lived through the recent discomforts are currently nodding in assent. What's more, one appreciates the degree to which one ceases to care about the niceties of one's appearance, or the fastidious cleanliness of the house, when getting through the night without freezing, or scavenging for batteries or candles or bags of ice among the depleted stocks of nearby stores, or feeding the family several times a day without benefit of a refrigerator or stove, are enough to occupy one's thoughts uninterrupted from morning until night. Unwashed hair and yesterday's clothes don't rise to the level of consciousness when the flood waters are coming up through the floorboards.

The Response, Or Lack Thereof

Those who managed to keep their mobile phones sufficiently charged in the days after the storm were treated to an endless series of earnest messages from their elected officials. Our town supervisor issued daily pre-recorded telephone updates of highly questionable usefulness. The governor's office sent regular emails that were equal parts boilerplate sympathy for the shivering masses and calculated fulmination against the ill-prepared utilities, which failed to get the power back on quickly enough to avoid mass discontent. As for our electrical company itself — if one can properly call an appointed board of political cronies who oversee a stack of contracts with service providers a "company" — it provided real-time maps of outages, available on line and through mobile devices, that were impossible to decipher. Customers could also search for data about outages by their areas within their respective towns, but for many days the only information they could glean by this exercise in unlit futility was that the power was out in the neighborhood and a crew had not yet been dispatched to fix it. Well, duh.

The utility that came in for the most scorn, both for its failures of operations and communications, was the Long Island Power Authority, which serves the region where we live. To be sure, Sandy was a disaster of nearly unprecedented size, and some 90 percent of LIPA's one million-plus customers lost power in the storm, including many in flooded areas where the power could not be safely restored at all. However, subsequent news reports recounted that LIPA was late in calling in out-of-state crews, a desperately needed form of assistance which for the most part did not materialize for several days after Sandy had blown through. Worse, crews were deployed so haphazardly that days were lost unnecessarily in the restoration of power, compounding the misery of hundreds of thousands of people. A large contingent of linemen from North Carolina was ultimately responsible for the getting the lights back on in our neighborhood, for which residents here were truly grateful (and we let them know it at every opportunity). But several dozen of their trucks could at times be seen idling in the parking lot behind the local fire house, through no fault of their own, of course, but because whoever at LIPA was coordinating the relief effort was plainly unequal to the task. Even the utility's own spokesperson complained in the Times that the utility's executive ranks had been filled over the years by individuals with no experience in the field, an extraordinary public admission that evidently reflected the rank and file's frustration with a management that did not know how to utilize its own resources.

New York's governor, already famous for his advanced abilities in the expression of outrage, did not bother to mention, while he was duly warning that all of the state's utilities would be held to account, that he himself had failed in his duty to fill six expired seats on LIPA's 15-member board. Not that the appointment of more political hacks would have gotten the lights back on any sooner, but the lack of attention to an utterly discredited agency was not lost on any of LIPA's long-suffering customers.

A little history is instructive. The original electrical utility here was called the Long Island Lighting Company, or LILCO. In the 1970s and 1980s, LILCO built a nuclear power plant at Shoreham, on Long Island Sound in mid-Suffolk County. It never opened, but the grossly underestimated costs of building the Shoreham plant saddled the company with so much debt that its survival became untenable. Opposition to the plant is largely attributed to the disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. These events certainly helped to galvanize public opinion against nuclear energy in general, but a local event had a more salient effect on the minds of Long Islanders in particular: Hurricane Gloria, whose eye-wall cut right across the island in late September 1985. As in the aftermath of Sandy and, to a lesser but still severe extent, after Irene a year ago, hundreds of thousands of customers lost power, many for weeks at a time. LILCO's lack of preparedness to handle a weather emergency made its efforts to convince anyone that it could deal with a nuclear disaster laughable. It was already losing that public relations effort, and Gloria sealed its fate. A few years later the state stepped in and created LIPA, a public agency, to oversee the operation of electrical and natural gas service and retire LILCO's billions of dollars in debt, which it is repaying to this day.

Now 27 years after Gloria laid waste the island's trees and electrical poles, what difference do we see? We hear the same tired arguments about the ineptitude of government from one end of the political spectrum, and the callous indifference of corporations from the other. Meanwhile, it does not appear that any concerted effort has been made in the intervening decades to update our antiquated electrical grid. It was not uncommon to overhear comments by the out-of-state workers about the out-of-date equipment they encountered in the field. But the question is not whether the private or public sector is better able to address any particular aspect of a modern economy, but whether an organization is built, populated and managed in a professional manner that makes it effective and nimble in the face of adversity. All large organizations, whether public agencies or private companies, tend toward bloat and bureaucracy. Human nature, at its compassionate best and greedy worst, pervade them all. A light bulb can discern no difference between public wattage and private wattage. But the customer knows well the difference between good service and bad service. To take an obvious example, the current version of FEMA that Sandy's victims are dealing with is plainly much improved over the one that Gulf Coast residents were forced to confront after Katrina.

Given that we pay property taxes to a dizzying array of public entities — counties, towns and villages, plus an archaic, hodgepodge map of districts for schools, libraries, police, fire, parks, water, sewage, lighting, parking and an array of other services — it was not unreasonable to assume that "government" was ready to help with the aftermath of the storm. While each agency and department had its own discrete piece of the emergency picture to fill in, it became very plain very quickly that "government" doesn't really signify anything. It is reminiscent of the old philosophical question about a man who is shown around a large university, visiting the the medical school, the law school, the stadium, the dormitories, and so on, only to ask at the end of his tour, "That's all very interesting, but where is the university?" The weakness of our system is not merely that there is too much government, but that each layer is intent on its own imperatives and perpetuation, to the exclusion of all others. It isn't as though no one cares, but a pervasive lack of coordination was evident in the vast numbers of people who had to scramble just to find reliable information.

The difference between New York City and the suburbs was striking. In the city, many subway and traffic tunnels were totally flooded from end to end and from top to bottom, yet were mostly back in operation a few days after the storm. The electrical systems in lower Manhattan were inundated with corrosive salt water, causing numerous transformers to explode, and yet most of the residents and businesses in that part of the city had their lights back on much sooner than their neighbors in New Jersey, Connecticut, Westchester and Long Island. The only discernible difference in the way the city is run is that the mayor is able to exercise far greater control and leverage over public systems and even public utilities than elected officials in the more nebulously organized suburbs are able to. It helps, too, that Michael Bloomberg has long proven himself to be a highly capable and uncompromising manager. (Such political power cuts both ways: the career of one of the mayor's predecessors, John Lindsay, was famously destroyed by the bungled aftermath of a snowstorm in 1969.)

In the school district where I work, it just so happened that the high school had power when most of the vicinity did not, and so the cafeteria was opened daily as a warming and re-charging center for residents after the storm. But we are not even a designated emergency shelter, a reality that was highlighted by an ill-informed resident's haranguing of a school board member for the school's failure to provide cots for sleeping. The opening of the school to residents was simply an improvised, caring gesture in a difficult time, not part of any larger plan to cope with an emergency. FEMA and the Red Cross each has its role to play, and non-governmental organizations tend to emerge whenever there is a major disaster. But these are no substitute for the long-term attention and care that such a widespread catastrophe requires. In the end, recovery always falls mainly upon the victims themselves, whose own resourcefulness is the only reliable element remaining after the emergency responders, politicians and television cameras all turn their attention to the next calamity.

A Trifling Ounce of Prevention

The American way has always been to find solutions to problems, rather than prevent them in the first place. It is part of our self-described national character to look ahead, never behind. And so we leave all manner of thorny issues to fester in the wake of progress. Sometimes we manage to contrive ingenious technologies to tackle them. We question why, since someone will inevitably invent an antidote to industrial pollution, or radioactive waste, or chemical pesticides, should we even consider limiting their use? Instead of addressing climate change, why not just build better seawalls and more efficient air conditioning? Furthermore, we render every such discussion in economic terms. It is not only a benefit to the economy to make things, but an additional benefit to make more things to clean up the mess we created when we made the original things.

This logic breaks down rather sensationally when the storm surge rolls in. It is certainly a boon to the linemen from all over the country who are earning double-time (at least) to replant telephone poles and get the electricity flowing again, and to the service stations that had extra people working to direct the long lines of cars waiting for their allotted few gallons of gas (the price of which was adjusted upward accordingly), but a hurricane is not an employment policy. Why did we not invest the additional millions and billions that will be spent on cleanup instead on burying our thousands of miles of electrical and other cables, and doing away with the ubiquitous poles that not only blight the landscape but prove a menace in a high wind? Moreover, why aren't we actively building a "smart grid", which is already in place in much of the civilized world, which would enable the utilities to pinpoint outages without having to send human beings out into debris-strewn streets to check each and every block in each and every town? Some may argue that buried lines and transformers can also be a menace in a flood zone, but there is now an easy response to that dubious claim: lower Manhattan got its power back within days despite extensive flood damage. No, the real reason is only too obvious: it just isn't profitable.

On a visit to England in the early 1990s, we found the streets and sidewalks in our friends' London suburb in a state of thorough disarray as fiber-optic cable was being laid to improve telephone and internet service. This was going on throughout the country, and it was being undertaken at the behest of the government, not any private utility company that must fret over its bottom line. Britain, perhaps the least socialist of all our European allies, decided that it needed a new communications infrastructure, and just went ahead and built it. In America, unless America's federal or state governments step in to modernize the grid and bury the lines, it just isn't going to happen. And since our governments are reluctant to spend money which does not redound directly and quickly to the benefit of large numbers of campaign contributors and/or impressionable voters, the situation is more or less hopeless.

We could use quite a bit less "can-do" spirit and quite a bit more forward thinking.

The Free Market, for Better or Worse

Gasoline was in short supply in the days after the storm, compounding the discomfort of already lightless millions. In addition to reported problems with a flooded distribution terminal in the city, the demand for gas for the countless thousands of generators suddenly put into service evidently added to the pressure on an already diminished supply. The lack of power at many gas stations further exacerbated the problem, as long lines formed wherever gas was in fact available. For reasons never clearly explained, there was plenty of gas in the northern suburbs of New York and in Connecticut — which we discovered first-hand when we escaped for a day of warmth with family that had power restored before we did — even while supplies in New Jersey, Long Island and New York City were reduced to a trickle.

In a perverse way, the gas shortage is a vindication of market economics: low supply, high demand, higher prices. Strangely, as soon as an even-odd rationing system was put in place, the lines just about disappeared. In the week or so immediately after the storm, people holding red plastic gasoline containers, a suddenly ubiquitous feature of the landscape, vied for space in line with drivers. At most open stations, dozens of people on foot, looking for gas for their home generators, stood alongside queues of cars that snaked through the neighboring streets. On the first Sunday morning after rationing, when my odd-numbered license plate entitled me to fill my tank, a line of about 20 cars had already gathered at the station nearest my house, even though it was closed. No one in line seemed to know when it would open, or even if the station had any gas. Waiting seemed pointless, and a little too much like tales of the former Soviet Union, when people would habitually join a line simply because it was there. Not two miles away there was an open station that was very busy, had only premium gas at a high price, but no lines. Later that morning, the line at the other station had disappeared and the flow of customers had returned more or less to normal. I never had to wait again.

How do we explain this turn of events by market forces? It makes sense that a long wait and a rise in price may be responses to a low supply, but why would the lines virtually disappear as soon as the odd-even system was ordered in New York and New Jersey? The supply did not increase; the only thing that changed was the behavior of customers. Quite a few recent studies have undermined the long-held economic belief that people are rational actors in the marketplace of goods and services, replacing that unproven notion with one that more closely parallels our experience: we are all subject to complicated, irrational, internal and external stimuli of which we are largely unaware. The sudden disorder and disinformation that accompanies a gasoline shortage causes alarm and induces urgent and unusual behavior — for example, filling the tank when you really don't need to, because you're afraid there won't be any gas tomorrow or the next day. By imposing order on a chaotic situation, such as reducing the lines by half through the even-odd system, behavior is nudged back to something closer to normal.

It seems too obvious even to say, but it must be noted that no authority but the government can impose rationing. Eventually, the market may have sorted itself out, but not before an already overstressed population would have had to endure needless additional anxiety. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of the marketplace working exactly as expected, while at the same time revealing that its proper functioning is sometimes wholly inadequate to address the immediate needs of customers.

It Could Happen Here, and It Did

Many towns across a wide swath of Long Island's south shore experienced a level of devastation far greater than in the communities along the central and northern parts of the island. On most of the island, the main problem was the toppling of trees onto power lines and buildings. An estimated 1,200 trees went down in Huntington alone, which is probably a low figure because it doesn't count the trees that happened to fall into wooded areas where they didn't pose an immediate hazard. There was flooding in some areas along Long Island Sound, but nothing compared to the inundation of the towns facing the Atlantic Ocean, which were ravaged by the storm surge. The barrier islands of Long Beach, Jones Beach and Fire Island, which in a "normal" severe storm help to protect the bays and the communities that line them, were themselves breached and unable to mitigate the effect of the rising waters.

On the islands themselves, every single building was flooded. On the north side of the bays, the destruction was nearly as great. These are communities where we used to live and work, and we know them well: Oceanside, Baldwin, Freeport, Merrick, among quite a few others. Homes of friends were wiped out as far east as Massapequa and Amityville, where virtually every building south of Montauk Highway suffered serious damage. It is hard to put a number to the scale of the destruction: at least tens of thousands of houses and businesses, not to mention schools, nursing homes, and countless other structures, were under water. With most of the attention focused on equally overwhelmed communities in the Rockaways and New Jersey, there has been relatively little news coverage of conditions on Long Island.

We have a picture in our minds of the floods that frequently afflict the middle of the country, when great rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi overrun their banks into the towns and farms nearby. We can see in our minds the roofs of houses and steeples of churches rising from a vast, muddy lake, and can only imagine the heartbreak of the people displaced by the disaster. We have also had the annual spectacle of hurricanes as they obliterated towns in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and of course we now live with the indelible images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Well, now the pictures are from here, and the heartbreak has struck people close by. All of the smug, perennial questions we have asked — why do people live in places like that? why should the taxpayer foot the bill to rebuild homes in flood zones? — suddenly don't seem as relevant when the victim is someone you know.

What Hurricane Sandy reminds us is that no place on earth is immune from natural disaster. Nowhere is it totally safe. New Yorkers tend to think we have a rather benign climate. We get a moderate amount of rain each year, winters are seldom extreme, major storms are rare, droughts are occasional and manageable. Earthquakes, when they happen, are almost not worthy of mention. Our fall and spring weather can be breathtakingly beautiful, and though our summers are hot and humid they are usually not unceasingly so, as they are in the South. And yet, the Atlantic coast is now and has always been in the potential path of hurricanes. We remember them all, but with fading degrees of detail. We've now had two crippling tropical storms two years in a row, not to mention a rare Halloween snowstorm a year ago that also knocked out power to hundreds of thousands. But if we don't get a major tropical storm or hurricane again for a few years, there is no safe bet that we will, collectively, take whatever steps we can to lessen the impact of the next one. Individuals, on the other hand, can be expected to protect themselves as best they can. Buying stock in companies that manufacture home generators is probably as sound an investment tip as you will find this holiday season.

Have I mentioned that it snowed here on November 7, eight days after the hurricane, while most of the residents of the region were still shivering in the dark? We may not be interested in the climate, but the climate is most assuredly interested in us.


November 25, 2012


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