Monday, November 05, 2012

New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: the bad, the worse, and the revolting

If all politics is local, then all local hurricanes are political, not to mention personal. All it takes is living through one "perfect storm" to learn how personal and political they can really get, and how fast.

Personally, the worst was over for me at 1 a.m. Saturday. (A neighbor, putting an extra-fine point on it, insists that the power in our building actually  came on at 12: 59 a.m.  I won’t quibble with a woman who carries around a teeth-baring Chihuahua-Jack Russell Terrier mix in her shoulder bag. If you ask me, the power outage irked the dog even worse than it irked me.) 

I had gone to sleep in the silence of a blacked out Friday night, huddled under a blanket in my uncomfortably chilly apartment. I woke up with a bright table lamp shining in my eyes and the television set booming.

The simple joy
of flushing a toilet

I turned off the TV, headed to the bathroom, and did something I had been yearning to do for five days. I flushed the toilet. It had been unflushable since the power went out, disabling our building's water supply and turning my apartment into a reeking hovel.  Then I flushed again, and still again a third time before getting back into bed.

First thing the next morning, I took a long, hot shower. And believe me, Saturday was also a good day in New York for the makers of Lysol, Toilet Duck and Tidy Bowl.

But although the worst of it was over for me, the hurricane left a long wake of despair, squalor, high-handedness and political opportunism that won’t disperse any time soon.

An icy case in point:
misery in the Rockaways

Out in the Rockaways, a stretch of barrier beach that runs along the Atlantic coasts of Brooklyn and Queens near JFK Airport, there was still no electricity as of early this morning. There are basically two kinds of residential real estate out there: small private homes on individual lots, and high-rise apartment buildings, some of them low income "project" housing. Many of the private homes had been destroyed by the storm. The high-rises were a continuing disaster – still no power or heat, and now the temperatures, at least at night, are headed toward freezing.

I can’t blame this one on Con Edison. For some reason, the public utility out there is LIPA, the Long Island Power Authority. LIPA blithely changed its estimate for the restoration of power from a week to “seven weeks,” according to Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, quoted in a Queens community newspaper. 

Seven weeks? Heck, why not put it off until late Spring, when thousands of people freezing to death won’t be such a pressing issue?

Not that LIPA isn’t doing something in the Rockaways. They’re working to restore traffic lights, according to their own website

What doesn’t quite pass the sniff test is that they claim to have 100 restoration crews in the Rockaways. One hundred crews? And all they can work on are traffic lights while thousands freeze in the dark? Even Mayor Bloomberg’s feathers are getting a bit ruffled by this. It’s about time. Earlier, he was busy getting huffy about the fact that New Yorkers are complaining there’s no power, slipping into his oh-stop-your-bellyaching mode.
The mayor’s just fine --
so you’d better shut up

People pay more, generally, to be closer to the water, even though you could argue they should pay less because it’s more dangerous,” he announced sagely. “But people are willing to run the risk.”

Oh really? Actually, Mr. Mayor, there are lots of people living in low-income, high-rise housing projects in the Rockaways who don’t live there for the sea air and the nearby ocean visitas. They live there because that’s where the New York City Housing Authority stuck them. Remember the verse from that song about the Titanic?
“Well, they sailed from England
And were almost to our shore
When the rich refused
To associate with the poor
So they put ‘em down below
Where they were the first to go
It was sad when that great ship went down.” 
Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg, who lives in an above-decks neigborhood in the comfort of his East 79th Street mansion, where the power and heat and water never went off, and the deluxe food market Citarella is a short walk for one of mansion’s household staff ... perhaps he feels that if he’s as snug as a bug in a rug, everybody else should just shut up.

The truth is, the mayor actually encourages low-lying housing, while claiming the city can’t possibly build high bulkheads to prevent the water from rushing in to damage the housing he encourages. (Perhaps he’s never heard of Holland.) 

Says a respected New York real estate blog:
Hurricane Sandy has caused flooding in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, including in several areas where the Bloomberg Administration has supported increased residential development, such as Williamsburg. Even the Gowanus Canal overflowed, close to an area that was rezoned several years ago to allow additional development.
The Gowanus is a canal whose waters are known for their high toxicity. It's also, they say, where the Mafia would go to dump its bodies, since whatever the cops tried pulled out of there was likely to be half dissolved by the Gowanus chemical soup, and therefore unidentifiable.

And then the blog tossed out this Bloombergian nugget:
Bloomberg added that it wasn’t necessary to make investments in infrastructure in these areas that could help control storm surges. The city cannot build an offshore barrier reef or big bulkheads, he said. “I think we’ve done a lot of preparation in terms of roads, strengthening things,” he said. 
Yes, Mr. Mayor, I noticed the strength as the hurricane hit, and in its aftermath. That’s why people are still freezing, supermarkets below 39th Street still had no food on their shelves as of Sunday evening (other than ketchup and some junk candy) , while hundreds of dry cleaners, restaurants, delis, shoe repair shops, hardware stores, boutiques, and even franchises like McDonalds took financial hits – hits which some of the smaller businesses won’t survive.

That’s also why, in order to buy milk and meat, I had to travel uptown, to the Mayor’s neighborhood. And that was on Sunday, after the power came on. The supermarkets in blackout neighborhoods had thrown out all their old perishables after the power went off, and still hadn’t received fresh deliveries. Ditto most of the restaurants.

The Marathon, the cancellation,
and the grumpy aftermath

Meanwhile, the mayor focused a considerable amount of concern on the New York City Marathon, even while the citizens of his city were freezing in the dark. People pleaded with him to cancel the thing.

But the mayor hung on, evidently heeding the self-entitled concerns of the New York Road Runners Club president Mary Wittenberg, instead of the pleas of the rest of the city’s citizens. They said, “We are cold, we are homeless, we are hungry.” And Mayor Bloomberg replied, in effect, hey, the Marathon is good for gross receipts.

Somebody must have finally sat the mayor down and said (not in these exact words, of course) “Look, jerk! The symbolism of diverting gasoline-powered electric generators to Central Park in order to heat massage tents while New Yorkers freeze in the dark is going to make you look very bad.”

There was also the problem of a hotel room shortage, with nearly every hotel south of 39th Street closed for want of power. (That includes six high rise hotels in my immediate neighborhood, ranging from the deluxe Kitano to middle-of-the-road establishments like the Dumont Affinia.) There was also word creeping out concerning New Yorkers, who had found shelter in hotels further uptown, getting told to leave to make room for marathoners.

So finally, with the grudging assent of the New York Road Runners, (Mary Wittenberg stood next to him, looking grim while he spoke) the mayor cancelled the marathon late on Friday.

Unfortunately his shilly-shallying made it too late for some of the marathon contestants, who had already flown here, some from abroad, often at a cost of thousands of dollars, to participate in the event. “I would have understood this – if it did it a couple of days earlier,” one marathon contestant said.


Then Mitt gets in our faces with
a hill of bean cans and granola bars

It took an out-of-towner to show New Yorkers what self-aggrandizing opportunism is all about in the face of disastrous losses of homes, incomes, and even lives. I’m talking, of course, about Mitt Romney, whose “misguided” (that’s a press word; I’d use the adjective disgusting)... whose disgusting display all but turned the stomachs of so many commentators that it’s hard to pick just one online expression of ire as an example.

However, I’ll take this one from the Washington Post, where a blogger points out that when Romney decide to do a photo-op in Kettering, Ohio, and “accept donations” on behalf (he said) of the Red Cross, for storm victims on the East Coast, he was actually all but sabotaging relief.

He collected canned goods, granola bars, and Gatorade which, if they got here at all, would have had to have been expensively shipped over six hundred miles. The Red Cross strongly urged cash donations, which can be turned into the precisely appropriate form of relief that's needed, close to where it’s needed. And Romney, if you remember the Republican debates, will casually write checks for a ten thousand dollar bet. But hey, a check doesn’t make nearly the picture that you can get with a pile of bean cans, granola bars and Gatorade bottles.

Susan Brooks Thistelthwaite, the angry blogger for the Washington Post declared:
Anyone who has ever volunteered for relief efforts following a disaster knows that it only adds work to the relief organizations of their volunteers have to collect canned goods and granola bars. Today’s informed volunteer raises funds so experienced organizations can fund local efforts on the ground and don’t have to lug around often useless items.

In addition, Romney was photographed loading what “appeared to be multiple bags of uncooked rice” onto a truck. What good is uncooked rice for people whose power has gone out?

This is both clueless and heartless.
But I'm sure Romney didn't give a damn. His objective was free publicity, not helping the needy.

All the same, it’s nice to know, I suppose, that even if  Romney becomes President and then, as he has promised (some of the time), he cuts FEMA funding, which will worsen the situation of Americans caught in floods, earthquakes and blizzards; and he cuts food stamps so that poor people whose jobs have been flooded out will have less to eat; and he cuts Obamacare so that people who can’t get health insurance will die, or go bankrupt and lose their homes and then die; and he raises taxes on the, umm, “greedy poor,” while lowering them on the richest people in the history of this planet; then, even if we’re sleeping on the streets, kind, dear Mr. Romney will come around and hand us a tin can of cold beans. What a guy!

Apres-hurricane acronomia

New Yorker real estate interests have a way of renaming gentrifying neighborhoods with acronymic descriptors, so the neighborhoods will sound cool and new. A weakness for acronomia is the reason we have SoHo (“south of Houston” Street), NoLiTa (North of Little Italy), and DUMBO (“down under the Manhattan  Bridge Overpass,”) among others.

My friend and fellow blogger Buce has tipped me off that now the Atlantic Wire has drawn a line horizontally bisecting Manhattan at 39th Street, renaming the entire area south of the line SoPo, for “South of Power.”

And for the real optics of what half a disempowered city looks like, at least from the air, take a look at the photograph, gracing the cover of New York Magazine

The infrastructure opportunity is
screaming for government money

Regardless of what New York’s in-denial mayor has to say about it, New York can and should have a system of high-tech dikes and sea walls. It’s not impossible. The Dutch were keeping the sea out, in a nation that in most places is at or below sea level, over nine centuries before Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney outgrew their diapers. 

We can play the Republican game of Let’s Pretend, continuing to deny that the seas are rising due to climate change or that anything can be done about it. Or we can put a lot of people, from engineers and hydrologists to construction workers and laborers to work, not only in New York but also along the Gulf  and the seacoast from New Jersey to Florida, to make America a stronger and more waterproof nation. 

But private enterprise can’t and won’t do this job if left to its own devices. New York’s local electric power utility, Con Edison, can’t or won’t bother even to build a waterproof power transfer station, which is why we had a power outage in New York in the first place.  Nor has it installed a working backup or a route-around to instantly move power in from distant power stations. Well, that's private enterprise for you. And consider: It was the U.S. Government that set up the program that got us to the moon. So you’d better believe that, if anybody does it, it will finally be the U.S. government that flood-proofs America.

Some things, from flood protection, to healthcare, to national security are just too important to be left to a bunch of greedy guys whose first priority is to make a buck.

And this just in...

Soon after I posted this, I came across an e-mail from my State Senator Liz Kreuger. It turns out things are worse than I thought. Still. And I quote her:
Additionally, some Manhattan residents dependent on steam still do not have heat or hot water because the steam plant which serves their area is not yet operational. [Cranky note: Con Edison runs the steam plant.] As temperatures continue to drop, this is a significant concern and efforts are being made to bring in emergency generators and heaters. The City has opened daytime warming centers for residents living in impacted buildings. A full list of these centers is available at Additionally, residents living without heat are welcome at the City's emergency storm shelters. The City is running buses to take people to shelters if they need a place to stay warm overnight. The bus pickups are listed here:
Attaway! Come to New York, rent or buy an apartment for top dollar, then live like a homeless person!

1 comment:

Comrade Misfit said...

I feel for you. I was back east last year and a day without power after the October blizzard was enough to make me start drifting towards "feral".