State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Catastrophe and Community

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

This has been a difficult autumn: mass murder at a Las Vegas country music festival, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and the Virgin Islands, forest fires in California, terror on New York’s Hudson River bike path, and now mass murder at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. And that is before we consider the self-inflicted damage caused by the dysfunctional government that’s settled into our nation’s capital. The intensity and relentlessness of the bad news sometimes seems overwhelming.

But then the response begins, our communities come out to help and provide support, and we realize how much we all share many of the same values, even as we disagree on some important ones. The modern world’s communication mechanisms mean that many tragedies that once may have been ignored by the media or even kept private now become public knowledge. We are constantly asked to shake off this or that bit of bad news and persevere. And we do.

The response to Puerto Rico’s twin hurricane hit this fall has been riddled with miscommunication, errors, incompetence and inadequate resources. But last week, we saw New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello meet in New York and plan an effort to develop a proposal for federal aid to rebuild Puerto Rico and immediately send workers to help restore the electric grid. Summing up New York’s assistance, Governor Cuomo’s press release stated that:

“Governor Cuomo announced the deployment of new emergency utility crews to Puerto Rico next week, including 350 utility personnel and 220 bucket trucks and special equipment. New York is also deploying a Tactical Power Restoration Team to Puerto Rico – including 28 engineers, and 15 damage assessment experts – to help supervise and coordinate the restoration of the electric distribution system in the 27 sections of the PREPA power grid. This builds on the previous deployment of 20 NYPA power experts and 2 DEC drone pilots who inspected and assessed 11 large power plants and over 340 substations in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria.” 

New York State is working with Puerto Rico’s government to help secure their fair share of federal funding in a supplemental budget for storm recovery. During a meeting with key stakeholders in New York last week, Cuomo’s staff distributed Texas’ impressive 300-page disaster recovery funding request (totaling $61 billion), and Puerto Rico will need to produce something similar. Cuomo is assembling a team of technical experts and nonprofits to assist Puerto Rico with their proposal and to prepare a comprehensive damage assessment to help Puerto Rico rebuild. This assessment needs to be completed by November 30 to build the case for federal assistance in a supplemental federal budget allocation that will hopefully be enacted in December.

Why is Governor Cuomo doing all of this? A cynic would say it is simply a blatant attempt to appeal to New York’s large Puerto Rican community. But anyone who heard him speak last week would realize that he was reliving 9-11 and reliving Hurricane Sandy and was trying to pay back some of the kindness and assistance we in New York received from other parts of America after those disasters. He observed that he considered Puerto Rico part of the “family of New York”. And while I’m sure he understands the political benefits of helping Puerto Rico, the dominant motivation was something old fashioned called public service.

Communities and resources all over America have been mobilized to help the victims of recent hurricanes. By mid-September, about 50 charities had raised over $350 million for Harvey relief efforts. While funding for Puerto Rico has not been as successful, celebrities like Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez have used their talents and friends to raise over $20 million dollars to help the Island. Recently, all of our living presidents joined together for a concert to raise funding for the victims suffering from all of our recent weather disasters. In addition to fundraising, there were numerous stories of neighbors helping neighbors and young people volunteering to help those in need. Americans don’t have a great deal of faith in their national government or in large institutions, but the value of charity, empathy and volunteerism is shared across blue states and red states, and does not vary by race or region.

Those of us in New York learned this during Hurricane Sandy, when the theme I heard most often is that “no one should be left behind”. One of my strongest memories of Sandy is the image of this large, strong National Guard soldier explaining to a small, frail elderly woman how a MRE (meal ready to eat) was opened and became warmed by its package. This sense of community and of the importance of helping others seems to be magnified during periods of duress. Catastrophe tests our sense of community and fortunately we usually pass the test.

The issue with hurricanes and other examples of extreme weather is that they are becoming so commonplace that we need to ensure that we do a better job of (if you’ll excuse the expression) weathering the storm. Every major storm cannot become a catastrophe. The rebuilding of Texas and especially Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands provides an opportunity to do what we have been trying to do in New York. The idea is not to rebuild the vulnerable settlements and infrastructure that we had before, but instead to build back a stronger, smarter and more resilient community. Microgrids with the capacity to more efficiently generate and distribute electricity should be the building blocks of a rehabilitated Puerto Rican electrical system. The island’s plentiful sunshine should be converted to electricity, buildings should be elevated on stilts when flooding is a danger, and roofs and walls should be capable of withstanding 100 mile per hour winds.

It’s possible that too many catastrophes could lead to a kind of catastrophe fatigue, but an even greater danger to our belief in community is the effort by elected leaders and the media to politicize emergency response and view it as a test of the competence of those in charge. The horrible response to Hurricane Katrina practically invited that sort of criticism and we see a similar reaction to the incompetent federal effort in Puerto Rico. President Trump constantly tries to give himself “A’s” on his own report card, and his opponents, enraged by his dissembling, routinely attack his motives and values.

Last week, in his press conference with New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello pointedly refused to attack the president or the federal government for the pace of response. He said that during an emergency, politics must be deferred, and everyone should focus on the task at hand. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie worked closely with President Obama in the days after Hurricane Sandy, he was criticized for “supporting” the enemy. Governors Cuomo, Rossello and Christie were doing what governors are supposed to do during an emergency response: working to get the help needed to resume normalcy. I think this reflects the American value of charity and support for those in need in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

In our polarized nation in this difficult time, there is something reassuring about the sight of people helping people and of our former presidents working together to raise money for aid. Reconstructing these devastated communities will not be easy, but our greatest asset in the rebuilding effort is our communities and our common values. Let’s ensure we nurture and treasure those places and principles. They represent the real America.

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