Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rising waters

Hurricane Sandy struck home for me this week, making landfall on the Jersey shore near the beach house where I used to spend summers and weekends as a kid, and causing unprecedented devastation in New York City, where I lived for quite a few years.

It's sad to look at pictures of the destruction that has been visited on these familiar places. But the beautiful beaches on the Jersey shore will survive. These barrier islands and beaches are meant to shift around to some extent, and people who build on those precarious places assume a certain amount of risk.

In New York City, on the other hand, people have generally felt they are living on solid ground where they have every right to feel safe. Now they are learning that their existence might be a bit more precarious than they thought. For a few days, the nightmare scenario of the latest Batman movie, in which millions of people living on this tiny island are cut off from contact with the rest of the world, came to pass. The subway system, which is the lifeblood of New York City, ceased to function. And New Yorkers are now fully alerted to the dangers of living a few feet above sea level in a world where the seas are rising.

If this storm was a message from God, perhaps it was a message that we had better get used to paying more attention, and more money, to take care of our infrastructure. The entire coastline is going to need major investment to repair roads, tunnels, bridges, power lines, and all sorts of other essential investments. That is true on the Jersey shore as well as in the affected cities on the East Coast, even though there are a few places on the shore where it would make sense to restrict re-development and decline to make large public investments that only serve to protect the private property of a few people. But New York City in particular must be better protected in the future. If they haven't done so already, teams of engineers will undoubtedly be making trips to the Netherlands to study the enormous dikes and pumps they have built to keep reclaimed land from sliding back into the sea. New York City is going to need similar protections. Like New Orleans, it serves vital economic needs, and must be rebuilt and maintained. Like Venice, it contains irreplaceable history and art that must be protected. Not to mention millions more people than either of those places.

The sad thing about our dysfunctional political system, however, is that it will probably be easier to gain approval for the investments needed to protect a few people's beach houses than to spend the necessary billions to build the massive floodgates and pumps that probably must be constructed to protect New York City's millions of residents and the financial capital of our nation in the future. This has to change.

This storm can serve as a great reminder that what government spending actually means is protecting people's lives and homes, providing for people's essential needs, and building the kind of infrastructure that is essential for our economy to thrive. Hurricane Sandy could also be thought of as a metaphor for the economic storm that hit our country a few years ago. The solution in both cases is not to retrench and allow our productive capacities to deteriorate. It is to get to work and re-build. Has anyone noticed that as soon as this storm hit, the solutions offered by the opposition started sounding false and hollow? And that we all started looking to the federal government to deal with relief and re-construction? Hopefully, we will have the political will to recognize what needs to be done to move forward.

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