Hurricane Sandy: An unnatural disaster

USA - Hurricane Sandy Aftermath in New York

By ANDREW POLLACK

NEW YORK—By now the scientific consensus is clear: the fury of Hurricane Sandy was greatly magnified by human-caused climate change. Scientists, said a Scientific American article, are now linking climate change “directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events.” In the case of Sandy, this meant the interaction of a hurricane moving unusually further north with a southbound jet stream, a rising and warming sea level, and a warmer atmosphere—each on their own magnified by global warming, and all together ramping up Sandy’s strength.

The hurricane’s destructive force meant that even the mainstream media felt compelled to report on studies linking global warming to the increased frequency and heightened severity of other extreme weather events, including drought, heat waves, and sudden strong rain downpours. Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded: “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.”

The media even dug up studies from a decade or more ago warning that New York City in particular was in danger of just the kind of severe flooding that proved to be the most catastrophic feature of Sandy. And the consensus of scientists globally is that the factors of climate change that influenced the severity of Sandy’s impact, such as rising sea levels, are still accelerating, and that they are ever more tightly wound up with other results of global warming, which reinforce each other with ever more horrific consequences.

The storm resulted in over a hundred deaths in the United States (and dozens more, largely ignored by the media, in the Caribbean), as well as leaving millions without power and equal numbers with no way to get to work. Millions had no electricity, heating oil, or gas, just as freezing temperatures and more heavy rain were expected. Five nuclear power plants lie in Sandy’s path and were forced to shut down to avoid problems with electricity and/or water, both key to stopping plant meltdown.

The storm also exposed, to borrow the phrase of an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Rohde, “The Hideous Inequality” of our society. Those most likely to have gone without not only power but even food and water in the days after Sandy were Black, Latin@, and Asian residents in public housing complexes, the elderly of all nationalities living in high-rises whose elevators were out, workers in places such as Staten Island and the farther reaches of Brooklyn and Queens, and huge chunks of New Jersey—all far out of sight and mind of the region’s ruling class.

Naturally, the resentment of those ignored was magnified by news of the Stock Exchange’s speedy reopening, and by the fact that in lower Manhattan the only lights to be seen for almost a week were those of the Goldman Sachs tower. The Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are repeating their post-Katrina negligence. A week after the storm hit, reports from many of the most-impacted neighborhoods were that neither agency was anywhere in sight.

While their families and neighbors huddled in the dark, many of the cities’ lowest-paid and least-organized workers—especially those in the service and retail sectors, who are overwhelmingly workers of color and/or immigrant workers—slept at their worksites, fearful of losing pay if they couldn’t get back into Manhattan after returning home to the outer boroughs. Without power, the poor can’t even use food stamp cards, which must be swiped through an electronic reader.

The disparate treatment by nationality and class in the region mirrors the impact of global warming on an international basis. Climate scientists pointed out the impact of climate change on hundreds of millions in Third World countries in recent years due to drought, floods, and other extreme weather events.

Some commentators noted parallels with other human-created but non-climate-related events. David Rohde pointed out the catastrophic impact for millions on a daily basis of Washington’s wars. In a similar vein, Juan Cole asked why the shutdowns of hospitals in New York City due to Sandy is bemoaned, but not the impact on Palestinian patients of hospital closings due to the Zionist blockade of Gaza. To which we would add the similarity in impact of the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 in the 100% human-made Nakba (“Catastrophe”).

Of course, the big-hearted banks pitched right in to help—by offering to drive further into debt devastated homeowners, small businesses, and over-stretched workers in general through new kinds of loans and raised credit card limits. The criminal injustice system also performed true to fashion. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that prisoners on Rikers Island would stay in their cells in the middle of a surging river during the storm. And once it had passed, his cops were seen interfering with volunteer relief efforts in various areas.

But cop harassment didn’t stop the massive effort of such volunteers, mobilized primarily by Occupy Wall Street and community groups such as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), and the Peoples’ Survival Program. Thousands of activists have turned out in neighborhoods throughout the city, mobilizing in turn local residents. The scale and type of assistance provided has been incredibly impressive, the coordination within and across sites efficient, the spirit an admirable combination of love and militancy.

Occupiers and other grassroots groups have handed out food and water, clothing, and flashlights. This often meant climbing many flights of stairs to visit the elderly stuck on higher floors without power or running water, marooned by nonworking elevators. Substantial monetary and material donations flowed in to Occupy accounts and relief sites.

Occupiers see this not as a one-time effort, but as part of their ongoing movement to change society. Reflecting the dominant ideology of Occupy, several refer to what they’re doing as “mutual aid” (an anarchist concept reflecting a society based on small, autonomous collectives). One leading Occupy Activist wrote that “this relief was in itself an act of resistance.” Another said they were organizing communities, not doing charity.

Occupiers and activists in the Occupy-initiated Strike Debt campaign are already discussing how the Sandy relief efforts can fit into their longer-term goal of breaking the 1%’s grip on society. One key factor in determining such a fit will be the residue of organic community and workplace self-organizing that is left in place for the long haul of repair and reconstruction. In that regard, OWS’s own popular assembly model for discussion and decision-making could be used by community members to discuss needs, to formulate demands, and to mobilize to win them.

Occupiers reported seeing people to whom they had delivered food one day showing up the next to join the relief effort. Certainly such community activists can organize themselves to compare notes on which blocks have power out or homes destroyed, who needs gas or food, what federal and other agencies are doing (or more often failing to do), etc.

One factor, though largely out of activists’ control, is the dynamic of catastrophe response. As with police brutality or isolated labor strikes, raised consciousness and activity about “natural” disasters tends to ebb and flow as the event’s visibility declines. But here too, a sustained and unified grassroots organizing effort can maximize the time before such a downturn sets in, and can leave a strong legacy of struggle and support—a legacy particularly necessary given the longer-term issues at stake of global warming and social inequality and their mutual reinforcement.

Another factor is the question of the social bases of ongoing relief and reconstruction efforts. In addition to organizing at the community level, workplace-based and industry-based organizing is essential. One opportunity to do so is around the wages lost and transportation costs incurred by huge chunks of the region’s workers. This means on the one hand organizing to make sure that benefits from the various special Federal programs announced—disaster unemployment benefits, FEMA grants or loans to homeowners, etc.—go to all who need them, and that if the criteria for who qualifies are too restrictive, that they be extended. Not one worker should suffer loss of pay due to storm-imposed workplace closure or the costs of taking car service to get to work. This includes making sure the undocumented are not excluded or afraid to apply.

Instead of being allowed to increase workers’ indebtedness through new loans to repair or rebuild destroyed homes, the banks’ assets should be seized to fund special grants to every homeowner in need, every wage-earner with a lost or diminished paycheck.

Every union and workers’ organization in the region should form a special committee enrolling, and led by, members impacted by the storm. Such committees can tally the various ways members have been impacted, formulate lists of needs and demands, and join with other committees, and with neighborhood-based committees, in an ongoing campaign to recoup lost pay and housing. Such workplace-based committees can also discuss what went wrong, and discuss how the region’s infrastructure should be rebuilt and extended to prepare for coming storms.

No one knows better than the electricity, transportation, health-care, and other workers who were plunged into the middle of the crisis what’s lacking in the region’s infrastructure—including how budget cuts have damaged maintenance and repair—and it is they who know best what is needed to rebuild and extend it, including to minimize loss of life and property in coming extreme weather events.

Most importantly, such committees can begin discussing how to build a movement to reverse the global warming which gave Sandy its force. A campaign for ongoing reconstruction and against global warming led by workplace and neighborhood committees would also confront the question of resources. As massive as were the donations given to Occupy relief committees, they don’t come close to the billions that will be needed to fully rebuild lost homes or to compensate for lost wages or jobs, not to mention the billions that will be needed to protect close-to-shore communities against coming storms.

What’s more, if we are to reverse global warming, mutual aid efforts sprouting up alongside huge capitalist corporations and banks are inadequate. A climate-friendly economy will not be built until the resources of the energy companies and their financial backers are seized and put under worker/community control.

One Occupy activist wrote: “We don’t need you [Goldman Sachs]. We have our own generators, our own power, and enough money to wait out the storm’s aftermath.” While the pride she took in Occupy’s efforts is well-placed, the simple fact is we do need the resources of Goldman and the other banks, which must be taken out of the hands of the profiteers and the planet-killers they finance.

Some of the most persistent voices warning of the effects of climate change, such as Bill McKibben, are unfortunately pushing supposed solutions of little worth, which will just distract from what’s really needed. These “solutions” include increased taxes on the energy corporations, cap-and-trade programs, higher auto mileage requirements, etc. Some are even launching a campus campaign pushing for divestment from energy company stocks.

Certainly, such “solutions” seem more “reasonable” than seizing the banks and energy companies. But they are far less realistic, considering the immediate need to begin reversing global warming, as a prospect for saving the planet and the lives of all on it. What’s more, we have no choice but to confront with a mass movement the federal government, which, rather than spend more money on disaster preparedness and relief, is using the coming end-of-year “fiscal cliff” to make savage cuts to federal programs in order to reassure bankers worried about the impact of the deficit on their bonds. Programs slated for cuts include the very National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite program that was crucial in predicting Sandy’s path!

Fortunately, thanks to the uprisings throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, thanks to Occupy, and thanks to recent small if significant victories even in the U.S. labor movement, what is “reasonable” is being rapidly redefined around the globe.

See http://www.facebook.com/OccupySandyReliefNyc for more information.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action