Hurricane Sandy & climate change

By David Watts Barton, Sacramento News and Review, November 8, 2011

Like the area it affected, Hurricane Sandy was so big, its effects so widespread and diverse, that it’s hard to imagine, let alone capture, the damage—even from the proverbial eye of the hurricane, here in Manhattan in New York City.

I spent last week in spots varying from my cozy, well-lit studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to a frightened friend’s candle-lit studio in the eerily quiet East Village. And I wandered the darkened streets of downtown and on the Williamsburg Bridge on Halloween, and the waterlogged west side of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. But my vision and understanding of Sandy early on were severely limited.

With my access to cellphone service and the Internet and TV re-established, I finally knew more. But what I knew above all was this: Life without electricity is life in the dark in more ways than the merely literal.

Those watching storm coverage on TV, which I was not doing for much of my electricity-free week, knew more about what was going. I spoke on the phone with Beth Ruyak on Capital Public Radio’s Insight on Tuesday morning, after walking crosstown to get a signal, but she knew more of the big picture than I did.

Where I live, uptown, which is literally on higher ground than downtown, life wasn’t terribly disturbed. Which is to say, we had electricity soon after the storm. Downtown, the electricity was out from Monday at 8:30 p.m. until the same time on Friday evening. Four whole days. Four dark nights.

Without electricity, my post office branch at Cooper Square was closed, so I missed two crucial pieces of mail. Refrigerators failed in homes and in stores and restaurants. Theaters and bars were closed. Cash registers didn’t work, nor did ATMs. There were no traffic lights, no street lights, no lights from buildings.

But we were lucky. Elsewhere—on the Jersey shore, in Brooklyn, in Queens, and on Staten Island—tens of thousands weren’t so lucky. Some lost everything. Some lost lives.

For some of us, we have to admit, this disaster was an adventure. My main night out downtown was Halloween, at the peak of the blackout, a fateful bit of timing. And it did not disappoint: It was spooky and exciting and, yes, fun. Boo!

Wandering downtown at dusk into the encroaching darkness, as the night fell and no lights came on, we went looking for a group of Burning Man friends in SoHo, intent on creating a renegade version of the canceled Halloween Parade.

We found them, and the parade marched uptown, shepherded by many cops. But we soon peeled off, hit up a candle-lit bar, and then wandered again into the night. We could see stars.

But as spooky as wandering the nearly deserted streets of Lower Manhattan on Halloween was, it was spooky for another reason: It underlined how fragile our civil life is. With electricity gone, everything changed, almost immediately. I didn’t feel endangered, but the necessity of streetlights quickly became apparent.

Spookier still: By the end of the week, this storm revealed the extent to which climate change may soon be affecting many millions of people—because it already has. The deniers will continue to deny—it’s what they do—but if Manhattan is not safe, if the “Capital of the World” can be plunged into darkness so quickly, so completely, what does the future hold for other cities?

Being a Sacramento native, my mind has flashed back a number of times to where something of this magnitude is not just possible but likely. One of the levees around Sacramento, perhaps an important one, will break. It’s just a matter of when.

And while Sacramentans can live in the same denial that New Yorkers enjoyed until Sandy came ashore, that denial will have very real consequences. It can happen, and it most surely will.

When that time comes, will Sacramentans have the same resourcefulness and neighborliness that New Yorkers do? Will Sactown’s first responders be as professional and ready? Is Sacramento’s infrastructure, in many cases older and less resilient than New York’s, capable of handling an “unexpected” weather event?

Are you ready for life without electricity?

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