After the Storm

This issue of Reclaim was due at the printer’s on Monday, October 29th. That usually means a late night for me, filled with last-minute changes, a lot of triple-checking and a crippling fear that one of the dozens of times the word ‘public’ appears in these pages, it’s been embarrassingly misspelled. This time around, that night was very different. Hurricane Sandy blew into the mid-Atlantic states and pushed the largest storm surge in New York City’s recorded history into our beloved boroughs.

At around 9pm, when I’d usually be wrapping up, maybe with a beer in hand, maybe watching an upload indicator bar inch towards 100 percent, I was in front of my apartment building in the northwest corner of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, wading through waist-deep water to check on the passengers of a pick-up truck that had gotten trapped by the flood; and then to help run an extension cord from one neighbor’s generator to another neighbor’s sump pump; and then to secure a few enormous, tree-filled planter boxes that were floating down the street; and finally to watch my upstairs neighbor Victoria, who’d joined me in the street, scoop a cat off a ground-floor windowsill and carry it to safety.

A lot of things were clear during my cold, wet, frightening minutes in the water: small things about the importance of family and neighbors and community; about banding together and helping out; but also huge things, huge failings, failings to address climate change, failings to address sea-level rise; failings to act on long-ago published warnings that an incident of this sort was not an ‘if’ scenario but a ‘when’ event.

To put it more plainly, New York City’s smallest networks succeeded wildly during Hurricane Sandy, but some of its biggest failed miserably.

Despite an admirable response at every level of government— from President Obama’s prompt declaration of major disaster status to Governor Cuomo’s management of state agencies to Mayor Bloomberg’s briefings, down to first responders helping the residents of Red Hook, City Island, the Lower East Side, the Rockaways, Breezy Point, Tottenville and many, many more communities—the City’s built environment, and the huge network of people responsible for shaping that environment, failed to live up to the increasingly volatile nature of our weather future.

They all know as much. Already, days after the storm, we’ve heard that the City and State may have to start thinking about levees, and that storm surge barriers could have helped minimize damage, and that climate change has played a role in all of this. That’s a great start to addressing the huge stuff. But it’s also really big. So big, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine things actually changing, or at least changing before we face the next storm. So along with those huge projects, let’s not forget about supporting the small networks that succeeded.

Yes, the subways shut down and tunnels flooded, but the MTA got hundreds of buses running and hundreds of thousands of people back to work as fast as possible. Let’s not forget that the next time there’s a budget that needs cutting.

And, yes, bridges were closed and roads were blocked, but from the second the wind died down, New Yorkers were out walking, looking to help, searching for power, checking on friends and family and loved ones. Let’s remember that when someone says streets are for cars.

And after the storm, despite some unfriendly skies, the City’s new bike lanes were more crowded than ever, filled with first-time commuters and everyday cyclists offering advice. Let’s not forget about that when winter sets in and ridership numbers dip.

And let’s not forget about the pedestrian plazas and slower-speed limits and sidewalk culture that helps New Yorkers know their neighbors, or nod at them, or, at the very least, wade into rising waters to offer them a hand.

Those are the networks that saved us. The ones that helped us stick together. The ones that got us going again. Those are the networks that make up our great city. Maybe they’re not as huge as a storm surge barrier, and they certainly don’t cost billions of dollars, but they’re proven, and they’re easy to support, and they, like storm-threatened New Yorkers—can do a lot with a little.

Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and many other publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of this magazine.