Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area

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Elite Panic and the Tea Party

Rebecca SolnitNew Orleans In an excellent book on community building in the wake of disasters of historic proportion, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit raises a number of insightful points about what she refers to as “elite panic.”  In post-Katrina New Orleans we saw this all the time, the predictions of dire consequences and the frenzied mobilization of self-appointed big whoops running around trying to take charge, create emergency committees composed mainly of themselves, fund apocalyptic plans and studies tailored to their interests, and other such wildness in the name of protection, advancement, and the future of the city.

Reading past the marionette string pullers among big business donors and the professional Republican party operators shrewd and skilled enough to take advantage of the alienation, racism, and desperation at the base, the same “elite panic” in the wake of the Obama election and its administration over the last two years seems to be the driving force.  The fears triggered by race, “otherness,” and the sense of having been displaced and losing control setting off critical elites in a panic at what might come next and how it has to be stopped.  The Tea Party is one of the sharp points of a stick being wielded and thrashed about by the elites.

A recent story about Obama’s lost support on Wall Street, even after essentially betting and mortgaging the whole national farm on the bankers and brokers who hover there is more than ample evidence of my case in point.  All of this is bitter irony given how regularly Obama and his minions including the Wall Street apologists like Treasury’s Geithner and the White House’s Larry Summers, have done pretty much their bidding while millions have traveled the crowded road in the hand basket to hell.

I had a moment’s surge of hope reading a blog by a Chicago Sun political columnist who  parsed an Obama quote yesterday that might be construed as indicating he was ready to throw those fellas out finally, but that was, as usual, quickly dashed by among other things the administration’s recoiling from a Times story that had indicated that finally they might be ready to strap it on and go after the right wing coup that has manipulated the Tea Party so that the Republicans have been taken over by more extremists than is even usual for them.  Eventually, they are going to have to realize that this is a real fight and the elite panic that is driving this fight will not be assuaged by compromise but only by total victory.

We have to oppose that fiercely.

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