New York: standing tall against nature’s wrath
Let’s praise the manmade structures that withstood Sandy’s fury rather than fretting about allegedly manmade Frankenstorms.
It was the stuff of disaster movies: fire fighters travelling down 14th Street in inflatable boats; the facade of a Chelsea building blown out, exposing the interiors of tastefully decorated apartments; a power station explosion lighting up the New York sky; cranes dangling precariously off skyscrapers; floods causing the downtown Canal and Water Streets to live up to their names; Lady Liberty going dark and the lights of Manhattan switching off one by one until the Empire State was one of the few buildings still shining bright on the greatest skyline on Earth.
Following Hurricane Sandy’s pounding of the US East Coast from afar, eyes glued to my hyperactive Twitter feed where these astonishing images from New York City were doing the rounds, the thought of how limited the damage was in proportion to the strength of the storm was humbling.
Yes, it might sound soppy, but it’s worth reminding ourselves just how much gumption it takes to build and run a city that is largely able to withstand such relentless forces of nature as the Sandy superstorm. It’s pretty awesome, as Americans would say.
But on Twitter, the steady stream of blurry Instagram pictures and testimonies to individuals’ heroic efforts – such as the nurses who evacuated babies down nine flights of stairs in the dark – were interspersed with admonitions of human arrogance. We have ourselves to blame for nature’s havoc-wrecking, some suggested, and we are powerless in the face of nature’s wrath.
Doesn’t that seem paradoxical?
Of course, not even a modern city like New York can fully brace itself against storms, and the aftermath of Sandy is heartbreaking. At the time of writing, the storm has claimed 46 lives across the United States, including an eight-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. Millions were left without power. Homes, businesses and historical landmarks were wrecked. The estimated cost of the destruction is now in the billions.
Yet still, all things considered, New Yorkers and other Americans got off lightly – and with bigger and better infrastructure, warning systems and flood defences, the consequences of any future storms could be milder still.
In other parts of the world, however, people were truly powerless in the face of Sandy. At the time of writing, the death toll across the Caribbean is 65, with 51 of those in Haiti. Before New York City got caught in the eye of the storm, Time magazine reported that at least 20 people were missing in Haiti and there are scores of new cholera cases. Many of the 370,000 people made homeless by the 2010 earthquake had to brave the storm in tents and other makeshift housing which they’ve been living in for nearly three years.
In Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, thousands of people did not have any defences at all against Sandy.
The contrast with the US is stark. There, people were able to prepare for Sandy by stockpiling food and other necessities. Residents in the most exposed areas were evacuated to shelters, and could keep informed and in touch through the internet and the media. While a full recovery is months away, key components of the region’s infrastructure, like the New York subway system, look set to be back on track in a matter of days. Some tunnels and bridges reopened as early as the morning after the storm.
Haitians, on the other hand, were powerless because they do not have access to such infrastructure. As the Time report put it, Sandy is a grave reminder of how badly poor countries need economic development – the only hope for withstanding extreme natural forces.
Instead of blaming human recklessness and arrogance for stirring up storms, perhaps we should be grateful for the manmade structures that enable us to brace ourselves against those storms? The kind of human arrogance it takes to build great cities, to turn access to electricity, the internet and well-stocked shops into things we take for granted – that is what helps us stay healthy, informed and alive!
Humanity did not get what it deserved when Sandy hit; humanity got what it deserved when ‘reckless humans’ built places like New York City. We need more places like it, not fewer.
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