NYC: obligatory disaster rant

Well, we're back online after four days of the electricity being out in Lower Manhattan, and our rage level is even higher than usual. Where to even begin? For starters, with the most obvious reality. This blogger is 50 years old and grew up in New York City. Never in my life have I experienced a storm of anywhere near this magnitude (actually prompting the mayor to announce a "mandatory evacuation" of low-lying areas) until Hurricane Irene last year—and now it just happened again, even worse (much worse) one year later with the Hurricane Sandy "Frankenstorm." Pretty ominous evidence that something is way out of wack. 

But first let's talk about that "mandatory evacuation" of "Zone A"—the low-lying shorebound parts of the city, including Lower Manhattan's Alphabet City. It is true that it was "mandatory" in name only—no effort was made to enforce it—but even using the word sets a very dangerous precedent for abuse of executive powers. We are unimpressed by the argument that those who stayed (the big majority, it seems) were potentially putting first responders at risk. First, many simply had no place to go, and call-ins to WNYC from those who went to city-provided shelters indicated that they were ill-provided (some didn't even have cots!) and some even violent. More importantly, a look at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina, as well as what has been happening in Lower Manhattan already without a disaster over the past 20 years, will clue you in as to why working-class residents have a stake in resisting even ostensibly temporary displacement. Even without an enforced evacuation, the flooding of the East Village—the loss of several days worth of business as well as lots of spoiled produce—may help push some of the neighborhood's remaining family-owned ethnic eateries out of business, to be replaced by yet more overpriced, pretentious yuppie joints.

One of my neighbors, who lives in a public housing project for senior citizens, called me panicked in the middle of the night after the 14th Street Con Edison plant blew and Lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness. She said that building management, backed up by guys from the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, knocked on her door, shined a flashlight in her eyes and ordered her out on no notice, saying "We're evacuating!" This after taking inadequate precautions to prepare for a blackout—e.g. provisions for those, such as my friend, above the sixth floor, who depend on pumped water. My friend is disabled, and had no ability to walk down nine flights, much less in the dark. Fortunately, the building's residents, mostly elderly Chinese women, seem to have kicked up enough spontaneous protest that the evacuation orders were dropped.

If you needed any more evidence of the class implications of "mandatory evacuation," just turn to Hizzoner's own words. From Buzzfeed, Oct. 28

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference in Manhattan on Sunday that the onset of Hurricane Sandy wouldn't affect the conditions of prisoners on Rikers Island.

"Rikers Island, the land is up where they are and jails are secured," Bloomberg said, in response to a reporter's question about how the city would protect the inmates from the storm. "Don't worry about anybody getting out."

Gee thanks, Mr. Sensitive. I guess it didn't occur to him we might be concerned about prisoners left to die, as happened in New Orleans (see Democracy Now!, Sept. 27, 2005; Human Rights Watch, Sept. 22, 2005).

Bloomberg, flanked by other members of the city's leadership, said that all heat, hot water and elevators would be shut down in New York City Housing Authority housing in the evacuation zone… 

Bloomberg urged residents in the evacuation zone, which includes coastal and low-lying areas of far flung Brooklyn, Queens, and lower Manhattan, to evacuate immediately: "If you live in Zone A, and you haven't evacuated yet it is crucial you do so," he said.

Yet those in private buildings didn't lose these services (at least not until the lights went out, when it was beyond anyone's control). And everyone on the Lower East Side knows how much the real estate interests would like to get rid of the big public housing projects east of Ave. D—that last insurmountable obstacle to eastward-creeping gentrification.  If this "mandatory evacuation" thing becomes a yearly ritual, it seems nearly inevitable that one year the evacuated won't be allowed back in, on one pretext or another.

Sitting in the cold and dark without web access as Alphabet City was flooded (I live three blocks west of Zone A), I was obsessed by dark imaginings of the Indian Point nuclear power plant (just 30 miles up the Hudson River) going the way of Fukushima. (Recall that the disaster at Fukushima was not caused by earthquake damage, but by the tsunami flooding out the emergency generator, causing the reactor to go out of control when the electricity went down.) And it turns out we had a near-miss at another area nuke plant. From AP, Oct. 31:

ATLANTA — A nuclear power plant in New Jersey is no longer under an alert caused by superstorm Sandy.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said an alert at the Oyster Creek plant in Forked River, N.J., ended early Wednesday. An alert is the second-lowest designation in a four-tiered warning system.

The alert was triggered as water rose outside the plant, threatening cooling equipment. NRC officials said water levels had since fallen and were still dropping. The plant, which was offline before the storm, also regained offsite power after losing it.

Storm-related complications were blamed for forcing reactors off line at Nine Mile Point Unit 1 near Syracuse, N.Y., the Indian Point Unit 3 north of New York City and the Salem plant’s Unit 1 on the Delaware River in New Jersey.

And another, lesser, industrial disaster actually happened. From AP Oct. 31

WOODBRIDGE — New Jersey environmental officials say 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled after a storage tank was lifted and ruptured from the surge from superstorm Sandy.

The Coast Guard says all the spilled oil is believed to be contained by booms put in the water.

Officials said today the spill happened Monday night at the Motiva oil tank facility in Woodbridge.

Coast Guard spokesman Les Tippets says a secondary tank caught most of the oil and that the liquid that escaped moved into the Arthur Kill, the waterway separating New Jersey from New York's Staten Island.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese says the company reported the spill and hired contractors to clean it up.

Longtime New Yorkers will recall that there was a half-million gallon oil spill from an Exxon pipeline into Arthur Kill in 1990 (see New York Times, Jan. 12, 1990). It was big news at the time (Arthur Kill being a critical waterfowl habitat) and someone seems to have written a book about it (Before and After an Oil Spill: The Arthur Kill by Joanna Burger). But news accounts of the new spill aren't even making note of the one 22 years ago, and the new one is likely to go practically unnoticed amid the larger disaster.

The oil spill carries a particular grim irony, since the new super-storms are a harbinger of devastating climate change, brought on by fossil-fuel consumption. One of the glimmers of hope to come out of the Frankenstorm is Bloomberg's belated decision to endorse Obama as the candidate who will tackle climate change. (NYT, Nov. 1) We are constantly being admonished that no single weather event can be attributable to climate change. But when taken together—the superstorms, this summer's crippling droughts in the Midwest, the disappearing Andean glaciersreceding Arctic sea ice cover, the Alaskan villages disappearing beneath the waves—whether these are attributable to climate change becomes a dramatically wrong question. Together, these phenomena are climate change. Asking if they are "attributable" to climate change is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees.

As we've noted before: on the question of climate change, where you stand depends on where you sit. It seems that New York City is joining Tuvalu and the Maldives as places where there are no climate change skeptics. And we certainly place no faith in Obama's technocratic pseudo-solutions like carbon trading (with its international counterpart in the UN-backed REDD program) or the repugnant oxymorons of "clean coal" and "safe nuclear power." These ideas must be vigorously opposed. But acknowledging that climate change exists is the necessary prerequisite for even having that debate. So it is cutting neither Bloomberg nor Obama any slack to recognize the endorsement as a positive development—potentially. 

Amid the disaster in New York, there were actually some inspiring examples of the community-based alternative-technology solutions coming into fruition. On Ave. C, members of Time's Up! environmental group used a bicycle-powered generator to pump water out of C-Squat's basement. (See the photo in Time Out New York.)

But of course such gestures are most important as "propaganda of the deed." What really and urgently needs to happen is still completely taboo to even mention in mainstream discourse: the public expropriation of the entire machinery of Detroit and the oil companies, and the redirection of their vast technological and financial resources into mass transit and the reshaping of our communities and workplaces to accommodate the human organism, and human-powered transport like bicycles, rather than the private automobile. Maybe, just maybe, the growing frequency of Sandy-type disasters—hitting such nerve-centers of the capitalist leviathan as Lower Manhattan—can make such ideas speakable, in time to stave off the planetary apocalypse of a complete destabilization of the biosphere.

A final, related point. With the electricity out throughout Manhattan south of 30th Street, negotiating intersections on my bicycle was a bit of a challenge (no traffic lights). At the larger intersections a traffic cop was on duty, but motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists were left to their own devices at most. Some motorists were considerate, careful and slow, making sure the intersection was clear before proceeding. But too many took the attitude that no lights meant no rules, and just barrelled through the intersection heedless of anyone who might be in the way—the worst exponent of car culture.

We're reminded of how crime went down and traffic calmed in Benghazi in the heady weeks after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya—when the people were in control, before the revolution deteriorated into a government. We're also reminded of how New Yorkers were notoriously and uncharacteristically polite and sensitive with each other in those shell-shocked weeks after 9-11. Then, inevitably, things went back to "normal" (or, in the case Benghazi, worse than normal where chaotic violence is concerned). And already, with the Sandy disaster barely having passed, the pathological state of "normality" is returning to New York. For instance, the high-occupancy vehicle restrictions on the arteries leading into Manhattan are being lifted. (WSJ, Nov. 1) Instead, they should be made permanent.

Oh yeah, one last thing. Throughout the storm, people were stumbling around my neighborhood like zombies, looking desperately for a place to charge their cell phones. This wasn't an issue for me whatsoever, because I only have a land line—even after the lights went out, I never lost phone service for a minute. Glorious vindication after all the abuse I have taken for clinging dinosaur-like to this supposedly outdated technology. So, more than ever, this is my reply to the forces of wireless market-totalitarianism: YOU CAN HAVE MY LAND-LINE WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD FINGERS!

  1. Grim vindication on LES displacement
    I wrote: If this “mandatory evacuation” thing becomes a yearly ritual, it seems nearly inevitable that one year the evacuated won’t be allowed back in, on one pretext or another.

    Looks like it may actually be happening this year. WNYC just reported that for some “unknown” reason the heat and power have still not been turned back on at the Lilian Wald and Jacob Riis houses east of Ave. D, and Mayor Bloomberg is saying the residents should seek long-term shelter elsewhere. The WSJ reports that Bloomberg and Gov. Cuomo said at a joint press conference that up to 40,000 public housing residents “require long- and short-term housing”—without mentioning which projects are impacted. 

    1. Disaster capitalism to speed NYCHA privatization?
      …and ominously, just before the Sandy disaster, New York’s Metropolitan Council on Housing ran an exposĂ© on plans by the NYC Housing Authority to privatize many of its properties to close budgetary shortfalls… This situation calls for extreme vigilance.

      1. Displaced Sandy victims to be housed in prison?
        Staten Island’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, shut last year as part of Gov. Cuomo’s prison-closing program, will be opened to some 1,000 of the 5,200 borough residents who have applied for FEMA housing, Gothamist reports.

        Just completely humiliaitng, or also downright ominous?

      2. Isn’t landfill wonderful?
        “the inland reach of Sandy was closely parallel to the historic shoreline of Manhattan island—the landfill areas overwhelmed.”

        Getting that secondhand, don’t know the source, it certainly could be true.

        1. The landfill question
          That was certainly the case in Battery Park City (ironically an upscale enclave that got badly flooded), which stands on landfill made of what was dug out of the earth when they excavated the foundation of the World Trade Center. But I’m not sure about the Lower East Side. I think the old “Drydock” ship-building district where the Irish immigrants were employed in the 19th century was where East River Park today. Certainly what is now Alphabet City (corresponding to the “Zone A” evacuation area) was a wetland before the grid was built in the 1820s.

          1. Zone A
            On 10st the flood was short of the Zone A demarcation line by about 15 feet which is maybe a couple of inches of elevation. With wind the water would have crossed Ave B into Zone B.

  2. Deregulation hand in Manhattan blackout?
    While the 14th Street Con Ed plant seems to have blown due to flooding, the magnitude of the impact may have been exacerabted by the deregulation policy of the past 20 years. This was certainly the culprit in the 2006 Queens blackout, which was not sparked by any “natural” disaster. Recall that Con Ed had doubled the 14th St. generator’s operating capacity in 2005 after selling its Kip’s Bay steam generator (which shared the burden of supplying Lower Manhattan with power) to a real estate company for $680 million in 2000…

  3. Junk food industry exploits disaster
    Can this possibly be real? Gothamist reports that Cuomo is actually boasting that PepsiCo and Wal-Mart will be donating truckloads of Mountain Dew and Doritos to disaster-stricken New Yorkers. Yes, you read that right. Not fresh water and bread or canned goods, but nutrition-free junk food. (OK, and a few Quaker Chewy bars.) Bastards get to exploit crisis to get folks addicted to their caffeine-sugar-and-salt-laden crap, while looking like do-gooders and getting a tax write-off. The genius of capitalism.

    1. Bloomberg bans food donations to homeless shelters
      OK, my cognitive dissonance meter just went into overload. Days after we found out that PepsiCo and Wal-Mart are “donating” junk food to disaster-stricken New Yorkers, MSN reports that Bloomberg is banning food donations to homeless shelters—because city authorities can’t properly assess salt, fat and fiber in donated food and thereby ensure that hungry people are getting the optimal levels of nutrition!

      This cannot be real… One of these stories has got to be a hoax! Please, help me out here, somebody…

  4. Wireless market-totalitarianism advances
    Abso-fucking-lutely un-fucking-believa-fucking-ble. Immediately after Frankestorm Sandy decisively demonstrated the vital necessity of land lines, stupid fucking AT&T announces they want to completely phase them out. From the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 7:

    AT&T Inc. is laying the groundwork to phase out its old-fashioned telephone service.

    The telecom company said Wednesday it wants to eventually decommission the technology behind its decades-old, copper-line phone network that currently covers 76 million homes and businesses in 22 states.

    Instead, the carrier said it would spend $14 billion over three years to extend its Internet-based broadband service to 75% of its landline service area, and to provide high-speed wireless service to virtually all of it.

    CEO Randall Stephenson said the company will petition states to repeal regulations mandating landline service be provided to consumers who want it.

    I give up.

    1. No land line??!!!??!!
      I worked in emergency management for several years, and every emergency management center has to have a land line. After 9/11 everyone also built off-site or mobile emergency management centers as well. From this experience, I have always said I will never give up my land line. This is atrocious!!

      BTW, lesson learned: if you have a land line and cellphone, after a blackout immediately turn off your cellphone. Use your land line to make phone calls, and get voicemail through your cell phone (my answering machine had no power!).

      Read your Talking Point in The Villager, did you see the Brian Pepe article in WestView about building three 15-story buildings out on new landfill, with half going to 50% market “with preference going to West Village rent stabilized tenants”? A plan to displace all the West Village rent stabilized tenants (such as myself) … ?!?!?!?