Water, Water Everywhere By HENRY J. STERN

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STERN_Henry-J-President-of-NY-Civic-amd-Former-New-York-City-Parks-Commissioner Irene Drenches City – Winds Just Bluster, Nature Lends a Hand.

Mayor Back in Groove

Today we enjoy the calm after the storm. The sky is clear and we have a pleasant breeze. It is a perfect day to go outside and breathe air that is cleaner than usual. You can also leave your apartment windows open.

The contrast, of course, is with last week, when Hurricane Irene dropped millions of gallons of water over the Eastern Seaboard, starting with Puerto Rico, and heading north to Canada, finally dissipating over Quebec. Hurricanes have no regard for political boundaries. Landfalls slow them down but do not stop them.

Fortunately, Irene turned into a tropical storm as it approached New York City, and we were spared the worst of the winds, which would have inflicted enormous damage on property and probably would have killed many people, as tornadoes frequently do.

This column tends to view significant events, including natural disasters, in terms of their political effect, if any, and the competence of public agencies and officials in dealing with crisis.

In that regard the Bloomberg and the Cuomo administrations did very well. It is possible that the Mayor's good work was, in part, based on his determination to avoid another fiasco like the late December blizzard in 2010 which was not anticipated and not responded to promptly by city officials, some of whom were out of town. There is nothing wrong with the mayor's learning from that experience, and in fact it is a credit to him that he did.

There was one change in the lineup, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who lived in Washington, D.C., and became, somewhat unfairly, the official scapegoat for all that went wrong in the city's response to the blizzard, was replaced by Cas Holloway, who had been Mayor Bloomberg's Commissioner of Environmental Protection. Holloway lives in Brooklyn Heights, and had served years in the mayor's office, and before that, in the Department of Parks & Recreation, a well-known incubator of young talent (e.g. Adrian Benepe, Ed Skyler and Bradley Tusk).

The city had the advantage of five days' notice that Hurricane Irene was headed our way, and used the time wisely to make arrangements as to how to deal with the approaching storm. The mass evacuation of nursing home residents turned out not to have been necessary, but anyone who remembers senior citizens drowning in their beds in New Orleans during Katrina did not want to see a repeat of that tragic scenario.

HISTORICAL CATASTROPHES

The death toll from Katrina was 1,836, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in the United States since the Johnstown, PA, flood in May 1889, where an estimated 2,200 people died, mostly by drowning. That tragedy was caused by the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on Lake Conemaugh, which released twenty million tons of water which raced 14 miles downstream to reach Johnstown. The worst natural disaster in United States history was the Galveston flood of September 1900, which killed an estimated 8,000 people. The multiple attacks on 9-11-2001 killed nearly 3,000 people, but that was a man-made tragedy and not a natural disaster. Outside this country, the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 resulted in 316,000 deaths, more than a hundred times as many as died at the World Trade Center.

As of this afternoon, just one death in New York City has been attributed to the storm, which is the result of good luck, sound planning, and fine work by first responders. The men and women who worked to achieve this result deserve praise for their efforts. We hope they suffer no after-effects from their work.

This hurricane was extensively covered by the media, particularly television, which had great visuals of surging waves. Reporters and cameramen were placed in different neighborhoods and showed the extent of the flooding, which never seemed to be as deep as their descriptions. Winds are less visible on TV, but one could see reporters trying to stand up straight while they spoke, with gusts occasionally pushing them around.

Mayor Bloomberg had periodic press conferences to report on developments, which is what Mayor Giuliani did after the 9-11 terror attack. Governor Cuomo called out 2000 National Guard troops, deployed them in flooded areas, visited upstate counties, praised local officials and showed himself to be deeply involved, with State Operations Director Howard Glaser coordinating the state's response, where flash floods upstate endangered lives, with people trapped in motels by rising waters.

After 9/11, candidate Andrew Cuomo got into trouble for saying that all Governor Pataki did was hold Mayor Giuliani's coat. This year Governor Cuomo spoke wisely and to the point, telling what the state was doing, and saying nothing negative about anyone. By highlighting the hurricane's effect in Long Island and upstate counties in the Hudson valley, he avoided Mayor Bloomberg's turf and showed that he was ready for prime time. Good.

Even President Obama got into the act, speaking live for a few minutes at 5 p.m. Friday about federal assistance in the disaster area, and how all levels of government were working together. He also mentioned ways people could prepare for impending hurricanes. It was somewhat reassuring to know that he cared about us New Yorkers.

In another first for natural disasters, we received e-mails all day from miscellaneous elected officials, district leaders, city councilmembers and even one aspirant to a Queens Assembly seat, advising their constituents how to deal with the winds and the flood. These messages were harmless, and might even be helpful if one had no other source of information as to what to do in the event of a hurricane, or were watching TV for the first time.

These e-mailings were evidence of the maxim, "It's an ill wind that blows no good", because the raging hurricane provided an opportunity for the politicians to send mailings to their constituents at the expense of the State or City of New York. Watch for the next rainstorm, and see whether we are advised to carry umbrellas.

We defend the city from accusations of over-reacting, which were implicit in some questions from skeptics in the press. For the next hurricane, we can do fewer evacuations, but it is important periodically to test emergency management situations, and Irene was an excellent occasion to find out what works and what doesn't.

I think of the two men on the beach in Florida talking about what had brought them there. One man said he had a candy store which burned to the ground after a serious fire. The other fellow said that he had a clothing store, which had been blown away by a tornado. The first man expressed surprise, and asked his companion, "Tell me, how do you make a tornado?"

Since we cannot make tornadoes or hurricanes, we should use the ones that God sends us to learn all we can as to how to deal with them, and minimize the loss of life and property. It is not wrong for a disaster to be a test of public officials, they are elected in part to protect us, and a crisis gives them the chance to show what they can, or cannot do.

President Bush looking out the window of Air Force One flying over New Orleans after Katrina six years ago was not a helpful image, and his words on the ground to his FEMA chief, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," reverberated to his discomfort. It is remarkable what the elected class has learned since then.

We wish that hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and forest fires do not threaten our State. If they do come, we depend on our public officials to lead our response. There is also a great deal that individuals can do, and they should be more prepared for disasters than they are today. 

We have lived for over a half century under the threat of weapons of mass destruction. With nuclear proliferation under way, with unstable regimes in some countries, and others led by psychotics, the world is a dangerous place, whether or not it is warming (and it probably is). The more people can do to provide practical protection for themselves and their families, the better their outcome may turn out to be, as my mother used to say, "if anything happens."

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct mailto:StarQuest@NYCivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.

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