Opinion

David Rohde

Response to Sandy holds election’s key

By David Rohde
November 2, 2012

Jacqueline Pattison is giving Mayor Mike Bloomberg one more day. So far, she has been impressed by New York City’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Along with millions of other New Yorkers, she is patiently enduring the lack of electricity, tortuous commute and a deep sense of uncertainty.

But if electricity does not return to her apartment a few blocks north of the World Trade Center soon, she will have lost faith in her government.

“I think by Friday we should have power at the latest,” the 51-year-old co-owner of a small moving business said. “We live on the 28th floor.”

Five days away from a presidential election that centers on the role of government, Hurricane Sandy has handed the United States an extraordinary experiment in how government performs. In an impossible-to-imagine sequence of events, the city with the country’s largest police force, biggest fire department and highest tax revenues is being put to a historic test.

The political stakes are enormous. As the media blankets the rest of the country with saturation coverage of the recovery effort, an effective government response in New York and New Jersey could aid President Barack Obama in a deadlocked election. Looting, lawlessness and anger at government could aid Mitt Romney.

Thus far, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his government are generally receiving high marks from city residents. But over the next several days events in the New York area could prove pivotal.

In a dozen interviews across the city Thursday, residents expressed growing worry. Promised aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not arriving, fights were breaking out, and tensions simmered in gas lines that snaked for miles.

Despite Bloomberg’s endorsement of Obama Thursday afternoon and a generally positive jobs report Friday morning, time is slowly running on believers in government. The socio-economic divide that I wrote about earlier this week is widening.

Tribeca, one of the wealthiest areas in the city  to lose power, is deserted. Its residents, it seems, have the means to flee the city. Meanwhile, officials estimate that 49,000 people are trapped in public housing buildings that lack power. Middle-class residents of Brooklyn, Staten Island and the suburbs ringing New York say they are being forgotten. The mayor’s foolish decision to proceed with the New York City Marathon this Sunday is provoking a popular backlash. With only an estimated 50 percent of the area’s gas stations working and with wind-chill adjusted temperatures expected to drop below freezing Friday night, Bloomberg is flirting with disaster.

“This is terrible,” Max Okuendo, a 37-year-old security guard who has been without power in Lower Manhattan for three days, said Thursday afternoon. “It has taken so long.”

Okuendo had brought his two daughters to midtown Manhattan after three days in a seventh-floor lower Manhattan apartment without power. He said he and his daughters had taken a packed city bus to the northern part of the city that had power.

“It was like sardines,” he said. “I’ve seen three fights already.”

He said that no assistance has arrived for residents of lower Manhattan.

“I don’t think he has enough emergency stations,” he said. “I must have spent one hundred dollars alone just for lights, candles and batteries for my mother’s insulin machine.”

Arne Balassanian, a 43-year-old property manager who lives a few blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, said he was unimpressed by the government effort so far. He said that local residents and businesses had done more to help him than city agencies.

“More than anything, the people in the neighborhood have done the most,” he said as he walked his dog down a lifeless lower Manhattan street Thursday afternoon. “As far as the government, I don’t know.”

More positive responses, unsurprisingly, came from parts of the city that still have power.

“So far, I think they’ve done a pretty good job,” said Bernard Martin, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in the Bronx and has had power throughout the storm. “I think the mayor’s done a good job.”

As with so many other issues in the election, Republican and Democratic orthodoxy don’t fit reality on the ground. Local government should play the central role in preparing for natural disasters. But their efforts will be pointless unless the federal government funds them.

As a city resident, I have been impressed by the city government’s response this week. Armies of police officers, utility workers and mass transit employees have worked ceaselessly to save lives, restore order and repair a city infrastructure that in places is centuries old.

Area political leaders have dropped partisan politics to address a grave crisis.

Fellow New Yorkers, though, have impressed me most of all. They have shown tremendous calm, understanding and patience amidst calamity.

In an interview Thursday, Robert Yusitalo, a 49-year-old Seattle native who moved to New York several months ago, summed up my own feelings.

“For a city this big to come together as they have,” he said, “it’s absolutely amazing.”

At the same time, the frustration, fear and distrust of government that is rising among New Yorkers is real. I hope New York’s government continues to perform well in the days ahead. And I hope its residents hold their nerve.

I wish the same patience, perspective and practicality that I’ve seen in New York this week could be transferred to our politicians in Washington. Natural disasters are real. We need a lean but effective government to respond to them.

It’s foolish and naïve, but I fantasize that another impossible-to-imagine series of events will lead to a sea change among our leaders. Whoever wins the presidency next week will magically tack to the center, political extremists will lose credibility and pragmatists from both parties will engage in a serious effort to address our nation’s staggering problems. Disaster does that to you.

PHOTO: A New York City Police officer speaks to a customer at a Hess fuelling station in Brooklyn, New York Harbor, November 2, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The are holding a marathon while others suffer??? If it gets ugly this weekend and it will get ugly it does not bode well for the guy who was visiting and now left to campaign to save his job. Sound familiar…Benghazi anyone…

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive
 

For one thing, this article is not up to date. The marathon has been cancelled. (http://www.businessinsider.com/marathon -cancellation-media-2012-11).

For another, I rather feel sorry for New Yorkers. They don’t have to deal with this sort of thing regularly. Those of us from Florida expect power outages lasting weeks after a major hurricane, and most of our infrastructure is prepared to handle a major storm because we get them so often. New York’s is not. The expectation that they should have power restored after a major storm event like this within three days is very unrealistic. Lines have to be fixed, transformers repaired and replaced. These things take time, and hundreds of thousands of wonderful power company volunteers coming from all over the country to help repairs (after 2004 in Florida when we had FOUR hurricanes and a tropical storm including TWO category 4 hit all within approx. two months, and the massive effort by power companies to repair our lines no one will ever say ANYTHING bad about power companies in my presence again).

And yes, as some in the article have pointed out, a lot of times businesses and people are the center focus of relief efforts. That is normal. Government’s role should be logistics (moving outside resources in via National Guard, and serving as a central distribution node for all incoming resources. They should NOT be be expected to be the only resource for relief and the expectation is once again unrealistic.

I get that this is a disaster. I genuinely feel for all the poor victims of Sandy. As a Floridian I know what they are going through (maybe minus the cold front bit). But this is not the time to complain about government, and sit and rely on them to come save the day. Help your neighbor, come together as a community, if you have resources volunteer them and your time to make your governments role easier. Government only works, after all, if we as people make it work.

Posted by ocepheus | Report as abusive
 

So people who buy apartments on the 28th floor of a building never consider what happens in a power outage? I am a big believer in adequately funding government, but a natural disaster of this magnitude cannot be solved immediately, especially with the smallest governments at national, state, and local levels at very low levels compared to modern age equivalents. But even with adequately staffed governments, adults really should be able to plan ahead and survive for at least a week, if they are inside a physical structure. And there are food and water supplies available in stores, so we are talking about denying ourselves modern conveniences, not human necessities. People in the Southeast, who live near the oceans and bays, are prepared for a week without power, worse case. So as so many rightwingers complaining about people choosing to live in New Orleans, I guess we can same now goes for New Yorkers and the entire Northeast coast. And you don’t hear the constant whining and threats from the locals when it happens in the Southeast, as they realize this is life.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive
 

I pray that the there is not looting and lawlessness, that people affected by this storm do everything they can to work together, help a neighbor, give a smile and a helping hand. This is an opportunity for those affected, and those in surrounding areas, to show a true spirit of community. With everyone’s help, we can pull through this storm. There is hope. I believe in the true spirit of patriotism that can permeate each person when we realize that we have brothers and sister and friends and neighbors in need.

–Eric

Posted by Just_Do_It | Report as abusive
 

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