As cleanup and recovery from Hurricane Sandy continues in the Caribbean and the Northeastern United States, so begins the reflections. These reflections undoubtedly range from horrific to thankful, and to angered and confused. Others are beginning to raise critical questions that, unfortunately, with history as our guide, will likely continue to go unaddressed.
The New York Times ran an article focusing on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and its cycle of constant rebuilding of bigger and more expensive houses in a hurricane-prone area. “Since 1979, nearly a dozen hurricanes and large storms have rolled in and knocked down houses, chewed up sewers and water pipes and hurled sand onto the roads.” Every time, Washington has been happy to assist in rebuilding, and its expressions of assistance for New York and New Jersey further show this happiness, but never stop to ask why we keep rebuilding in these areas. Indeed, another Times article critically points out that political changes are needed to address this very issue. Not only are general protective measures needed to protect metropolitan areas, but also other important matters should be attacked. To me, the political attitude of winning points with the public by helping after disaster strikes but doing minimal preventative work is a sentiment broadly sweeping across a spectra of concerns from health care to energy, agriculture, the environment and civil rights.
I have heard the expressed feeling from people in different neighborhoods in NYC that the public attention and assistance now is nice, but where was it before? Anytime a disaster strikes presents a wonderful opportunity to address and reconsider business-as-usual. In some states, public officials have willfully avoided talk of climate change, rising sea levels, and their affect on residents. This avoidance reminds me of the general absence of a duty to rescue in American tort laws. Once a state legislator announces its awareness of the dangers facing its communities, its special relationship will then be at the point where a duty to act should exist. At that point, it should be within the state’s police powers to care for the welfare and safety of its citizens. Without addressing and taking a policy position that there are environmental dangers, then the state political officers can take a stance of plausible deniability. Stating an awareness of a major problem and then (seemingly) doing nothing about it is politically unpopular.
Meanwhile, other localities have taken an announced position and are talking about changes for the future. See also Massachusetts v. E.P.A. (2007). Any and all infrastructure overhauls and approaches must be done equitably in terms of economic, ethnic and social stratifications, but tough decisions that might be politically unpopular need to be made. Rebuilding in spots that will continuously be pounded by major storms is not a smart approach. It places individuals in harm’s way and threatens future increased tolls of death and injury, be it health, limb and/or economics.
The humanitarian disaster will increase with every instance of business as usual and the continuance of development for what seems to be development’s sake in any and every open spot of land. Now is a time to attack critical problems and start working with and for the future in mind, instead of always trying to correct or merely erase past mistakes. Sometimes, the work will be as simple as updating our maps to paying attention to the science, but will also be expensive and non-money-making ventures like sewage system overhauls and maintenance. Moreover, encouraging responsible development and possible relocation from disaster-prone areas to allow for the reintroduction, restoration and protection of barrier islands, wetlands, dunes, etc., will be slow, politically unpopular, but safer and necessary for the long run. We have for too long been static, but nature is dynamic and, thus, we should be dynamic too.