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Super-storms, climate change and war

Phyllis Bennis reports from Washington DC on the ideological impact of Hurricane Sandy
13 November 2012


Downtown Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, by André-Pierre

The super-storm that ravaged Haiti, Cuba and much of the East Coast of the United States two weeks ago, just ahead of the U.S. elections, may finally be recognised as the ‘shock and awe’ phase of climate change’s permanent war against the United States.

Certainly the devastating effects of climate change have been visible elsewhere in the world much earlier. Hurricane Sandy may bring even the most ideologically blinded in the U.S. to join the awareness of the rest of the world, as the reality of climate chaos becomes irrefutable. Some argued that the storm’s ferocity was the great equalizer, because rich as well as poor were left without power for days and weeks, luxury townhouses were swept aside along with seaside shacks and derelict public housing buildings. But that claim ignores the stark reality of the dramatic wealth-poverty divide in this country—laid newly bare by the storm.

In New York, probably the most unequal city in this country, the collapse of infrastructure under the relentless pounding of hurricane-force wind and rain was not an equal opportunity catastrophe. Who will be able to rebuild—and who will not? Whose lives will be permanently destroyed—and who will ultimately walk away with some frightening memories?  Who had insurance coverage for their houses – and who lived in uninsured rental apartments?  Without the subways, people of means could join the endless lines for crowded taxis—poor people walked. When banks and finance companies and the stock market closed, their salaried employees continued to collect their pay checks—poor people, who couldn’t get to their low-wage hourly-paid jobs, didn’t get paid at all. Do we really think that the rebuilding of the opulent high-rises of Manhattan’s Battery Park City will take as long, and leave their residents as desperate, as the reconstruction—or even repair—of the huge public housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn, demolished by the raging floods?

Its proximity to the U.S. elections means this storm provides a broad test for the capacity and the legitimacy of government: will its response be able to provide for despairing people’s most basic needs, or will government failure lay bare, as did Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the racism, poverty and disempowerment that still shape so many lives in this country? Hurricane Sandy posed an immediate choice in the presidential election as well, with voters choosing a campaign and a candidate acknowledging the moment demanded full mobilisation of every facet of public and government capability. Supporters of the defeated Mitt Romney had called instead for FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to be defunded and urged victims of the storm to rely on the largesse of the private sector and church-based charity.

In the longer term, of course, the super-storm’s challenge goes way beyond the election to the far more important question facing our movements:  how to fight with renewed urgency to realise Rachel Carson’s vision of the human right to a safe environment for the entire planet.

In the meantime, for those of us in this country unaccustomed to the immediacy and implacability of war, the massive destruction in much of New Jersey and New York City gives us a hint of what it must have been like in Iraq, almost ten years ago, when George W. Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ destroyed power generators, electrical plants, water treatment facilities and more—suddenly rendering the once-modern city of Baghdad, with its skyscrapers and highways, silent and dark. For those on the twentieth floor of urban apartment buildings, the struggle to find clean water and a way to lug it upstairs without elevators could not have been so different than that faced by Iraq’s high-rise dwellers.

Understanding this storm’s impact in the context of our on-going struggles against climate change AND against inequality and war, may turn out to be one of the most important outcomes of this long and toxic election season.



About the writer ▾



Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

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