Reflections

Hurricane Sandy, NYC, and resilience

sandyIt’s a strange feeling to be so close to an area of devastation, but to be barely touched by  the hurricane. Sandy swept through NYC on Monday night, leaving hundreds of thousands without power (and water and clothing and food not to mention cell phone service and internet). My neighborhood in Brooklyn saw many downed trees, and the parks were certainly hurt in that respect, and my neighboring friends and I have been feeling restless all week; the destruction is visible on screen, but we’re used to that. Not seeing the flooding and fires firsthand, yet knowing this is dire reality one or two neighborhoods over, has been powerfully strange. But our neighborhood has certainly responded: every evacuation center has been turning away volunteers all day as people are desperate to lend their hands (and towels and casseroles) to the relief effort. We’ve been using Google.org’s crisis map and Twitter, which as been innumerably helpful for the first time in months, to source needs and locate shelters.

New Yorkers have strong memories of momentous disasters. We know how to help each other out. “The collapse of the West Side Highway in New York City in the 1970s was predicted to bring traffic chaos; instead, it helped lead to a revitalized waterfront,” the Guardian recalls. “The events of 9/11 brought changes in emergency response that no doubt benefitted us these last few days.”

It’s funny how a terrible disaster like Hurricane Sandy is what reminds us of our wonderfully walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, engaged communities, and emergent, bottom-up spirit. Bill McKibben spoke to Democracy Now about our resilience (“the great joy of New Yorkers coping”) but didn’t stray from emphasizing the significance of this storm for the city’s future. “The lowest barometric pressures ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras…Records go back to 1821 and this storm broke all of them.”

Andrew Zolli writes of human social resilience and the importance of memory in preparing for and avoiding disaster.

In individuals, organizations and systems, the memory of past disruption often plays a crucial part in keeping a system from crossing a critical threshold. Likewise, the forgetting – intentional or otherwise – of past disruptions often leads to collapse. This is one of the reasons that calamities are often “once in a generation” – it takes that long for the cultural memory of past disturbance to fade.

What kind of “shrine” will NYC create to remember Hurricane Sandy and the wake left behind? Will it come in the form of rewritten policy, built monument, or a cloud of social media moments? How will this shared experience change transportation infrastructure, civic engagement, community health, and housing? The city’s interdependent systems are shaken, but its citizens’ social resilience and physical adaptiveness is holding it together.

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