An embarrassment of rebuilding riches have emerged from the pile of sludge and unusable earthly possessions that superstorm Sandy left in her wake. Hardening of hospitals, protection for public transit, rebuilding of residences from single-family units up to large housing projects, are all underway across New York and New Jersey. There is a lot of progress. However, some of the cultural trends established in 20th century ‘Merica, unfortunately, are still proceeding unchecked. Before we pat ourselves too firmly on the back we need to better balance our approach to resilience.
The vulnerabilities that we face from superstorms and from climate change in general can be divided into two categories: physical and social. The approach that seems most embedded in our society’s collective response to Sandy (and perhaps to Katrina before) is very much focused on the physical: it’s the storm doors and gates to secure openings, it is the walls and the dunes to keep the water at bay, and it’s the pumps to get the water out after it comes in.
But in this focus on the physical we seem to be relegating some of the greatest successes from Sandy’s wake to a backstory that risks disappearing from our collective memory. In our town, part of that strategy to reduce social vulnerability was the burst of growth that our local Community Emergency Response Team enjoyed. In other places like the Rockaways it was more of a crowd-sourced response such as Occupy Sandy, in others more community-focused such as that catalyzed by the Red Hook Initiative.
At the myriad meetings happening every night about rebuilding, the debates are ongoing. Rigid walls or living berms? Where should the alignment be? How much freeboard? There is much, much less discussion about the spectrum of social mechanisms that can help communities work together. If CERT, as an outgrowth of our Emergency Management framework, is at one end of the spectrum of “Organizations” then perhaps Occupy Sandy is at the other. There are many, many hybrids in between. The more communities understand the range and the specific roles to play, the more they can organize now, enabling them and all of us to be better prepared before the wave breaks over us next time.
With our focus on rebuilding now, we suffer a similar myopia when it comes to better understanding and planning for the long term maintenance, operations and stewardship of these new infrastructures. What will be the maintenance budget and where will those funds come? We should know better by now. One need only look around the U.S. and see how many bridges from the last 100 years we have that are clearly not in a state of good repair. Now, instead of patting Congress on the back for shaping a short term Budget agreement with the President that barely gets us through the next election, we should be castigating everyone in Washington for their failure to adequately fund infrastructure and especially infrastructure maintenance over the past 30 years. Rebuilding after Sandy it looks like we are just adding more infrastructure to this pile.
But money is only part of the problem. The best way to address this larger issue of physical resiliency is by proactively cultivating greater social resilience. We cannot forget that in an area-wide emergency situation it is not possible for our emergency services to respond to everything, as we are so accustomed to them being able to do. But an educated, engaged and empowered new generation of citizens can help meet the range of needs that arise. In addition to just rebuilding, we need to teach and inspire more self-reliance and more activism. We need more residents who know how to shelter in place. Then these neighbors are better equipped to be, on a practical level, the “first” responder to a neighbor in need.
To get to greater social resilience we need to understand that bureaucratic approaches with large NGOs and agencies don’t always function well at the neighborhood level. They aren’t necessarily a comfort for every community. Do they help fill important needs? Of course. But we need more CERT, Occupy, and the whole spectrum of community approaches including faith-based, civic, tenant, block and other more organic approaches.
We have to remember that a viable long-term recovery leads to a suite of finished projects in a state of good repair that we as society can ably fund and staff. The protections have to be spread around based on need, not just ability-to-pay. This level of operations, maintenance and stewardship demands a much larger and more diverse labor force to effectively manage the hard- soft- and everything-in-between types of infrastructure we are rushing to rebuild.
Finally, let’s not get lost in the debates over hard “versus” soft infrastructure. We need more of all of it. We debated this on the sidewalk last week in front of the New School. “With all this green infrastructure,” said an old friend, “are we really just creating more jobs for landscapers?” The answer is, well, yes. But we also have to take a step back and realize that an expanded labor force that better understands soil, sunlight, rain events and extreme weather brings big benefits. These people become the roots of resilience on every urban block, by the bioswale, in the community garden and up on the green roof. With focused education, engagement, and empowerment this becomes the generation that takes us from outsourced maintenance contracts to overall better, and more local, community stewardship. It will yield a more resilient society.
Still not convinced about the benefits of social resilience? Think of it this way: all the hardware in the world won’t save ‘Merica if we don’t better equip and engage our people.
Backup generator feed into Emergency Operations Center, Hoboken City Hall 2012
Power supply feed into the Emergency Operations Center, Hoboken City Hall, October 2012