New York clearly ought to have taken certain steps a while back, no-brainers after the fact. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ought to have installed floodgates and louvers at vulnerable subway entrances and vents. Consolidated Edison should have gotten its transformers, and Verizon its switching stations, out of harm’s way, and Congress should have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the impact of giant barriers to block parts of the city from the sea.
Scientists, architects, planners and others have, of course, been mulling over these issues for years. They’ve pressed for more parkland and bike lanes, green roofs and energy-efficient buildings, and warned about the need for backup generators, wetland edges along Lower Manhattan and barrier islands for the harbor to cushion the blow of rushing tides.
Hurricane Sandy was a toll paid for procrastination. The good news? We don’t need to send a bunch of Nobel laureates into the desert now, hoping they come up with some new gizmo to save the planet. Solutions are at hand. Money shouldn’t be a problem either, considering the hundreds of billions of dollars, and more lives, another Sandy or two will cost.
So the problem is not technological or, from a long-term cost-benefit perspective, financial.
Rather it is the existential challenge to the messy democracy we’ve devised. The hardest part of what lies ahead won’t be deciding whether to construct Eiffel Tower-size sea walls across the Verrazano Narrows and Hell Gate, or overhauling the city’s sewage and storm water system, which spews toxic waste into rivers whenever a couple of inches of rain fall because the sea levels have already risen so much. These are monumental tasks.
But more difficult still will be staring down the pain, dislocation and inequity that promise to upend lives, undo communities and shake assumptions about city life and society. More than requiring the untangling of colossal red tape, saving New York and the whole region for the centuries ahead will become a test of civic unity.