Published on November 27, 2012 by the United National Antiwar Coalition
The hurricane Sandy disaster revealed much about inequality inherent in American society, and a government which is less and less willing or able to meet the needs of its citizens. Thousands of people in New York and New Jersey have waited days, in some cases weeks, to have electricity, public transportation and other needed services and infrastructure restored. Private utility companies proved themselves unable to provide power as they are licensed by the states and required to do. Residents of New York City public housing developments lived for more than two weeks without electricity, heat, or running water.
As in New Orleans, the residents, especially the poor, were last in the city government’s priority list. Power was restored to the New York Stock Exchange quickly and the mayor wanted to use scarce resources to hold the annual marathon. The marathon was cancelled only after very vocal political and popular protest. The promotion of the finance and tourism industries took precedence over providing for the most basic needs of people.
In a nation which thinks of itself as advanced, two major hospitals, New York University and Bellevue, were forced to evacuate patients when back-up generators failed. The evacuations exemplified the ways in which local and state governments failed to coordinate emergency responses with communities residents and stakeholders such as in the health care field. This city which “never sleeps” came to a standstill because the subway system in a city surrounded by water was unprotected from the risk of a major flood. While “first responders” are and should be part of disaster planning, the planning is not extended to local communities and key stakeholders, which then must fend for themselves when first responders cannot come to their aid.
While city and state governments were unable to respond effectively to the crisis, wealthy, private organizations such as the Red Cross were promoted as reliable charities and received more than $100 million in donations from people anxious to help. They too proved inadequate despite the fact they did not lack for financial resources. The Red Cross did little with a lot, but Occupy Sandy did a lot with nothing. Occupy activists met theeds of desperate people where government, utilities and wealthy charities did not. If government had the will and intent to meet human needs and an interest in planning with communities, these charitable organizations and NGOs would be unnecessary in times of crisis.
While the suffering continues, the inevitable cry for privatization has already begun, with disaster capitalism always the winner when human beings are suffering. Calls to privatize transportation networks and public housing began before the winds stopped blowing. Appeals for federal disaster funding are politicized and met with intransigence in congress. There must be a unified demand that this natural disaster not be used as a pretext for cutting government services or turning them over to private interests. There must also be a demand for thorough and public investigations of government actions and the ways in which they did and did not work for people in the stricken areas.
It is the federal government which should provide for citizens’ needs during large scale crises such as weather disasters. That is not possible when the U.S. military budget is larger than the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. Nor is it possible when the top 1% pay taxes at lower rates than the average working person. In the words of Occupy, “End the wars, tax the rich.”
Those things that were done well since this tragedy began teach important lessons about activism. When politicians complained about the inadequate response from the Red Cross, they miraculously appeared. When the public and politicians demanded a cancellation of the New York City Marathon, they succeeded. When Occupy and Doctors Without Borders didn’t listen to city officials or to FEMA and decided on their own to help people in need, they did so successfully.
While any single extreme weather event is hard to attribute to global warming, the latter dramatically increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Today, the U.S. poses the greatest threat to the environment in human history. It leads, along with a handful of oil rich countries, in per capita release of greenhouse gases (and not far behind China in leading total emissions) and is determined to develop dirty unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, that would make the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer in five years. In addition, the U.S. military is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
The U.S. is especially responsible because of its active role to sabotage any binding international climate treaties and because the U.S., through its military might and its hegemonic wars and maneuvers around the globe to control the remaining natural resources, destroys the possibility for international cooperation to urgently address the global environmental crisis that threatens the very existence of our species.
Although it is already too late to totally reverse the damage that has been done, stopping the empire, restructuring our society to remove the profit-driven mandate, and redesigning our entire production and consumption so as to achieve low carbon and sustainability, is key to reduce future disasters like Sandy, among other grave threats like famine, diseases, and violence.
Natural disasters uncover what is already present in a society. Hurricane Sandy showed that government subservience to wealth and capital is a cause of great suffering in this country. The new lessons are the same as the old. There will always be catastrophes but there should be no expectation that an already failed system can save people from them unless there is a coordinated popular demand to make it so.