The intertwined storms of Sandy and capitalism

November 27, 2012

Michael Friedman, a resident of an area in Queens hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, bears witness to the devastating interaction of climate change and economic crisis.

THE VULNERABLE, coastal area on Long Island in which my mother and I live was one of those most devastated by Superstorm Sandy. As our case shows, the havoc wrought by this "perfect storm" was as much--or more--a product of global warming, capitalist development and neoliberalism as it was of Mother Nature.

On Long Island, the storm left 90 percent of residents without electricity in its immediate aftermath. Two weeks after the storm, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) announced that some 38,000 families were still without power, most of them in the Rockaways. Con Edison announced that about 16,000 customers were still without electricity in New York City (even though the Rockaways are part of Queens County in New York City, they are served by LIPA). Many of those without power in New York City are low-income residents who live in public housing.

Some activists have expressed fears that, like Katrina in New Orleans, Sandy may pave the way for elimination of at least some of the city's public housing. It was inevitably poor and working-class communities that were hardest hit, due to location, condition of infrastructure and available resources. It is also those communities that received the scarcest and least effective attention from the authorities or the media, and have been slowest to recover.

An entire block of stores and apartments in Rockaway Beach burned down during the storm
An entire block of stores and apartments in Rockaway Beach burned down during the storm (Michael Friedman)

As I rode my bike through our area in the days after the storm, I was struck by the contrast between Woodsburgh, a wealthy area on Hewlett Bay, and working-class Rockaway Beach. Yachts at the Keystone Yacht Club were strewn like children's toys across Woodmere Boulevard South and the neighboring, neatly manicured properties. Some big trees also came down.

Residents in this area can afford expensive mitigation measures, such as French Drains and sealed and raised foundations. They are thoroughly covered by their insurance policies and can absorb costly repairs. There was little outwardly visible structural damage, the neighborhood's electricity was restored a day or two after the storm, and the area soon resumed a normal appearance and activities.

On the other hand, Beach 113 Street in Rockaway Beach is the site of the Yana relief center set up by Occupy Sandy, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot. In this low-income area completely inundated by the storm surge, some streets were still covered with sand and strewn with debris and even overturned cars two weeks after Sandy. Residents were still without electricity.

Many residents, especially the elderly, in apartments and projects were afraid to venture forth in pitch-black stairwells and did not leave their apartments for two weeks or more after the storm. Many were finally attended to by Occupy Sandy volunteers. An entire block of stores and apartments in front of Occupy Sandy's medical station had burned to the ground during the storm, and water still spurted from broken pipes.

I RENT an apartment in the basement of my 83-year-old mother's home, which is located on the south shore of Nassau County, perhaps a mile from a Jamaica Bay inlet. Our home, only five feet above sea level, is near a tidal creek lying in a low corridor stretching from Jamaica Bay northward to the Sunrise Highway. It should come as no surprise that we were flooded by Sandy, with its 6-foot-11-inch foot storm surge.

Our home was built on swampland covered over with sand and gravel during the speculative, postwar wave of suburban real estate development on Long Island. The water table is only a few feet below the surface. We live in a neighborhood that is neither impoverished nor affluent, one of many Robert Moses-promoted developments that were built to dismantle "dangerous" concentrations of (mostly white) urban, blue-collar workers and buy them off with pieces of the "American Dream."

Of course, such pieces of the American Dream--built on swampland--had uninsurable basements. And even greedy real-estate speculators, corporate-funded development planners, financiers and educated U.S. workers couldn't foresee the effects of global warming in the heyday of the "American Century."

Late on Monday afternoon, October 29, I was in my bathroom brushing my teeth when I heard a gurgling sound coming from my toilet and shower drain. The toilet overflowed, and a brownish spray fountained from the shower drain. Within minutes, our basement was flooded with raw sewage. Within a couple of hours, it reached a depth of two feet (about 1,500 square feet at two feet in depth is more than 22,000 gallons) and seemed to be climbing toward the level of the front door.

We had experienced the same type of flooding, though less severe, during the October 2005 tropical storm when the Port Authority of New York decided to empty its overburdened sewer system into south Nassau's sewer system. We also experienced minor flooding during the major Nor'easter two springs ago and again during Hurricane Irene. In all, we've been flooded four times during the past seven years. The house had never flooded during the previous 35 years my mother has lived there.

But why?

A 1975 report on Long Island hydrology by the Environmental Protection Agency found that "on Long Island, the fresh ground water is bounded laterally and underlain locally by salty ground water hydraulically connected to the sea."

In coastal areas, the water table is determined by sea level. Thus, as the water table rises, the region becomes increasingly prone to flooding and, in particular, drainage and sewage systems are increasingly incapable of absorbing excess rainfall or storm surge.

In a report issued earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) warned that "rates of sea level rise are increasing three to four times faster along portions of the U.S. Atlantic Coast than globally."

"Since about 1990, sea-level rise in the 600-mile stretch of coastal zone from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to north of Boston, Mass.--coined a "hotspot" by scientists--has increased 2 to 3.7 millimeters per year; the global increase over the same period was 0.6 to 1.0 millimeter per year," the USGS report said.

Nassau County, like some other areas, has separate sewage and storm-water drainage systems, with the former going to waste treatment plants and the latter emptying directly into the water table and the sea. During a major storm, however, both systems become overtaxed as the water table rises under the impact of rain or, on the coast, storm surge.

But our sewage and storm-water infrastructure is also many decades old, and there have been no corresponding upgrades over the years as the population has grown, zoning has changed and the system has suffered prolonged wear and tear. New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation stated in a 2012 report:

When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it was accompanied by considerable federal funding to support the construction and upgrading of these facilities to insure that impacts from municipal wastewater would be controlled. These efforts were largely successful, as the period from the 1970s through the 1980s saw significant water quality improvement across the state.

However, since then, funding for maintaining and upgrading these facilities has been greatly reduced. As many of these plants that reach the end of their 30- to 40-year design lives, previous water quality gains are in danger of being lost...In addition to the treatment plants themselves, sewer systems that convey wastewater to the plants for treatment are also deteriorating. More than 30 percent of these systems are in excess of 60 years old.

Instead of upgrades, however, utilities and public works in our area have suffered from cutbacks, privatizations and layoffs in maintenance services and workers--in short, neoliberal economic policies. Nassau County, for example, has cut its budget by $290 million and laid off 20 percent of its workers since 2010.

In July, the North and Central Merrick Civic Association warned that "Nassau County is looking to privatize our sewage treatment system"--a plan currently on hold due to budget cuts. What is the justification? Nassau County Executive "[Edward] Mangano has been claiming that we are operating in a deficit." Turns out that this is untrue, but this is the usual pretext for structural adjustment.

The Civic Association article notes that "county workers' salaries have been frozen and furloughed for years." Apparently, this isn't enough. United Water, the leading contender to benefit from the privatization, asserted that "they will severely cut staff."

MEANWHILE, CONTRACTORS overcharged my mother for two days of work to clean out some of the effluent, remove our waterlogged and contaminated furniture and furnishings, and strip some sections of soaked plasterboard and insulation from the walls. A week after the storm, our electricity was restored. Two weeks later, our ruined furnace was replaced, and we had heat. Three weeks later, the boiler was replaced, and we finally had hot water. The basement remains filthy, wet and uninsulated.

Insurance or FEMA funds are needed before any cleanup or restoration can be done. My mother has been running in circles for days, trying to negotiate the insurance labyrinth.

She applied for FEMA assistance the day after the hurricane and was told, among other things, that FEMA will assist where her insurance companies won't. She was subsequently told that FEMA won't provide funds for destroyed house contents, only damaged structures. Her flood insurer insisted that "nothing below grade"--that is, nothing below ground level--is covered, and that only structure is insured. They also told her she is not covered for sewage. And her homeowner's insurance provider claims that it will only cover above-surface-level wind and rain damage.

Most ominously, insurance officials also told her that in this area, homes with basements are now considered worthless on the real-estate market--though even if she wanted to sell her home, she is so heavily indebted, mortgaged and refinanced that all the proceeds would go to Wells Fargo Bank, which owns the deed to our home. And thus, the debt crisis and disaster capitalism have become intertwined.

To cap it off, Wells Fargo must sign off on any check issued by her insurance companies or FEMA, leading to fears that the bank might try to lay claim to her reconstruction funds as debt payment. When my mother--who lives on her Social Security check--contacted Wells Fargo to discuss a repayment plan on her debt, she was told by a functionary that she "needed to find a job."

Superstorm Sandy has been devastating for us both, just as it has been for millions of other working people who were already reeling under the blows of a capitalist economic crisis and 40 years of neoliberal assault. My mom's partner of 35 years passed away the week before the storm, and she moved back into the house after living with him for seven years. I've been barely keeping afloat on an adjunct instructor's paycheck, while paying back a $150,000 student loan.

I fear that Sandy will finish off my mother--more to the point, it will be the sequelae of Sandy and that other disaster called capitalism.

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