All around the world people have seen the images of coastal towns’ destruction and the desolation of the hundreds of thousands left homeless –40,000 in New York City alone. They evoke the recent memories of last year’s tornado in Joplin, Missouri; of last year’s hurricane Irene; of 2005’s hurricane Katrina, to name only a few, and only the ones that struck the US. Each time the same questions are raised: Why, with growing awareness of the link between of global warming, rising sea levels, shifting sea currents and weather patterns, and more frequent and violent storms, is nothing done to prevent similar catastrophes from inflicting the damage which is to be expected? Why are the so-called rescue efforts never enough to address the needs of the population? Why aren’t the pre-storm evacuations better planned and organized? Is there even a way to prepare for and then to organize the necessary relief, given the chaotic and irrational way in which urban development is ‘planned’ and implemented? Each time these questions are raised after a new disaster, the ruling class avoids a direct confrontation with them, resorts to outright lies, or chooses to focus on how to make political hay out of real human loss and suffering.
Pre-storm preparedness: the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule
Much of the blame for the human hardship in the aftermath of ‘Superstorm Sandy’ has been laid on the choice individuals made not to leave their homes and relocate to shelters. Indeed, ever since the criticisms prompted by the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the ruling class has been intent on refurbishing the image of its state. In an attempt to restore the masses’ confidence in its apparatus, it needs to project the idea of a state capable of safeguarding the well-being of its population. However, cutting through the state apparatus’ byzantine layers of bureaucracy to get the help required in an appropriate time frame has proved impossible time and again.
Even making the communication faster and better between the various federal agencies charged with warning of the potential dangers of a storm is a task that the capitalist state is not able to fulfill. In the words of Bryan Norcross, a well-respected meteorologist for more than twenty years, “They [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA] made outstanding forecasts. Their strength forecast was essentially perfect, and their storm surge forecast for New York City was absolutely as good as a forecast can be these days.” Indeed, forecasts of potentially destructive storms can be made quite accurately one week ahead of their hitting land these days. But the National Hurricane Center chose not to issue any hurricane advisory until just one day before Hurricane Sandy landed because it kept receiving information that the storm may change its path and weaken to a tropical storm. By the time it had become clear the storm wasn’t changing its path and wasn’t weakening, and the Center finally issued the hurricane warning, not enough time was left for people to clearly understand what was about to happen and prepare accordingly. Considering the magnitude of the storm and the fact it was on course to slam into the most populated part of the country, it really was not rational, certainly not responsible, on the side of the agencies and authorities in charge, to decide not to issue the hurricane warning earlier. It certainly is not rational to downplay a storm that was described as a ‘super-mega-combo’ freak of a storm the like of which had never been seen.
NOAA has one set of warnings for tropical storms and another set for northeaster or winter storms. Partly because Hurricane Sandy was a hybrid-type storm which did not fit the description of any prior storm, NOAA got tangled up as to which warning to issue, not knowing which guideline to follow. Without a doubt this had the effect of hindering the ability of the Center to issue the most appropriate warning in time. However, the Center’s decision to issue a clear hurricane warning only one day before the storm’s impact cannot be explained by its sclerotic bureaucracy alone. It also offers a view into the tattered infrastructure of capitalist metropolises and begs the question to our rulers as to what solution, if any, they have to confront similar storms in the future? It seems impossible, under the present conditions of urban ‘development’ under capitalism, to organize a rational protection and evacuation of areas at risk for several reasons: 1. the sheer number of people living in those areas; 2. the lack of infrastructures needed to mobilize them for the evacuation and shelter them in the aftermath of a storm; 3. the destruction of the natural environment and the continued urban development of areas that should not be developed for urban uses; 4. the displacement of financial, human, technological resources toward military goals. These resources could be used for research, innovation, and building of new infrastructure capable of confronting the threats to the environment and human life posed by climate change.
In the case of New Jersey, which was hard hit by the storm, most of the communities on the barrier islands along its coast have been developed to attract tourists and summer residents. For decades, concrete sea walls, rock jetties, or other protective barriers have lined the barrier islands to spur the development of the tourist industry. This kind of urban development has meant that since 1985 80 million cubic yards of sand has been applied on 54 of the state’s 97 miles of developed coast line: a truckload of sand for every foot of beach. Aside from the fact that this periodic replenishment of artificial beaches with natural sand from elsewhere means an increased toll on the highways (trucks filled with sand are extremely heavy) and the depletion of a natural resource, rising sea levels and more frequent storms wash away replenishment projects sooner than expected. Buildings, houses, and roads also pin down the beaches, which contributes significantly to making these communities more vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms and to the further deterioration of the natural protection once provided by undeveloped beaches. Undeveloped beaches deal well with storms. Their sands shift; barrier islands may even migrate toward the mainland, in this way protecting it. But the need for capitalist profit, rather than a harmonization of nature’s own principles with human needs, is what drives the choice to continue the development of artificial beaches. In the logic of capitalism, economic benefits, even though temporary, outweigh the cost of protecting human lives.
New York City has suffered a similar fate, but on a much larger scale. Now that Superstorm Sandy hit and everyone realizes how vulnerable the city and its millions of inhabitants are, the inevitable cacophony about what to do for the future has started again. Proposals for the human engineering of what used to be the harbor’s own natural protective barriers are being considered. Some of these proposals are quite interesting and creative; some even take into account the recreational uses of such projects and their aesthetic attraction. This shows that at the technological and scientific levels humanity has developed the ability to potentially put science at the service of human needs. Storm-surge barriers have been built around the city of St. Petersburg in Russia; Providence, Rhode Island, and in the Netherlands. The technological know-how is available. However, the geography of New York City is such that building a storm-surge barrier to protect Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn could affect tidal flow in such a way that a surge bouncing back against the barrier would double-up its strength against parts of Staten Island and the Rockaway, among the hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy. It is not impossible that an engineering solution can be found to this problem, but, given the track record of capitalist development and the realities of the economic crisis, it is not far-fetched to imagine that New York City will rather recede in what engineers call “resilience”, a term that describes small scale interventions such as installing floodgates at sewage plants and raising the ground level of certain areas in Queens. Considering that New York City is a multi-million inhabitant city that runs part of the world economy and whose infrastructure is very complex, old, and extensive, small interventions of this sort clash against the simplest common sense. It is also not far-fetched to foresee that if the choice will go in favor of a proposal for a storm-surge barrier, the question of who gets included to be behind the gate, and who doesn’t will be answered by the needs of capitalist profit rather than those of human beings.
The aftermath of the storm: we are on our own
President Obama’s electoral campaign saw in Hurricane Sandy an opportunity to revamp the dispute between the most conservative right wing of the ruling class and its more liberal wing over the role of government. Of course, it did so to its own political advantage. It has been claimed that the present administration’s response has been more effective than the response of the George W. Bush’s administration in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The images of the New Orleans convention center, where thousands were stranded for days and where the most awful conditions of survival set in, have been juxtaposed to the images of the National Guard in Hoboken, New Jersey moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents. The message was to be clear: the government is there to help people in need and can do a better job at it if Democrats are at the helm of the state. It was quite obvious from the publicity the Obama administration received from the supposedly ‘prompt’ response by the mass media, and their bashing of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, that the media were completely open to helping Obama out in winning the election.
But human reason must stand to the test of facts. Anybody can read or watch the news to get a sense of the real catastrophic conditions in which hundreds of thousands of people are living in two weeks –at the time of writing- after the storm. From reopening schools that are also serving as shelters, to the continued power shortages for vast swaths of the population across the area, to the fuel rationing and the recent plan by mayor Bloomberg to have the most devastated neighborhoods in the metropolitan area resuscitated through his Rapid Repair program - which promises to be a quick-fix aimed at quelling the population’s rising anger and frustration, the test of facts shows that the ruling class and its extensive bureaucratic state apparatus have hit an impasse and are unable to efficiently and meaningfully address the urgent and long-term needs of its population.
But we do not conclude from this, as the right wing conservatives do, that we need to replace the government with charities and encourage people to save for the rainy days. This is would link the masses to the whims of the ruling class anyway, either by making them dependent on the magnanimousness of philanthropic and religious organizations, or the capitalist market’s swings between periods of employment and unemployment, with the resulting instability as to the ability to save. This does not help the exploited masses raise their consciousness from the level of resignation to the system of exploitation they are subjected to, since it makes no difference whether we are directly repressed and exploited by the state, or by the market, or by the individual capitalist who also happens to be a philanthropist. What we think is needed is the revolutionary and autonomous action of the masses aimed at taking political power. This is the only way to ensure that all important decisions are made in the interest of what needs to be done to create, administer, deliver, and distribute the resources of society for society’s own needs, and not for the needs of profit, capital, the government, or the philanthropist.
Probably learning from the experience of the recent climatic events linked to climate change, most notoriously Hurricane Katrina, that the ruling class and its various agencies, such as FEMA, won’t help, or won’t give the help needed, or enough of it, or as promptly as needed, it is the population itself that poured in its resources, time, money in a significant show of real solidarity. This shows the fundamental and significant sense of identity that exists among the exploited and that it is them who have the potential to create a new world.
The working class is the only class with a future
In each instance of a ‘natural disaster’, the ruling class has been particularly keen on preventing deeper questions of a more general nature from being posed and given a revolutionary answer: What is the perspective for the future of the planet and the human species under the rule of a social class that shows no regard for the safety and well being of the classes it exploits? If the future under capitalism has nothing more to offer other than more environmental destruction and greater threats to the survival of the human species, what needs to be done? What alternatives for the construction of a different, new world? Because it has no particular economic interests to protect and no position of power to maintain and defend in capitalist society, the working class and its revolutionary minorities are the only social forces who can give answers that are stripped of ideological mystifications and that aim at searching for the truth. It is only on the basis of knowing the truth about how economic, social, and political factors determine our human existence that the exploited classes can find in themselves the confidence in their own ability to offer a different vision of the world and ultimately concretize it.
Ana, November 10, 2012