Forget the rain, the wind, the surge. Worry about your plumbing. Dr. Kent Sepkowitz on the public-health threat to the water supply—and why government works.
With Sandy bearing down upon us, many people are worried important things: Will work be canceled tomorrow? What about the elevators—will I have to hoof it up nine flights to get home? And what if cable service gets screwed up and I miss the next episode of Homeland?
A man looks out on the Manhattan skyline and Hudson River as Hurricane Sandy begins to affect the area on October 29, 2012 in Hoboken, N.J. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced states of emergency and closures of public transit. (Michael Bocchieri / Getty Images)
Not small issues to be sure, but way off the mark. What we all should be worrying about is plumbing. It’s not the water lashing the beaches that matters; it’s the water in your faucet and toilet.
Here’s a simple example of why. In April 1993, 400,000 people in Milwaukee (total population: 1.6 million) became ill from an intestinal microbe, cryptosporidium, courtesy of contaminated drinking water. Each developed a week-plus of diarrhea and general intestinal misery; of them, more than 100, all with abnormal immune systems, died. How and why did it happen? Bad plumbing. The city’s water filtration system, which took Lake Michigan water and (allegedly) filtered it clean, failed for some reason—and cryptosporidium entered the water supply, then people’s stomachs. Perhaps the spring rains overwhelmed the filtering capacity. Perhaps an unusually large run-off of cryptosporidium from the excrement of various local farm animals spiked the lake. Perhaps this, perhaps that but the skinny was that too much water passed across filters built to handle most of the contaminations most of the time—but not all the super extreme oh-my-god contaminations all of the time—and predictably failed.
More than email or mass transit or your favorite diner, all of urban life depends on plumbing—defined in practical terms as the effective provision of clean water for drinking and the regular removal of waste to a place nowhere near the source of clean water. The ancient Romans with their Cloaca Maxima were able to rule the world because of their attention (OK, obsession) to this elemental fact. Pliny the Elder considered their plumbing to be the greatest accomplishment of the Roman Empire. Clean in and waste out, in and out, in and out—that’s how civilization grows. Societies that accomplish this flourish while those that cannot generally struggle to move beyond the most rudimentary hand-to-mouth subsistence.
Yet most of today’s survival tips out there have only to do with keeping your food from spoiling or your ice icy. Sure, food is mighty important, but food is easy. No one will starve here (except those inexplicably ignored persons who already are starving). We might suffer through—gasp—some days of dull cuisine, stuck with goodies like PBJ on white bread, scrambled eggs for dinner, or boiled noodles with ketchup. Tough, I know. But the problem is not one of food shortages but, alas, one of excrement. Raw sewage. Shit. In your water supply.
The usual sequence when the water supply is disrupted is to use bottled water. In resource-strapped countries like Haiti after the earthquake or in New Orleans after Katrina, the clean bottled water runs out or isn’t supplied widely and consistently enough. And similar to those two now-legendary disasters, if the pipes are not fixed and a return to faucet-based life restored, infections begin. People drinking dirty water contaminated with, say, cryptosporidium or cholera or E coli, or whatever extra awful microbe is around. It kills thousands after every major natural disaster, unless the old in-with-the-fresh, out-with-the-waste rhythm of the Cloaca Maxima can be restored.
With 11 feet of water set to crash onto the shore-hemmed city of New York, what assurances do we have that New York City will not become Milwaukee-by-the-sea or, more disturbing, something like Port-au-Gotham? Plenty—New York City and, I suspect, other urban centers, has a forward-thinking approach to the water supply informed with hard-earned lessons from Haiti and New Orleans. New Yorkers use 1.3 billion gallons of water each day, sending it downstream across 7,400 miles of sewer pipes. That’s about 160 gallons per head per day. The Department of Sanitation sees it in basic terms: fresh water in (mostly from the lakes and reservoirs) and used water out. Logic and civic planning prevail. This is your government actually working (!).
Having lived through one of the worst disasters imaginable, Jonathan M. Katz argues that the Haitians offer a good example of how to behave.
The superstorm blasting its way through the most densely populated region of the United States is leaving its predicted trail of destruction. Floodwaters have inundated city blocks, and storm tides are pulsing up rivers and canals. Understandably nervous people in the path of the ex-tropical menace are beginning to speculate about what might come next. On Monday, the Drudge Report issued its siren warning: “Gangs Plan Hurricane Looting Spree Via Twitter.” Business Insider intoned: Prepare For a Wave of Looting After Hurricane Sandy. “If police reports following Hurricanes Katrina and Irene are any indication, the East Coast is in for a crime wave,” writer Abby Rodgers warned.
Local residents wander amidst the ruins of their hometown hours after the earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince, Jan. 13, 2010. (Juan Barreto / AFP / Getty Images)
While I can’t offer much solace about the storm surge, I do have good news about the impending social meltdown: it’s a myth. Fears of wanton lawlessness, panic, and doom follow most every natural disaster, but they almost never come true. In fact, the myth itself is potentially a greater danger—prone to impeding efforts when help is needed most. I know this, because I lived though one of the worst disasters imaginable.
On Jan. 12, 2010, I was inside my house in the hills above Haiti’s capital when the floor dropped and the walls began to crumble. In less than a minute, the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere tore through a metropolitan area of three million, destroying infrastructure, knocking out an already feeble power grid, impaired an already fragile food supply, and killed an estimated 316,000 people. Countless more were injured or made homeless.
As people around the world rallied to Haiti’s aid, they brought the same fears that Drudge and Rodgers are stirring now: that survivors—especially, as the myth often has it, poor, black survivors—are bound to panic, loot, or react with violence. This fear over looming anarchy is part of what prompts authorities to favor a military-led response. At home, that means mobilizing thousands of National Guard units. In Haiti nearly three years ago, that concern is much of the reason that the U.S. military was the leading presence in the quake zone for months after the aftershocks subsided—22,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deployed at the height. A panic over impending chaos also fueled the civilian response, with aid groups pleading for donations on exaggerated descriptions of a disaster zone with “no food” and “no water,” prompting kind-hearted donors to flood the zone with an uncoordinated barrage of bottled water, latex gloves, and in one weird case, wooden hand puppets.
Yet for those of us who called the quake zone home, it was a very different experience. The sense of community in Port-au-Prince didn’t just unravel, but became stronger in those weeks after the quake, with people across Haiti putting aside vicious political squabbles and deep-rooted differences of race and class to focus on the immediate challenges of survival and coping with tremendous loss. Though authorities and many of my colleagues in the media fixated and exaggerated isolated pockets of presumed looting, lawlessness was isolated. Inexperienced journalists spread reports of “rioting”—often little more than pushing and shoving—at aid distributions made far more chaotic by pepper-spraying U.N. soldiers than malice. Many of the most widely reported events involved people just trying to dig food out of fallen buildings.
I don’t mean to make the situation in Haiti sound benign. Life in the quake zone was hard, and got harder as time went on. But that had far more to do with Haiti’s chronic want and the unnerving drumbeat of constant aftershocks than any lack of social cohesion. Yes, there were gangs in Port-au-Prince fighting low-intensity turf wars in the slums. And one bright morning, I ran across a pair of young men bleeding in the street, freshly executed with a shot to the back of their heads—by whom, no one would say. But such crimes were, if anything, more rare than they had been before the quake. And those two men killed? Witnesses said they had been caught stealing.
Indeed, law-and-order authorities found themselves with little to do. Most of the U.S. troops, sent to contain a societal meltdown, never left their ships. Hard-hatted foreign rescuers got the headlines, but due to inflated security concerns concentrated on a few high-profile sites and rescued only a handful of people. Haitian neighbors helping one another carried out the vast majority of rescues, ad hoc. And while the relief effort did fill crucial supply gaps and provided some lifesaving aid, the price of panic was an uncoordinated, uneven, sometimes paranoid response. The top-down “command-and-control” structure overcentralized the effort, leaving whole cities unattended for days while panicking responders duplicated efforts and wasted resources. The groundwork for a long-term recovery was botched. In Haiti, where there are still no federal or local agencies competent to deal with that magnitude of a catastrophe, the result has been more suffering. This month in Haiti alone, Hurricane Sandy's floods and winds, though merely sideswiping the island nation as the storm headed north, killed at least 52 people.
Residents of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town try to carry on as usual, walking dogs, going out for smokes, and checking the street in the face of power outage and high water wrought by the superstorm.
As Hurricane Sandy lashed New York City, dumping massive amounts of water, causing scattered power outages, and inflicting minor injuries, Manhattan residents displayed everything from their usual sangfroid to curiosity to impatience.
Unfazed by a large police presence up and down First Avenue in the Stuyvesant Town development on the East Side and downed tree limbs near 14th Street and First Avenue, couples went out to walk their dogs and have a smoke, appearing very casual amid the whirlwind.
A crowd at 14th and Avenue B watched Fire Department vehicles and Con Ed trucks working on some kind of problem that appeared to be related to electrical issues caused by flooding.
Michelle Roth, who has lived in Stuyvesant Town for a year and a half, wandered down with friends. "We were just bored,” she said. “We were sitting in the dark and we wanted to see." She spoke briefly with a Con Ed staffer and then reported: "He said there was no script for this."
If there were a script, it was not followed by Sandy—already estimated to have caused billions of dollars in damage and a still unclear number of deaths along the northeast shore—including five in New York City. Sandy robbed some 5.7 million people of power, including tens of thousands in Lower Manhattan. The superstorm knocked out the electricity in Stuyvesant Town, ripping down branches of all sizes, including some big ones, while it was at it.
Lights were out Monday night in the development. The flicker of candles and flashlights could be seen through some apartment windows.
Flooding in the enclave seemed to begin at Avenue C and worsened moving eastward. The water deepened quickly and was almost covering a fire hydrant within 100 yards. Lights flashed and alarms blared on some cars parked in the water.
East and north toward 20th Street and Avenue C, the water rose above the tires of some parked vehicles, and pushed around large chunks of plywood and other debris.
When government policy allows, and even subsidizes, business and individuals to engage in behavior that helps produce killer storms like Sandy, government has failed its most basic responsibility—and it should be discussed, says Peter Beinart.
We’re only a few hours into Hurricane Sandy, and commentators left and right are already accusing each other of “politicizing” the storm.
As if that’s a bad thing.
A man abandons his car as water flood local streets in Freeport, New York on October 29, 2012. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)
In fact, politicizing is exactly what this storm needs. Last night, the cable networks barely mentioned global warming. Evidently discussing the root causes of the biblical weather that has struck the United States—and much of the rest of the globe—in recent years is considered bad form.
I suspect that in the days ahead President Obama will avoid mentioning Mitt Romney’s proposed disbanding of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for fear of being accused of injecting crass electoral concerns into what should be a pristinely apolitical natural disaster.
The sanctimony is nauseating. In a democracy, politics is not something we stop discussing when tragedy strikes. It’s the mechanism we use, as best we can, to prevent such tragedies.
If there’s one thing that even the Tea Party agrees that government should do, it is protect lives, property, and public order. When government policy allows, and even subsidizes, business and individuals to engage in behavior that heats up the oceans, and that extra heat helps produce killer storms like Sandy, government has failed its most basic responsibility.
And when Sandy hits, and government lacks the resources to save as many lives as possible, political outrage is a much healthier reaction than pious fatalism.
The massive waves may be a siren song for the hang-ten set. But listen to Mayor Bloomberg and sit this one out. By Josh Dzieza
Other than weathermen, surfers are probably the only people who gleefully run to the beach when they hear a hurricane is coming. All through the fall, they watch tropical depressions and hope that one will spin its way far enough north to send swells to the normally wave-starved mid-Atlantic states. Hurricanes like Isaac and Leslie brought some of the best waves of the year, and as recently as a couple days ago surfers hoped that Sandy could be another such storm. Now it’s clear that it’s not.
A man surfs as Hurricane Sandy approaches in Long Beach, N.Y., Oct. 28, 2012. (Mike Stobe / Getty Images)
“Let me say something again and again and again: please, the beaches are dangerous and surfing is extremely dangerous,” an exasperated Mayor Bloomberg warned on Saturday. It was one of several pleas for “the young kids going out and surfing” to get out of the water and go home. If Bloomberg’s surfing bona fides are in doubt, ask Mike Watson, a forecaster for the surf modeling company Surfline: “This is no longer a surf situation, it’s a stay-safe situation.”
Still, there was a small window before the storm hit when experienced surfers went out. Jesse Farmer, a veteran hurricane surfer from North Carolina who is now studying climate science at Columbia University, says he saw about 50 people in the water at Long Beach early Sunday afternoon. “I saw a couple great waves, local guys who had the place dialed and knew it in and out.” But, he said, by the afternoon it was like being in a washing machine; there were waves breaking unexpectedly in different places, powerful gusts, and a strong current sucking everyone sideways down the beach. By late afternoon people were getting out of the water, and by the next morning conditions were worse still. Anyone foolhardy enough to venture into the churning mess on Monday received a summons, as did two surfers at Coney Island (which isn't a beach people normally surf at).
Hurricanes can bring great surf to the East Coast—but not when they collide with a nor'easter, turn west, and come ashore as the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded. “What you want is a storm like Katia last year, that just sits out in the Atlantic,” said Farmer. Katia arrived just in time for last year’s Quicksilver Pro surfing event in Long Beach, disproving the many skeptics who believed New York could never host a world-tour-level surf competition. Hurricanes generate lots of waves of different sizes and speeds; when the storm stays out at sea, the smaller waves dissipate and only the largest make it ashore, sorted into sets of similar size. But when the storm makes landfall, you get the small waves along with the big, all mashed together in a disorganized jumble. Add gusts blowing the tops off waves, and it doesn’t make for good surfing.
What happens when thrill seekers do get caught at sea? Watch a heroic Coast Guard rescue of boaters caught in Sandy.
Down in Florida, far from the storm, it’s a slightly different story. “It took some time to settle down, but it’s been a pretty solid event,” says Watson, who lives in Florida. There were reports of 20-foot waves on Saturday, and big-wave surfers were towing into Pumphouse in Palm Beach. (It’s so hard to paddle out in waves that big that people have to Jet Ski out, catch a wave, and ride it to the channel where it dies in deeper water.) But as the storm moved closer to shore around North Carolina, the situation worsened. The winds got stronger, the waves choppier, the current faster. And it’s not just the water—there are large pieces of wood from broken piers and beach-house decks that waves can fling at you. “This is now a matter of life, property, and staying safe,” says Watson.
The surfing outlook isn’t good for after the storm, either. Irene moved through fast enough that there was some swell left over after the wind died. Watson doesn’t think that will happen with Sandy. The storm is too big and moving too slowly. On the south of the storm, the counterclockwise winds blowing out to sea will likely knock down much of the swell before the storm passes.
With Obama still ahead in Ohio, Romney could need the Badger State’s 10 electoral votes to have a path to 270, reports Matt Taylor.
Hurricane Sandy may be a safe distance from Wisconsin, but the Frankenstorm has upended Mitt Romney’s late push to claim the Badger State’s 10 electoral votes.
The Republican presidential nominee was compelled to ax an event in suburban Milwaukee, a GOP stronghold, Monday evening as his team (like President Obama’s) apparently decided to stop politicking with flooding, power outages, and even deaths on the horizon.
But a Romney visit may not have made all that much difference, as just a few months removed from the conservative movement’s resounding victory over organized labor in the bitter Scott Walker recall fight, Wisconsin seems to have reverted to its old left-of-center self when it comes to national politics.
Not only do polls show President Obama still ahead (albeit by far less than his 14-point margin from four years ago), but Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democratic congresswoman who represents the college town of Madison and was assumed to have an uphill battle on her hands, has drawn even in the polls in her bid to take out popular former Republican governor Tommy Thompson in the U.S. Senate race.
The Republicans predictions of a new era of conservative hegemony after public-sector unions failed to recall Gov. Scott Walker now seem were more than a little premature in a state that lasted backed a Republican presidential candidate in 1984.
Mitt Romney could take a hit from Hurricane Sandy in Wisconsin, but what does the storm mean for other pols? Watch our mashup of politicians responding to 'Frakenstorm.'
Wisconsin political insiders and longtime observers of the state’s elections don’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of a Romney upset, but given that George W. Bush came up a few thousand votes short here both in 2000 and 2004 (while winning neighbor Ohio), a last-minute sprint by Romney suggests fear that the electoral college math just isn’t adding up in some of the swing states he originally intended to win, like Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia.
The president has suspended campaigning to lead the federal response to a devastating hurricane. Howard Kurtz on why the crisis gives Obama a big edge over Romney.
Washington was under assault by torrential rains as President Obama stepped to a White House podium and briefed the nation on the progress of a deadly hurricane.
“The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together,” Obama said Monday afternoon as the television cameras rolled. “We look out for our friends. We look out for our neighbors. And we set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness.”
The president was not campaigning—indeed, he had canceled an appearance in Orlando that morning and flown back to a nearly deserted capital—but in a way, he was.
He was auditioning for another four years as commander in chief by demonstrating that he had taken charge of the federal response and displaying compassion toward the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
President Obama held a press conference to address the storm on Monday.
That’s his job, of course. But he now has the chance to perform it under the unique spotlight of a national disaster that, fairly or unfairly, has left Mitt Romney with little running room in the final week of an extremely tight presidential campaign.
Romney canceled an event in Wisconsin on Monday and his schedule for Tuesday rather than push against the storm’s gale-force wins. He said he was acting “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.”
That was the sensible course, because the hurricane’s impact goes well beyond shutting the candidates out of crucial Eastern swing states. Even if Romney had gone ahead and campaigned, how much attention would he have gotten with the media’s attention riveted on the monster storm? The truth is, he would have been blown off the screen.
Eleven years ago, New Yorkers were spellbound by the sight of the burning towers. On Monday night, it was the unholy roar of the wind. Michael Daly on how the city’s emergency responders and Mayor Bloomberg eased the fear.
The mysterious whistling sound on high turned eerie when the source proved to be the hurricane’s winds gusting through the exposed steel of the nearly complete Freedom Tower at ground zero.
The NYC skyline is shown first on Oct. 29, 2012, during the blackouts caused by Hurricane Sandy, and then on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo (2))
And with that noise came a conscious thought that had until then been a jangling edginess whose own source was not immediately clear.
The thought was this: could it possibly be that 10/29 proves to be in any sense the meteorological equivalent of 9/11? Would disaster strike us again?
The anxiety increased as the storm drew closer and the city approached the hour that Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned would be the worst.
An added feeling of being trapped came as the closures were extended from the subway to the bridges and tunnels, and people were advised to stay inside. Where we had once stood spellbound by the sight of the burning towers, we now listened to the unholy roar of the wind. Windows and doors rattled, and sirens wailed in the gathering night.
Only this time the sirens were not converging toward one place. They were going in all directions, and to hear them was to imagine dire emergencies of every kind, everywhere.
If 9/11 was about what we saw, then 10/29 was about what we heard. And even when we cannot fully believe what our eyes behold, they are far better than our ears at gauging the true magnitude of a threat.
They were ordered to evacuate—or at the very least to stay inside. Instead they jumped in the water, went running around outside, and found other stupid stuff to do. WATCH VIDEO of the storm’s worst dumbasses.
New Jersey issued the most blatantly terrifying evacuation warning of all time to its residents. (Paraphrase: You will die if you stay, and you will die a selfish person because you didn’t “think about the rescue/recovery teams who will rescue you if you are injured or recover your remains if you do not survive.” Mayor Bloomberg was less concerned with instilling the fear of God into city residents with his advice: “Stay hunkered in to your home and have a sandwich out of the fridge and sit back and watch television.”
While the wisest and most logical of us in the tri-state area heeded officials’ warnings, whether fleeing to Grandma’s upstate or locking ourselves indoors and finally starting that Downton Abbey Netflix marathon we’ve been craving for months, an illustrious population of boneheads could be counted on to go outside and get stupid. We’ve rounded up a Hall of Fame of the biggest Hurricane Sandy doofuses. Enjoy!
While you were stocking up on water and staying away from windows to be safe in the storm, this guy went out for a jog in Washington, D.C., with no shirt on and a horse mask on his head. Hilarious hurricane hero? Drunk idiot? Either way, the shirtless jogging horseman has just become Sandy’s mascot and Wednesday’s most topical Halloween costume.
Jet Skiing in New York Harbor
With Hurricane Sandy just 90 minutes from making landfall on New York, this genius took his Jet Ski out in Manhattan’s New York Harbor. To recap, forecasters call for surges of six to 11 feet and unprecedented wind speeds, and this man heads out into the waters on a vessel that appears the size of a rubber duckie next to those waves. Summed up New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn: the man is “out of his mind … out of his ever-loving mind.”
Sandy’s floodwaters overran New York’s defenses, filling tunnels and subway stations with seawater and submerging entire streets. See the most chilling images of the storm’s aftermath from around the Web.
One man killed by falling tree.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed that five people have been killed so far in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall Monday night in New Jersey, and took out power in much of Manhattan. The only confirmed death in New York City was a man in Queens, who was killed when a tree fell on his house. The locations and causes of death for the other four fatalities have not been released.
Reports of cars floating down Wall St.
Storm Sandy made landfall just before 8:10 p.m. ET Monday, and soon after, Manhattan went underwater. Reports came from all over the city of flooded streets and surging water. In Lower Manhattan, the South Street Seaport and much of Battery Park City was flooded. There were reports of cars floating down Wall Street. Photos revealed portions of Alphabet City under water, as well as portions of the West Side Highway, the Battery Tunnel, and streets as far north as 33rd Street. Power throughough Lower Manhattan was also out, with electrical provider ConEdison preemptively turning it off as a safety measure.
With bridges closed, transportation suspended, and power out for many, New York hunkered down Monday evening. Michael Daly reports on the damaging high tide—and the reports of building collapses.
The water was just cresting the seawall at the foot of Wall Street on Monday morning when it stopped and then slowly began to recede.
But there were no sighs of relief, only the sense that a monster of a size almost beyond imagining was drawing in its breath and coiling its muscles as it lumbered ever closer. It would be delivering a blow whose magnitude could not be reckoned until it struck.
And with it would come the next high tide at New York Harbor, likely higher than any in the city’s history, rising with the storm’s unprecedented power to as much as an 11-foot surge because of a full moon.
“The real flooding is going to come tonight,” Mayor Bloomberg said at an 11:30 a.m. press conference. “Eight o’clock so going to be the worst and that’s only a few hours from now.”
Back down at the harbor, the tide was still going out to sea where Hurricane Sandy had begun its slow turn toward land. The storm was hundreds of miles wide and it was whipping up winds as high as 100 mph. It was itself lumbering at only 18 mph, but that made it all the more dangerous because when it finally arrived it would not just be roaring through.
To stand at the churning harbor’s edge and see how high it was and then consider how much higher it might rise was to sense the magnitude of the approaching force. Not just some wave but the sea itself would be rising.
In the meantime, the supposedly great powers of Wall Street could do nothing more than what the city was doing at subway entrances. The New York Stock Exchange and the portal to the R train both had piles of white sandbags, though the latter also had sheets of plywood.
Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that deploys veterans to help with disaster recovery, did their part to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy in lower Manhattan last week. Team member Curtis Coleman, a former Marine, shares his thoughts on heroic leadership.
As Hurricane Sandy barrels toward the northeast, see some of the most hilarious wind-blown reports.