BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Hurricane Sandy left us last week. One week later, Barack Obama got elected for a second term.
Is there a connection between the two? Let's analyse.
The superstorm left behind a huge trail of devastation. Here in New York and New Jersey, thousands of people are still without power. Elections were held in places using flashlights, generators and paper ballots replacing electronic voting machines. People had to wait for hours to vote because of the makeshift arrangements.
Many homes and neighbourhoods were flooded. Many people are still spending nights in local shelters. Schools were closed for more than a week. Some 50 people perished in New York alone. Nationally, Sandy took over 100 lives: a record for New York area in modern history.
I want to say a word of prayer for all those who suffered.
Poor people, old people, cancer patients, Alzheimer's patients, handicapped people are going through days without water, electricity, food and with snapped, hanging power lines in the neighbourhood. Nobody is answering their phone calls: not the mayor's office, not the utilities corporate offices.
If someone didn’t know the details, it would seem like a natural calamity in the so-called Third World. As if it happened in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma or Indonesia.
New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie and some other city mayors, borough executives and elected council members worked with affected people and brave rescue workers, standing in knee-deep water, shoulder to shoulder. President Obama also joined Christie, taking a pause from his last-minute election campaign. It was reassuring, indeed, for the victims. And this pro-people gesture paid off. The ordinary American people saw for the first time since Obama took office four years ago that the government could actually help, and not hurt, the people in times of need. The institution of government, they understood, was a good thing — contrary to what Reagan Republicans told them for decades.
Thousands of construction workers, electrical workers, plumbers, pipe fitters, sanitation workers, subway workers, glass workers, carpenters, health care workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, police officers, firefighters, National Guard volunteers, and numerous other professionals have since been working 24/7 to pull the country out of this incredible mess. This is the true American spirit.
I want to say a word of prayer for these brave souls too. These workers are our unsung heroes.
My family and I are okay here in mid-Brooklyn. Many of my labour union colleagues and South Asian-Indian immigrant friends are still going through a difficult time. I wrote to our borough president about the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Brooklyn where poor immigrants already live in crowded, basement apartments; even in normal times, they scramble for limited space, water or electricity. They are almost always dependent on public transportation to go to work. There are thousands of poor day labourers, grocery store workers, gas station fillers and maintenance workers, house keepers, nannies, restaurant cooks, fish or meat cutters—who can’t afford to lose even a day’s pay: that’s how poor they are. They have no car. They have no extra money. Many of them leave their families back home and live here alone to make ends meet.
They are in an extra-difficult situation now.
Hurricane Sandy crippled New York City’s subway system, cut off water and power lines, and inundated vast areas of the city—all five boroughs. Staten Island, Queens, South and East Brooklyn and the Rockaways (where John F. Kennedy international airport is) have been the hardest hit. Even Lower Manhattan and Wall Street areas were flooded. At one point, Manhattan’s West Side Highway was under five feet of water; it looked like Ganges or Padma, in mid monsoon. I have never seen anything like it in my twenty five years of living in the U.S.
The big airport is still closed as I write this column. New York subways are still partially closed—especially the lines that crisscross between boroughs through underwater tunnels. To add to the woes, gas stations have no petrol or diesel. On the election day, I woke up 5 A.M., dropped my wife at the nearby polling station where she worked until midnight, and then rushed to a Shell pumping station where they just got gas at 4 A.M.
First World or Third World? It reminded me of the long kerosene lines we had back in my school days in Kolkata.
So, what have we (or rather, our elected leaders and their sponsoring for-profit corporations) learned out of this incredible mess? This off-time, off the Atlantic Ocean mega-storm is proof of drastic climate change—a scientific fact that many Americans don’t believe even today. Some of the so-called media experts I heard on CNN or Fox TV said, even after the hurricane struck New York, that global warming and permanent climate change are at best “controversial.” Would there be any serious discussion in media about the science of such environmental catastrophes that in all likelihood would be more frequent in the coming days?
In the third and final nationally televised debate between Romney and Obama, which was on foreign policy, there was not a single mention of global warming and climate change — thanks to the debate sponsorship by oil and gas companies. Obviously, Mother Nature was unhappy at this gross exclusion; in just one week, she reminded the entire country of her anger.
Further, I keep wondering how Americans still can’t see the important role of the government especially at such difficult times. Just think if there were no Federal Emergency Management Agency or Environmental Protection Agency, public entities that Republicans want to dismantle. Government, in restraint, is a friend and not a foe. The rescue work was largely, if not exclusively, done by government agencies and organizations. This is the time when we can appreciate the pro-people role government can play. In America, since the Roosevelt days and Great Depression, government has played a critically important role to lift the country out of economic ruins. The New Deal government had made America the country that we always knew since our childhood: mighty strong especially for the working people and middle class. For 40 years since FDR, America that we knew ran its economic system that put people before profit; that was the Golden Age of American Capitalism.
That American system is now being fast dismantled, and India is quickly following that model of destruction. Can Obama's next four years prevent it from a total doom?
It was a new experience for us here in New York to go through this storm. We survived, except for some scary moments, power cuts, broken trees and small house damages, or TV and cell phone shutdown. But it was truly a revealing moment for all of us. Yet, even after this catastrophe, there is little discussion in U.S. media about the unbelievable unpreparedness for the world's richest city against such environmental calamities, ones that scientists and environmentalist organizations have been warning about for years.
The people at the top did not pay much attention to it; we are now paying a heavy price for this gross neglect. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey. Sadly, there will be more such disasters down the road.
Maybe, we need to wake up. Or, will we, ever?
To the newly elected President Obama, our prayers and offerings would be to understand and analyze the science and prevent such disasters with careful planning and mass education. But from him, unlike his first four years, we need an administration that shows they are serious about the pain and suffering of the ordinary, working people and families. They need to show us they are serious about solving economic, social and environmental problems, putting people first and profit second.
I wonder if Barack Obama and his newly elected Congress members would drastically revise their course of action.
Dr. Partha Banerjee is a New York-based immigrant rights activist and labor educator. He can be reached at email@example.com .