New York, After Sandy

It will happen again. That much should be clear. Forget all the political rhetoric about the causes of climate change and global warming. Leaders in the public and private sectors understand now that they can no longer ignore changing weather patterns or simply assume that the New York region will somehow remain immune from natural disasters.

Sandy surely was an exceptionally powerful storm. But who would claim that it simply was a freak of nature? Who would contend that New York and New Jersey need only to clean up and move on?

Sandy must become a call to action. New York harbor, it is clear, will no longer serve as protection against 21st-century weather patterns. New York’s infrastructure has been exposed for what it is—one of the great wonders of the 20th century. 

The immediate tasks of burying the dead, caring for survivors, housing up to 40,000 homeless people and making necessary repairs surely take top priority. But after we have done our best to make the region whole again, after the trains are running on schedule and schools are places of learning again rather than places of shelter, after every immediate crisis has been addressed and resolved—after all of that, New York must come to terms with the new reality of 21st-century weather patterns.

It will not be easy. It will be costly. And it will require leadership, vision and determination.

The man who takes the oath of office in January will have something to say about the task of reconstruction. Federal funding will help address immediate priorities. But a bold vision for recreating and reimagining New York harbor will have to start closer to home—in City Hall, to be sure, but even more so in Albany, where an ambitious, hands-on governor finds himself in the unique position of rebuilding not for tomorrow, but for the next century.

Andrew Cuomo exhibited sterling qualities of leadership during the crisis. And he sounded the exact right note when he reminded New Yorkers that Sandy is only the latest “storm of the century” to cause havoc and devastation in the area. In fact, Mr. Cuomo noted that in his two years in office, he very likely has confronted more natural disasters than his father, Mario Cuomo, did during his 12 years in office from 1983 to 1994.

The governor self-consciously declined to attribute the rash of storms to global warming because, he said, the phrase has become far too politicized. But he rightly asserted a simple, undeniable truth: our weather patterns are changing. We now face forces of nature that New Yorkers in the past associated with the wider world beyond the Hudson River.

In the 21st century, New Yorkers must figure out how to defend themselves against nature’s ferocity and cruel whims. These are not phenomena that happen to other people—to those unfortunate enough to live in the path of tornadoes or on geological fault lines. Because we paved over hills and filled in marshes and bridged our rivers, we have presumed victory over nature. We forgot one very significant fact—millions of us live on islands, slender islands, close to a great ocean.

Now we will have to defend those islands as never before. It is not enough to rebuild. It is not enough to restore. It is not enough to get back to normal, because there is a new normal. And we’re simply not prepared for it.

Mr. Cuomo’s father was fond of stating that challenges were better viewed as opportunities. The present Gov. Cuomo now faces a truly exceptional opportunity: the opportunity to reshape the city’s waterfront and rebuild the city’s infrastructure for the new weather patterns of the 21st century.

Nearly a century ago, Andrew Cuomo’s favorite governor (other than that other governor named Cuomo), Al Smith, saw an opportunity to modernize state government—and he took it. His reconstruction of the governor’s office in the 1920s brought Albany into the 20th century and paved the way for a succession of powerful chief executives in New York.

The circumstances today are vastly different, but the opportunity facing Mr. Cuomo is not unlike the one Mr. Smith faced. Mr. Cuomo has the opportunity to transform New York’s physical infrastructure so that when the next superstorm hits—and it will, sooner rather than later—there will be no repeat of the last 10 days.

In a sense, New York has no choice. The city and state simply cannot afford the economic toll that Sandy, Irene and other storms are taking with depressing regularity. Last October, Professor Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and School of International and Public Affairs told a group of architects that changing weather patterns will wreak havoc on the city’s economy. That prediction already has come to pass. Sandy will cost the region billions upon billions in lost revenue and reconstruction.

What, then, should come next? New York should first see how other coastal cities, including storm-prone Norfolk, Va., have sought to keep the sea out of the streets. Low-lying areas of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Lower Manhattan clearly require 21st-century engineering projects to protect them from 21st-century superstorms.

Achieving that goal is up to engineers and other professionals. But it is within the purview of elected officials and business leaders to devise a 21st-century plan to pay for all of this. That’s where Mr. Cuomo and other officials need to be creative.

Quite simply, Albany and City Hall do not have the resources to take on the enormous task of updating our coastal defenses and reimagining our waterfronts. The job will require partnerships with the private sector—and, yes, that means creating opportunities for entrepreneurs.

The public-works projects that will be required to keep the sea out of subway tunnels and away from homes in the Rockaways simply won’t get done if they are carried out as they traditionally have been. The problem is that public-private partnerships are anathema to many special interests, including the public-sector unions that wield far too much power with both major parties in New York. Unions and others will argue that somehow New York can pick up the tab for the work that so desperately needs to be done.

But that, frankly, is the equivalent of denying the reality of changing weather patterns. Neither view recognizes simple facts.

Elected officials like to say that New Yorkers come together in a crisis, and that no crisis is too big for this city. Those are fine sentiments, but they will ring hollow if the work of truly rebuilding New York becomes stalled in special-interest politics.

The crisis has not passed, and it will not pass until New York is prepared for the reality of 21st-century weather. Mr. Cuomo will be a pivotal figure in creating those needed preparations, for he very likely will be in a position of influence (either in Albany or in that other capital city down near Virginia) for the next decade or more.

Mr. Cuomo knows that New York can’t simply rebuild. It must be reimagined, and that will take the intellect and the capital of all New Yorkers.