It was a storm without precedent, and yet it is clear, 12 months later, that the city was about as prepared as it could have been for Superstorm Sandy. Evacuations were ordered and, for the most part, heeded. Key infrastructure assets were secured well before the storm, saving lives and property. Public servants, from high-level elected officials to rank-and-file emergency workers, were on the job day and night, offering reassurance to thousands who will always remember Oct. 29, 2012, as the worst day of their lives.
New Jersey coined the phrase “stronger than the storm,” but even the most-partisan Garden Stater would admit that the words applied to the entire region. The enduring images of Sandy came from the Jersey Shore, where boardwalks where the Smithereens once sang were smashed into smithereens and a roller coaster wound up in the Atlantic Ocean. But the suffering—and the resilience—of homeowners on Staten Island and small business owners in the Rockaways and in lower Manhattan cannot and should not be forgotten.
Today, South Street still bears Sandy’s painful scars, there is a huge gap in the rows of houses in Breezy Point, and old bungalows continue to rot in Midland Beach on Staten Island. Hard decisions remain imminent, for only a fool believes that Sandy was a once-in-a-lifetime storm. As Governor Andrew Cuomo noted in Sandy’s aftermath, he has responded to more “storms of the century” in his first two years of office than his father did in a dozen years. The next storm is on its way.
Sandy taught us that there are parts of New York that simply are uninhabitable in an age of extreme weather. Oakwood Beach, built on a marsh hard by Lower New York Bay, was doomed the moment a developer broke ground during Staten Island’s post-Verrazano Bridge land boom of the 1960s. Elder-care facilities do not belong in flood plains.
Sandy also taught us humility. Perhaps we truly were stronger than the storm—this storm, anyway. But to believe that we are stronger than nature is to invite further catastrophe.
We cannot build gates to keep out the raging sea. But we can apply common sense to future development, and we can return to nature what nature has reclaimed on its own. That will be expensive, but doing nothing will be far dearer.
New York was built around a harbor, and the harbor made the city great. But one year ago, the harbor and the sea turned against us. Geography no longer was our friend, our neighbor, our business partner.
The harbor has been placid in the months since Sandy. But it will turn on us again. Next time, we have to do better.