Planted For Another Climate

Planted For Another Climate

I can’t speak for the tens of thousands of people who were hurt very badly by Hurricane Sandy and who are still in need, several months later, of a government that is big, strong, effective, and genuinely committed to the well-being of its citizens. New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, testified to President Barack Obama’s efforts to provide at least the appearance of a government like that and to deliver some of the benefits that such a government can bring. But the truth is that we don’t have a government like that. The government we have hasn’t begun to plan for the effects of climate change, and it isn’t able to deploy enough of the resources—trained men and women, machines, and material goods—that people suddenly without homes or without heat, light, and water desperately need. And there is little prospect, even after Obama’s victory, of a government fully committed to the well-being of its citizens and, first of all, to the most threatened and vulnerable among them.

Our experience of Sandy (in Princeton, New Jersey) was frightening for a few hours but, in the end, relatively easy. We lost what apartment advertisements used to call “all mod. cons.”—and the results were certainly inconvenient. But it turns out that you can live without modern conveniences so long as all you have to do is live, so long as you can postpone work. Life itself becomes a full-time occupation. Preparing food; finding a store with a generator that sells ice, to keep the fridge going, at least for a while; trying to read by candlelight and then waiting in line at the darkened hardware store to buy flashlights and a radio and batteries for both; hauling wood, making a fire, and huddling beside it.

Trees and wires were down everywhere, and there were damaged houses and smashed cars in many parts of town. Princeton is full of trees, and a lot of them have shallow roots; they were planted for another climate.

Cell phones (recharged at the public library) kept us in touch with children and grandchildren in lower Manhattan and Long Island, who were hit harder than we were. The cell phone is the truly modern “mod. con.”—and smarter friends had smart phones and were actually roaming the Internet in their cold, dark houses. On the phones, we told each other that we were okay, it was an adventure, the grandkids had no school and were delighted. But they had to climb unlit stairs in their apartment build-ing, and there were old folks on the upper floors who couldn’t manage the stairs and had to be helped with supplies of food and water.

At first, we were told that this was a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But it’s clear now that that’s not true. There will be more hurricanes like Sandy; life here in the Northeast will be more dangerous than it has been—more like life in New Orleans, say, or the south Atlantic coastal towns. And who will deal with the dangers? Who dealt with Katrina? Once we all knew that we were o...