Weathering Nature’s Fury

So, we begin Keeping Time with the critical story of our times, the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But first breaking news – insofar as it can break in this space – Hurricane Sandy’s historic siege of a huge swath of Yankee territory, from the Jersey shore to Long Island and New York City harbors, and beyond. Devastation everywhere.


The roller coaster at Seaside Heights, N.J., sits in the drink. (Photo by Brian Thompson via WISH-TV).

The shocking images of the wrecked Jersey Shore and flooded sections of Staten Island, Long Island and even lower Manhattan are reminiscent of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, except the victims are mostly white. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate as it runs roughshod over human gatherings. Even our great cities are reduced to splinters and shards in the face of Mother’s angry smack-down

Is she mad? Maybe.

The powerful undercurrent of this event is the specter of climate change. It is scientific fact that humans are emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, contributing to a measured warming of our planet. If we are causing this through our careless actions, then we can control it through careful actions.

But Mitt Romney has other ideas, which he delivers with a populist and Clintonesque biting of the lower lip:

It’s convenient to deny climate change when powerful forces vested in fossil fuels finance your campaign. That’s my take on Mitt Romney’s studied denial of climate change – at least in this reiteration of Mitt Romney. He was for action against climate change before he mocked it.

Hurricane Sandy offered a distinct lesson in the dangers of climate change. This late-season hurricane turned into a “Frankenstorm” because the Atlantic Ocean waters are 5 degrees warmer than usual, inviting stronger storms further north. Warmer water means more evaporation, or rain. And the higher sea level means a higher storm surge.


On a tour of the Jersey Shore damage with Gov. Chris Christie, President Obama assured victims that the federal government would help. (Reuters photo)

The lesson wasn’t lost on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed Obama on Thursday as the candidate most likely to do something about the coming cataclysm. That’s faint praise considering the circumstances, and Mitt Romney’s positions. But Obama quickly sprang into action, moving the National Guard to deliver emergency gas supplies.

For all the federal efforts, people helping people has defined the relief effort, including the benefit concert Friday with Springsteen, Billy Joel and other artists who owe their creative soul to New York and the Jersey Shore. Plus those thousand utility linemen who rolled up the East Coast – and flew in from points west – to restore power as quickly as possible.

Emergency personnel worked around the clock to put out fires, literally. Nurses carried 19 newborn infants down nine flights of stairs, manually operating the respirators. Hundreds of patients were rescued from powerless hospitals. Human calamities bring out the best in people, who pull together in the toughest of times.

So it was heartening to see Obama on the Jersey shore, hugging victims and talking with Gov. Christie, suddenly an Obama fan. It was a stark contrast to George W. Bush, who simply flew over New Orleans to check out the Katrina damage.

Here’s your legacy, “W,” courtesy of “Treme,” the best show on television:

Katrina was a Category 3 storm at landfall, far more powerful than Sandy, which never got past a Category 1 hurricane. And the $100 billion cost to recover from Katrina included special remission for the Crescent City, which sits below sea level and must be protected by a series of levees. The recovery from Sandy is expected to cost half that amount, with far fewer fatalities than the 1,000 souls who perished in Katrina.

Still, America must meet the challenge of Mother Nature on a rampage. Yes, we must rebuild our infrastructure, and yield some ground, pushing back developments. The storm surge that hit New York will be stronger and higher next time because the ocean is rising, and storms are becoming fiercer.

But we also must act to slow the pace of climate change. I say that as a friend of coal, and of coal miners and the families who have a vested interest in the continuation of the industry – the survival of their communities. There is much to say about this, and we will revisit it later in this blog. In any case, we cannot abandon coal immediately, completely. We must develop a plan to wean ourselves off what has been an essential energy resource as we build up others. Our nation has many critical choices before us, and we should study them carefully.

But, as Sandy played out last week, I was reminded of nearly 30 years ago when the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorial crew rode out Hurricane Gloria in the newsroom. As we waited breathlessly overnight, it sprinted right past us, churning up the East Coast, finally easing into New England. While we feared the worst, the path of the storm – much like Sandy’s – suggested we would be largely spared the wrath of Gloria.

As with Sandy, we were on the “left side” of the storm, at the end of the circulation after the wind blew down from over land.. Cold rain, wind and misery, but not much of a hurricane. Another safe passage. We did get T-shirts out of the deal in Norfolk, though – marked on the front with a route of Hurricane Gloria and the legend: “I spent the night with Gloria.”

Important lesson: Stay left if you can.