Hurricane Sandy exposed New York City's faults - why do we put up with shoddy 19th century infrastructure?

Water floods in to Battery Tunnel on Monday night during Hurricane Sandy


Here’s a nasty little secret. New York City’s 19th century infrastructure cannot cope with the demands of the 21st century. If bridges and subways are the arteries ofNew York City, then ours are dangerously clogged.

I have written about this before. In March of 2011, just days after the nuclear disaster in Japan, I wrote that 10 years after 9/11 and nine years after the blackout of 2003, how can New York pretend that we're ready to meet the severe weather challenges of this new century when the truth is that our the entire transit system can still be delayed because it rained hard?

Even before Hurricane Sandy hit, everywhere you looked in the city you could see an infrastructure overwhelmed by modern life. Old traffic signals on the subway lines malfunction daily, holding up tens of thousands of commuters in packed carriages or on crowded platforms. And that’s just the start.

Our energy providers like Con Edison quickly become overwhelmed by the storm too. Entire hospitals like NYU Langone and Bellevue watched their supposedly foolproof backup generators fail, leading them to evacuate wards full of infants and elderly from critical care facilities in darkened hospitals in the middle of a raging storm.

How are these third world scenarios possible in the richest nation on earth? 

On the platforms you’ll sometimes hear an announcement. Or more likely you’ll hear a deafening blast of static and incoherence over an ancient public address system that completely fails to provide you with the information you actually need.

Sometimes you’ll just have to stand and wait for 10, 20 or 30 minutes without an explanation because there’s no one employed to pick up the phone at your station.

When a train finally does arrive, the dangerous overcrowding in the carriages is such a daily occurrence that it becomes easy to forget that it really shouldn't be happening at all. The subway doors open and commuters often can neither enter nor exit due to the tight crush of bodies.

People complain to the MTA or they bitch to themselves on the crowded platforms. Sometimes threatening confrontations occur. But the same conditions continue, week after week after week, year after year.

Read more news on Hurricane Sandy here

I have wondered about this for a long time. Why does the New York public put up with such shoddy deals, I mean?

After all, New Yorkers (and Americans generally) work harder and for longer hours with less benefits than any other country in the western world. They get up, steel themselves, and just get on with it in a way that would be completely inexplicable to many other cultures. They deserve much better than what they pay for and are given.

Predictably, solutions to what can be done break down along political lines. President Obama wants to institute a record-breaking and visionary national public works push to overhaul America’s infrastructure from coast to coast.

But Mitt Romneydoesn’t believe the federal government should involve itself with such socialist sounding, high cost projects, and he points to investment by the private sector as the best solution to the crisis.

This raises a fairly obvious question. If you don't believe the federal government’s job is to relieve a national emergency (and our crumbling infrastructure has reached emergency levels) then you don't believe in federal government. And you probably shouldn't run for a federal government job, much less president!

It’s been 11 years since 9/11. That’s a long time to have addressed the obvious weaknesses in the city’s infrastructure. But even before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, it was obvious that the city’s energy providers, its clogged bridges, its packed tunnels and its lumbering subways and commuter trains aren’t ready to help a panicked citizenry in times of crisis.

The fact is that public transport shut down before Sandy even hit. And it took most of the week before even a staggered service resumed.

That hit our economy, our tourism industry, our relief efforts and our sense of community spirit. We literally could not get to each other to help. We need to insist that we can in future.

In America, Winston Churchill once observed, people can be depended on to do the right thing after they have exhausted every other possibility. That was a droll evaluation based on his personal experience, but the decades of foot dragging over the most obvious job that needs to be done supports his view.

Hurricane Sandy has exposed two home truths that no longer need to be debated, because climate change from global warning is a terrific reality and our tottering infrastructure is helpless to contend with it.

Read more news on Hurricane Sandy here

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