Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hurricane Sandy

A “Superstorm” Tests a Tough City

I’m writing on my iPhone in a neighbor’s house, the only communications medium that works 50 miles north of New York City. No power, no cable, no phones often. Two boys were killed last evening near me when a tree fell on their house. I knew one boy’s grandfather.

The city is in far worse shape. No trains, almost no power south of 34th Street in Manhattan. Eighty houses burned in Breezy Point, Queens, as winds whipped the flames and firemen couldn’t get there. It’s the greatest fire to hit New York since 1835. The stock exchange was closed today and briefly considered closing tomorrow. It hasn’t been closed for five consecutive days since 1933 when the banks were closed by FDR.

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I’m writing on my iPhone in a neighbor’s house, the only communications medium that works 50 miles north of New York City. No power, no cable, no phones often. Two boys were killed last evening near me when a tree fell on their house. I knew one boy’s grandfather.

The city is in far worse shape. No trains, almost no power south of 34th Street in Manhattan. Eighty houses burned in Breezy Point, Queens, as winds whipped the flames and firemen couldn’t get there. It’s the greatest fire to hit New York since 1835. The stock exchange was closed today and briefly considered closing tomorrow. It hasn’t been closed for five consecutive days since 1933 when the banks were closed by FDR.

For once, the media didn’t over-hype matters. It’s the worst natural disaster to hit the city in its history. It will be weeks before things are back to normal in the greatest city in the world.

But New Yorkers are tough. We have to be.

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Mead on Sandy and Perspective

In the last couple of days, we’ve discussed here the possible impact of Hurricane Sandy not just on the election but on the way natural disasters tend to focus the mind on more immediate priorities. For men and women of faith, this presents its own challenge—a simpler explanation is easy to understand but the randomness also magnifies human powerlessness. To that end, Walter Russell Mead has written an essay reflecting on this as it relates to Hurricane Sandy. Mead writes:

Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.

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In the last couple of days, we’ve discussed here the possible impact of Hurricane Sandy not just on the election but on the way natural disasters tend to focus the mind on more immediate priorities. For men and women of faith, this presents its own challenge—a simpler explanation is easy to understand but the randomness also magnifies human powerlessness. To that end, Walter Russell Mead has written an essay reflecting on this as it relates to Hurricane Sandy. Mead writes:

Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.

Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.

Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good….

To open your eyes to the fragility of life and to our dependence on that which is infinitely greater than ourselves is to enter more deeply into life. To come to terms with the radical insecurity in which we all live is to find a different and more reliable kind of security. The joys and occupations of ordinary life aren’t all there is to existence, but neither are the great and all-destroying storms. There is a calm beyond the storm, and the same force that sends these storms into our lives offers a peace and security that no storm can destroy. As another one of the psalms puts it, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Accepting your limits and your dependence on things you can’t control is the first step on the road toward finding that joy.

Those looking for some perspective on the storm above and beyond the political sphere should read the whole thing.

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Obama’s Response to Hurricane a Contrast to Benghazi

As Jonathan mentioned yesterday, Hurricane Sandy is giving President Obama a break from his shrinking campaign of “Romnesia” jokes and conservative trolling. The president held a press conference to address the hurricane earlier today, and it was hard to recognize him without the anti-Romney zingers:

President Obama said in a news conference at the White House this afternoon that he is “confident that we’re ready” for Hurricane Sandy, the massive storm expected to make landfall later today and churn up much of the East Coast. …

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As Jonathan mentioned yesterday, Hurricane Sandy is giving President Obama a break from his shrinking campaign of “Romnesia” jokes and conservative trolling. The president held a press conference to address the hurricane earlier today, and it was hard to recognize him without the anti-Romney zingers:

President Obama said in a news conference at the White House this afternoon that he is “confident that we’re ready” for Hurricane Sandy, the massive storm expected to make landfall later today and churn up much of the East Coast. …

Obama spoke for about five minutes after being briefed by FEMA and other agencies. He answered only one question, about next week’s election, and said his focus is not on campaigning right now.

“I am not worried, at this point, about the impact on the election,” Obama said. “I’m worried about the impact on families, and I’m worried about the impact on our first responders. I’m worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week.”

Obama rushed back to Washington to coordinate with FEMA and hold a press conference, as he should have. But it’s also a stark contrast to his response to the 9/11 attack. It’s been a month and a half since the Benghazi assault, and the president still hasn’t held a press conference or given a speech to the American public about the terrorist attack. He also rushed out of Washington the day after the attack, flying to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser.

Why such different reactions? Maybe because a natural disaster isn’t a result of any presidential failures. It’s something the Obama administration has no control over, just like (as administration officials repeatedly told us) it had no control over an anti-Islam movie that was initially blamed for the Benghazi attack.

But it’s also true that the president will get most of the political blame if something happens to go wrong with the federal hurricane response, and little credit if things go smoothly. The optics of Obama campaigning in a swing state during a FEMA failure would be disastrous.

Which is why he’s back in Washington and finally taking a pause from the pettiness of his campaign to focus on national concerns. But will he return to the trivialities when the hurricane ends? Or will he use this as a chance to elevate his campaign rhetoric between now and next Tuesday?

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Will Sandy Haunt Current Governors Long After the Storm?

David Rothkopf grapples with the question Jonathan asked yesterday: Will Hurricane Sandy have a discernible impact on politics in the home stretch of the presidential campaign? Rothkopf’s answer is an emphatic Yes. He outlines three main areas the political conversation is susceptible to Sandy’s disruption, avoiding the topic of turnout on Election Day in favor of looking a bit farther into the future.

The most interesting of these, and where I think Rothkopf may hit the nail on the head, is in the way attitudes may change toward making preparations for such storms, especially if Sandy does the damage many fear. But I would make a slight adjustment to the winners and losers, politically speaking, of a population seeking to cast blame on political leadership deemed to have its priorities terribly askew. Rothkopf writes:

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David Rothkopf grapples with the question Jonathan asked yesterday: Will Hurricane Sandy have a discernible impact on politics in the home stretch of the presidential campaign? Rothkopf’s answer is an emphatic Yes. He outlines three main areas the political conversation is susceptible to Sandy’s disruption, avoiding the topic of turnout on Election Day in favor of looking a bit farther into the future.

The most interesting of these, and where I think Rothkopf may hit the nail on the head, is in the way attitudes may change toward making preparations for such storms, especially if Sandy does the damage many fear. But I would make a slight adjustment to the winners and losers, politically speaking, of a population seeking to cast blame on political leadership deemed to have its priorities terribly askew. Rothkopf writes:

Next, Sandy will also remind Americans and the world of the foolishness of some recent U.S. fetishes. I live in Washington, D.C., ostensibly the nerve center of the U.S. national security apparatus and target No. 1 for anyone interested in attacking America. The city is surrounded by military facilities and is home to a Department of Homeland Security that spends billions of dollars seeking to protect America against disruption. Yet this storm, like virtually all others of any size, will almost certainly knock out power to many of our nation’s leaders and the infrastructure on which our government depends for days. The city has already been brought to a standstill. Could burying power lines and strengthening critical infrastructure prevent all that? Of course. But is it as sexy as buying more drones, water boards, and stealth helicopters? Nope.

But what if the federal government were responsible for national security and state and local governments responsible for some of those infrastructure improvements, especially ones that would make a noticeable dent in the public’s frustration? In fact, that is the case already. Contra Rothkopf, improvements in storm-related public infrastructure are not being sacrificed on the altar of “sexy” drones and water boards (an odd choice of words, to be sure).

For example, the notoriously unresponsive power company Pepco, scourge of Montgomery County, Maryland, could plausibly be reined in. Recently, after a storm knocked out power for days there, Gregg Easterbrook, a MoCo resident, took to the pages of the Atlantic to warn Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a comically inept governor who is marching straight at a run for the White House, that his inability to get Pepco under control could, and should, follow him on his quest for more power. Easterbrook wrote:

You’ve already guessed that your correspondent lives in a Pepco-served neighborhood of Montgomery County. I will recount just the recent outrages in my neighborhood: In 2010, three extended power failures of at least three days’ duration, plus four hour-long failures. In 2011, a three-day outage, plus five failures of at least two hours. In 2012, two multiple-hour failures before the current outage. At noon Monday, on the fourth day of the latest failure, I checked the Pepco website for my neighborhood. It said, “No crew assigned.”

How does Pepco get away with this? Maryland’s Public Service Commission is a notorious lapdog, in part because although Maryland local government traditionally is clean, the Maryland statehouse traditionally is corrupt….

Pepco faces a simple reliability equation: The more it spends on improving service, the less is available for dividends and executive bonuses. CEO Rigby is a major shareholder, so in effect awards himself a commission when he keeps infrastructure spending low and dividends high. After the mega-thunderstorm, Dominion Power took 14 hours to restore all its transformers and main feeder lines — this is the first step in any utility’s storm recovery — while Pepco took 36 hours. That’s because Pepco transformers were in poor repair when the storm hit, despite an advertising campaign promising improvements. Within 48 hours of the storm, Dominion had 2,000 out-of-state workers present to assist in restoration; Pepco had just 300. If Pepco drags its feet on recovery, the utility avoids paying doubletime or tripletime, plus expenses, to out-of-state crews. And Pepco knows it can drag its feet without any risk of action by Maryland regulators.

Given how bad Pepco is, O’Malley would seem to have a tremendous opportunity to make his mark as a reformer, bringing a tainted regulatory hierarchy to heel. This is especially true because Maryland law assigns all authority over power utilities to the state level — there’s nothing the Montgomery County Council can do. If O’Malley runs for the presidency, his performance in Annapolis would be expected to be his strongest credential.

If Rothkopf is right, and the strengthening of infrastructure in anticipation of more wind storms suddenly becomes a major national political issue, O’Malley will just as suddenly have among the country’s worst resumes for higher political office. If the public gets tired of blaming Mother Nature and decides it is being ill-served by its politicians, O’Malley—considered by everyone to be among the high-profile candidates for president in 2016 and whose campaign, at the expense of Marylanders, has effectively already started—will be the poster-boy for malfeasance and ineffective leadership. Even worse, that reputation will be on an issue that—again, if Rothkopf is right—may soon be elevated to the level of national security, always considered the first duty of the commander-in-chief.

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Is Sandy This Year’s October Surprise?

It is a standby of political journalism every four years to ponder what event will qualify as the “October surprise” of the election cycle. The assumption is that the incumbent administration will attempt to manipulate some incident in order to either discredit the opposition or to flaunt their leadership skills. Despite the fact that most presidential elections come and go without anything like that happening, it isn’t just paranoids who wait and watch for something that will change the fate of the candidates. So far in 2012 the only unexpected event that has occurred in October was the first presidential debate that showcased Mitt Romney’s strengths and Barack Obama’s weaknesses. But this week something may happen that could potentially play the role of the last-minute game changer: Hurricane Sandy.

With the East Coast battening down the hatches for a potential disaster, politics is the furthest thing from the minds of those in the storm’s path. But you can bet that both campaigns are pondering more than just changing their schedules to stay out of those areas affected by the hurricane. While the odds of this turning into the kind of political disaster for the president that Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush are fairly slim, some paranoid Republicans may worry that if President Obama is seen as doing an effective job leading rescue or recovery effort in the next week, it could give him a jolt of momentum that could make the difference in a close race. That is possible, but I think the idea that a natural disaster is going to impact the views of a critical mass of voters in such a way as to influence them to support Obama is pretty far-fetched. Though it is to be hoped that federal agencies acquit themselves admirably in the coming days and that no discredit is brought down upon the government or the White House, there is a reason why such events are called disasters. If history teaches us anything, storms provide politicians with more chances to screw up than to look good.

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It is a standby of political journalism every four years to ponder what event will qualify as the “October surprise” of the election cycle. The assumption is that the incumbent administration will attempt to manipulate some incident in order to either discredit the opposition or to flaunt their leadership skills. Despite the fact that most presidential elections come and go without anything like that happening, it isn’t just paranoids who wait and watch for something that will change the fate of the candidates. So far in 2012 the only unexpected event that has occurred in October was the first presidential debate that showcased Mitt Romney’s strengths and Barack Obama’s weaknesses. But this week something may happen that could potentially play the role of the last-minute game changer: Hurricane Sandy.

With the East Coast battening down the hatches for a potential disaster, politics is the furthest thing from the minds of those in the storm’s path. But you can bet that both campaigns are pondering more than just changing their schedules to stay out of those areas affected by the hurricane. While the odds of this turning into the kind of political disaster for the president that Hurricane Katrina became for President Bush are fairly slim, some paranoid Republicans may worry that if President Obama is seen as doing an effective job leading rescue or recovery effort in the next week, it could give him a jolt of momentum that could make the difference in a close race. That is possible, but I think the idea that a natural disaster is going to impact the views of a critical mass of voters in such a way as to influence them to support Obama is pretty far-fetched. Though it is to be hoped that federal agencies acquit themselves admirably in the coming days and that no discredit is brought down upon the government or the White House, there is a reason why such events are called disasters. If history teaches us anything, storms provide politicians with more chances to screw up than to look good.

The circumstances that turned bad weather into the turning point for George W. Bush’s presidency were unique and probably can’t be replicated. Even if poor black coastal communities were to suffer disproportionately this week, no one will say it is the result of President Obama’s racism or blame him for the failures of local and state authorities. But when faced with distress of the kind that we are told to expect, it takes more than a sympathetic look from a president who helicopters in to look at the damage to convince people that things are okay. The potential for some failure or screw-up to make the government look bad is far greater than any opportunity for Obama to play the hero.

It should be admitted that it might be better for the president for him to spend a couple of days acting like a president rather than to be chasing around swing states engaging in name-calling against his foe or using expletives to describe him. But a mere photo op or the awarding of disaster aid to a region or city won’t win many hearts or minds in an election in which there are few truly undecided voters. The only political impact of the storm will probably be in how it influences turnout in coastal states, especially Virginia. But that’s unlikely to hurt one party more than the other.

The fact is the obsession with October surprises is based on the fallacy that the electorate is more fickle than it actually is. In a year when the economy is the main issue, a potentially damning incident like the fiasco in Libya last month has had little impact on the Obama-Romney race. Whatever they may think of what happened, Democrats are not likely to abandon their leader because of it since they prioritize domestic issues. Republicans who are outraged about the administration’s dishonesty and who rightly demand answers about what happened would not have supported Obama even if this had never happened.

If Sandy is this year’s October surprise, that’s just another way of saying that there isn’t one.

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