Building on Sandy

November 6, 2012 

Nature is throwing just about everything it has at hard-hit New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Sandy’s wind and waves cut off power, snarled transportation and left tens of thousands homeless, not to mention the storm’s many fatalities. Now cold weather – it’s November in the Northeast – and a looming nor’easter are bearing down.

On Tuesday, many residents scrambled to find a way to vote in an election that, rightly, wasn’t postponed. “Just because you are displaced doesn’t mean you are disenfranchised,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. As in New Jersey, registered voters were allowed to vote at any New York polling place – a move justified by the circumstances.

Housing those whose homes were wrecked or badly damaged is turning into the main long-term problem. FEMA has put people up in hotels, but that’s a short-term solution. And the example set by housing folks for long stretches in “FEMA trailers” following Hurricane Katrina is one to avoid if possible. Instead, a combination of rapidly inspecting and repairing existing houses, and locating vacant living units (admittedly, in a housing-short area) for those who can’t go back home or move in with family, seems best.

Fortunately, most people who lost electric power now have it back. One emerging lesson from Sandy is the increasing importance of access to gasoline, because more and more homeowners own gasoline-powered generators to keep the lights on. But too many gas stations either lost power (and with it their pumps) or ran out of fuel and couldn’t be resupplied because roads were blocked.

For future storms, emergency officials need to give this issue greater weight. Restoring power to service stations should be a priority. The same goes for clearing the way for tanker truck access to stations that kept their power.

It’s difficult, possibly dangerous, to store enough gasoline at home to keep a generator running for long periods. So ready access to gas – and less chaos at gas stations – deserve more attention. Call it individual empowerment.

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