Thursday, February 7, 2013

Learning from Sandy-A Special Report by Neil Schloth

Note from your Editor:  the following account was submitted for publication in On the Brink by one of my Hofstra students, Neil Schloth.  I am posting this on the 100 day anniversary of the storm.

Neil Schloth, after the storm.
  There are some things in this world that cannot be taught or learned from others, but must instead be experienced on one’s own. One such instance of this comes in knowing the feeling you get when learning that nearly everything you once held dear is now gone; destroyed by forces far beyond your control. This was the realization made by storm victims far and wide upon discovering the insurmountable damage caused by the now infamous Hurricane Sandy. While some have called it “a once-in-a-lifetime storm of the century (ABC News,)” others regard Sandy as the preamble to a new malevolent annual cycle of super-storms, brought on by excessive human consumption of natural resources and linked to global climate change. Though devastation left in the wake of Sandy is a true tragedy still fresh in our minds, we must never forget that there are lessons to be learned here. Storms such as these teach us that humans must form a better, more symbiotic relationship with this incredible planet we take for granted everyday. These topics shall be explored throughout this paper as we detail the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy, demonstrate how sustainable technologies could have changed what transpired, and what can be done to avoid disasters such as these from happening again in the future. As Marshall McLuhan once said,  “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth.  We are all the crew,” and it’s about time we all get to work.
               My hometown is in Lynbrook, NY, located about 1 mile from the south shore of Long Island. That one-mile separating my house from the water is the town of East Rockaway; home to the majority of my friends, and also my former high school. Though its total area may be only 1 square mile, and it hosts the smallest high school in all of Nassau County, East Rockaway is a tightknit community filled with individuals who know the values of teamwork, camaraderie, and helping one another. If it were not for the strength of these unyielding moral convictions, seen both here and throughout the entire region in light of recent events, damaged communities may not have begun to recover with the same level of tenacity as quickly as they did.
In the days leading up to the Hurricane, only one thing was on the minds of those who perceived this storm as a real threat: prepare for the worst. While many were encouraged to take similar precautionary measures last year when faced with Hurricane Irene, the damage ended up being far less than many feared. Through such over-exaggerated weather forecasts, threatening disaster while actually resulting in little or no damage, people have gradually become apathetic to these dramatic warnings, with the thought that these storms could never affect them. Residents across the northeast who did not anticipate such a catastrophe were among those who lost the most at the hands of Sandy, especially those who live/lived along the water.
One of my closest friends, Dylan Gross, was among those who lost almost everything when the floodwaters consumed his town, his house, and everything he had once called his own. Living only a few short blocks from the bay, Dylan and his family have grown accustomed to some flooding in the area. Some of the more powerful storms have caused flooding on streets closer to the water, while the aftermath of Irene last year resulted in floodwaters rising to their front lawn at high tide. Thinking the worst has already past, the Gross family thought they had been through storms like this before, and been able to manage just fine. Like many others soon realized, Sandy was a whole different species of Hurricane compared to previous storms.
By the time high tide hit around 10pm, the Gross’ realized their basement was rapidly being filled with murky water that had already engulfed the streets. Not only did the basement house a lounge and kitchen for the family, but also Dylan’s own room. As the minutes crept by, the water continued to rise, eventually submerging and destroying all of the cars in town. My father, a member of the East Rockaway Fire Department, went out with his fellow firemen on rafts into the areas of town along the coastline. With all forms of electronic communication down, the only way to locate those in need of rescue was to listen for their cries of help behind the sound of vicious rain. Even one woman nine months pregnant needed to be rescued and evacuated by boat, while her house was engulfed by the surge. At the peak of the storm, the entire basement and first floors of some homes were completely submerged, as water levels reached eight feet deep on local streets. By the time morning came, everything Dylan had ever owned had been soiled by polluted dirty water, while the overall damage was beyond incalculable. The question now remains; what we can do to avoid a disaster such as this from devastating our lives again in the future?
Centuries ago, new civilizations on the coast of India were greeted each summer by a series of destructive monsoons that destroyed crops and uprooted efforts of development. Over time, this seasonal trend has been predicted, allowing for preventative measures to be in place to ensure the most efficient management of these natural forces. Given the frequency of devastating natural disasters in recent history, we must now accept that our planet’s climate is changing, and that we need to now take preventative measures to ensure we are ready for the problems that will come along with such. Sandy’s effects have struck a chord in society that has led many to deduce the reality of climate change, and that super-storms such as these are becoming less of a theory and more the reality for our generation. Given this knowledge, would one consider it wise to build communities and cities so closely to the water of an area that is prone to flood? Though we cannot simply move places like Atlantic City to avoid future flooding, we can encourage future development to occur in places that will not be as easily affected by more powerful hurricanes.
Achieving this goal requires increased smart growth (concentrates growth in compact walkable, transit-oriented, urban centers) in areas further inland, while creating new, innovative ways of protecting infrastructure from severe flooding in communities bordering water. The ideals of smart growth are inspired by the philosophy that future generations should have the right to experience the beauty of nature that we are privileged with today, however in order to ensure they do, we must preserve undeveloped lands and not continue to destroy any more resources than we already have.  Hence, by concentrating development in a smaller area, and creating more areas for work, living, and entertainment all within that area, individuals are inclined to walk or bike rather than use cars, thus helping the environment in the process.
While smart growth contributes to actualizing more intelligently designed communities, enhancing coastline protection from savage floodwaters will prevent localized destruction of homes and businesses in severe storm conditions. To reduce or even eliminate damages caused by flooding on a localized level, improved bulkheads, consistently inspected drainage systems, and first responders equipped with more useful water rescue vehicles would all drastically help during future emergency situations. In many areas throughout the island, the bulkheads along the coastline have been in place for decades, and are in desperate need of repair for fear of collapse; the one along the bay in East Rockaway was only rebuild this past summer. Emergencies could prove even more disastrous if basic infrastructure is not kept up to date, with the latest technologies employed to reconstruct materials that are due to be replaced. An ineffective drainage system can also be repaired or made more efficient much easier before a storm hits than while dealing with the aftermath. Regular maintenance should be performed to ensure debris is not obstructing the flow of water through pipes, and that the system can/will operate at maximum efficiency. Emergency service units (Firemen, EMT’s, etc.) would have greater capabilities if they were able to navigate through flooded areas with boats, rather than wade through polluted water on foot or with a single small raft. In areas with more widespread flooding, having to shuttle rescued individuals back and forth with a raft is time consuming and cumbersome. Rather, a rescue boat could temporarily serve as a commanding rendezvous point within the flood zone, to which all other fire-rescue units can report back to and communicate with other personnel on land. These innovative improvements may assist in times of crisis, however they all require one thing that can be very hard to come by during an emergency: energy.
The morning following Sandy, the majority of those living in New Jersey and Long Island woke up in the dark, and for some, remained that way for days or even weeks to come. Restoring the power grid following Sandy proved to be one of the most widespread infrastructural disasters associated with the aftermath of the super storm. LIPA’s response time to make repairs has been criticized from users and commentators nationwide, hopefully resulting in policy reform that will incite change within the energy-monopoly corporation of Long Island. In the meantime, we as individuals should consider what we could do to help improve our own situations, so as to avoid having full energy-dependence on “the grid,” and the technology to do so is already here.
In Janine Benyus’ book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” she purposes one day, we will be able to send data over “hair thin optical fiber (p.85)” at near light speeds, and communicate faster than we ever thought possible. That was written in 1997. In the time since then, companies such as Verizon and Optimum use these fiber optic cables nationwide to bring HD quality cable programming into the living rooms of families across the country. What was theory then is now a globally realized actuality. Startling, isn’t it? How rapid things can evolve. That same potential exists right here and now, beginning with the way in which we produce energy. The sun’s energy has been around longer than planet earth itself, however only now do we possess the technology and scientific understanding to fully utilize its energy. As more people begin to realize the benefits it can bring, installations will rise, along with R&D into creating newer, more effective panels, thus providing more incentive for more people to invest as well. As such a cycle continues over years, we could continually reduce energy consumption to be solely generated by clean energy solutions (including wind, tidal, hydroelectric, and geothermal power) by the mid-21st century. Though most do not even know it yet, the benefits to such sustainable energy sources have already begun improving lives across the nation.
About a year and a half ago in spring of 2011, my family decided to contract the company “SunPower” to install solar panels on our house, beginning what was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding financial and customer experiences I’ve ever seen. After about 3 days of installation and setup, the solar panels were operational and feeding power back into the grid. Based on how much power we generate annually, we anticipate that within 5 years, we will have a full return on initial investment, and be generating our own free electricity. Even during the spring, when we generate more power than we use, we receive a credit from LIPA for whatever energy is left over. There’s even a smart phone app to track how much energy is being produced each hour, day, minute, month, and year, with a status update of how your lifetime energy production has benefitted the planet. At this point, our solar-generated power has reduced emissions equivalent to not driving 17,098 miles in a standard car, or by planting 192 seedlings grown for 10 years. What makes this all so unique is the way in which in combines both the financial benefits consumers look for in futuristic alternative energy producers, while also incorporating genuine environmentally sustainable technologies that can redefine what it means to be “energy-independent” in America. My own experience with solar panels thus far has been nothing short of exceptional, however if many others began adopting this technology with such green-enthusiasm, we’d have ourselves a true energy-revolution.
Though the year-round benefits of these systems are undeniable, how could they help in with recovery if a devastating storm similar to Sandy ever manifested itself again? Residential homes outfitted with solar panels could eliminate wide scale blackouts via such homes continuously synthesizing more power, even when energy from the grid is down. Rather than reliance on gasoline-powered generators that only get used in times of such crisis, solar-energy is generated year round to consistently help reduce carbon emissions, while also energizing homes during blackouts. Mounting brackets used to outfit solar panels on to homes also withstand storm winds far higher than what it takes to knock out the entire power grid in an area. By installing batteries inside of homes to store energy produced by the solar panels, that power could be fed directly into the house, rather than back into the grid. This way, solar energy can still be utilized when the power grid is nonfunctional, and also at night when power is drawn from battery reserves generated during the daylight hours. Not only would homes producing renewable power help to energize homes, but also would solve other problems that spawn as a result of scarce power.
One issue faced by many during Sandy’s aftermath involved waiting in lines; very long lines. In order to acquire gas to power-up generators and drive automobiles, individuals were forced to wait out in the bitter cold for hours to acquire this precious and necessary resource. As we’ve already discerned, solar power can keep homes running on renewable energy during a blackout, without the need for an expensive and loud gas-powered generator. Although, what could it do to help alleviate transportation issues? These past ten years or so, the automobile industry has been making a slow, but gradual shift from gas to electric powered vehicles. In the process, they have gone to great lengths to continuously reinvent lithium-ion batteries to better serve the next generation of electric cars, making them more effective and efficient in the way they use power. The more innovations made by auto-manufacturers to improve batteries contribute to solar power companies via the abilities to use these advanced batteries to store more solar energy installed in homes. Additionally, with more electric-powered vehicles, reliance on gasoline for transportation is greatly reduced, both during times of crisis and year-round. Therefore, during future storms, individuals can power-up their vehicles at home, avoid the issue of gas shortages, and transport themselves from one place to another in an environmentally friendly fashion.
Thus, Hurricane Sandy has offered us a chance to rethink what we believe about climate change, what we can do to better protect our cities and communities from natural disasters in the future, and how technologies that promote environmental sustainability can benefit both our own lives and planet earth as a whole. As our climate changes and storms become more vicious in years to come, we also have the power to innovate more so as to better understand how we can overcome the challenges ahead. While this storm has uprooted and devastated countless lives across the region, our communities remain strong and our spirit prevails unbroken, as we begin to rebuild all that was lost. Through acknowledging the promise behind renewable energy sources of the future, our society can abandon antiquated inefficient ways of producing energy in the 21st century, and shift to a more financially beneficial and environmentally sustainable lifestyle for future generations to come.  

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