In late October, 2012 superstorm Sandy swept up from the Caribbean and pounded the Northeast. The damage was horrendous: 268 dead, $68 billion in property loss, the most expensive disaster in the United States after Hurricane Katrina. The images of President Obama and Republican Governor Christie walking the beaches of New Jersey became an icon of collaboration at a time when the country was frustrated by Washington’s seeming deadlock. Obama was swept into office the following month, and Christie’s popularity soared in the aftermath. Sandy was not the only reason for these political results, but exit polls confirmed that it was certainly a factor. It was a demonstration that government can effectively provide help in a time of crisis when those in authority do not hold government in contempt, to paraphrase Paul Krugman. It was a message that resonated with large segments of the public.
But Hurricane Sandy had come in the midst of a scientific and political controversies about the effects of climate change on the intensity and frequency of cyclonic storms, and about the nature or role of government in protecting citizens from calamities. The response to Hurricane Sandy revealed the complex and sometimes contradictory responses to these debates. Governor Christie’s post-Sandy pleading for Federal aid moved some fellow Republicans to criticize him for “big government” solutions and excessive dependence on Washington, but before Sandy and thereafter on the question of global warming like many of his Republican colleagues he had voiced his own doubts on climate change, and emphasized that he had more immediate problems to solve than to debate such arcane issues. That seemingly “practical” approach contributed to his reelection, and in October of last year in his victory speech, the governor spoke of “the spirit of Sandy,” the sense of community and cooperation in problem solving that could become the way he would meet many kinds of political and social challenges.
Unknowingly, Governor Christie was repeating the arguments of Fidel Castro in a similar situation following the disastrous Hurricane Flora of 1963. Flora, the second deadliest storm in the history of the Atlantic had killed about 8,000 people in Haiti and Cuba. Castro at the time, embarrassed by the Missile crisis mobilized all of the institutions of Cuba in the relief effort. Cuba suffered over 1,200 death which was bad enough, but given the dimension of the storm, the government effort was a tremendous success. The successful cooperation and mobilization of society convinced him that this spirit of Flora could become the attitude in which all the country’s problems were met. Castro’s actions after Flora were used to justify the effectiveness of the Revolution and, in fact, Cuba subsequently became a model for disaster mitigation and preparation, but whatever the immediate political benefits, overtime Castro’s speeches also became “greener,”and like many leaders in the Caribbean, he began to emphasize the need to take global warming and the rise of the oceans seriously.
For the most part, that has not been the case in New Jersey. The problem is that separation of practical issues from long-term issues like global warming is short-sighted. In Sandy, for example, the New Jersey Transit Corporation, basing its decision on past experience failed to move its rolling stock to high ground and as a result suffered a loss of a quarter of its trains and $150 million in damages. New York’s MTA under Governor Cuomo suffered far less because he had taken climate change as a reality and had taken necessary precautions. Both governors had been handicapped, however, by the fact that FEMA funding had been so reduced prior to Sandy that the shoreline maps of areas of possible flooding of New York and New Jersey were decades out of date.
Castro’s experience following hurricane Flora made him an advocate of strong government action in response to natural disasters, but it had also made him responsive to the challenges of environmental change. It remains unclear if Governor Christie who is looking forward to 2016 has learned a similar lesson, and more importantly, if he could make that message appealing to his political party, the leadership of which continues to deny scientific evidence of human caused climate change, or suggests that even if it does exist, there is little that can be done about it. That position combined with a neo-liberal argument for weakening financial support for the public sector, lowering investments in infrastructure, and the dismantling of central authority that has gained much support since the 1980s, and it raises the question for Governor Christie and the rest of us if the “spirit of Sandy” that he so passionately invoked will be enough to confront the challenges of climate change.
Stuart B. Schwartz is the George Burton Adams Professor of History and chair of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale University. His many books include All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World and Sea of Storms. A History of Caribbean Hurricanes from Columbus to Katrina (forthcoming January 2015).