Watching the reaction of those of us affected by Hurricane Sandy is a case study of a nation that has gotten too comfortable with convenience and mistakenly believed it had mastered the natural environment. The scenes of devastation along the shorelines of New Jersey and New York tell a story of humanity hell bent on having its way with nature despite countless episodes during which nature always won. Seeing boats tossed asunder and houses reduced to splinters is a painful rejection of our obsession with forces we don’t understand and seemingly don’t respect. How else can you explain people ignoring repeated warnings and standing on the beach to catch a glimpse of ominous waves that were the signal of trouble to come?
If nothing else, last week’s massive storm is a lesson delivered, if not learned. Perhaps, a little suffering will go a long way toward our reconsideration of our relationship to nature and accommodating its force in our built environment. Katrina should have taught us a lesson but the damage that storm wrought was too easily attributed to the quirky topography of New Orleans. How often in the days leading up to Katrina’s arrival and the days after its impact did we hear meteorologists and news anchors reference that city’s position well below sea level, and its bowl configuration that could only handle so much of the storm’s torrents if the levees failed? In New Orleans there was an explanation, and more recent history, that made Katrina seem like more of an isolated incident than a recurring phenomenon.
Then came Sandy.
We have been fooling ourselves in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan region, watching the Weather Channel and thinking ourselves immune to the type of destruction we have witnessed in places like Florida, New Orleans, and the Caribbean. Even Irene did little to shake our confidence. That storm was passed off as a freak; as was the Halloween storm of 2011. Now, Hurricane Sandy has set us straight and forced us to confront our own arrogance and swallow our pride. What shook me most after seeing the aerial photographs of the battered Jersey shore was not just the destruction, but the manner in which man had invaded nature and encroached upon the natural environment. Having been raised in New Jersey and very familiar with our shore towns, even I was dumbstruck by how congested the coastline had become with housing. Where beachfront property was once a rarity, the photographs of the battered Jersey shore made it plainly evident that beachfront living was the new normal.
The other takeaway from last week’s storm (as I write by the glow of a fireplace waiting for power to be restored to my neighborhood) is that we have taken convenience for granted. We flick a switch and expect a light or the television to come on. Internet access, still in its infancy though we treat it as though it has always existed, is now expected and we expect it on-demand. Our need to go is fueled by our consumption of petroleum; an insatiable appetite that must be fed even while we whine over how much it is costing us at the pump. Our lives are now the product of convenience and the expectation of now is the ultimate measure of our happiness and satisfaction.
So, maybe Sandy was a courtesy call; a reminder that perhaps we are not the masters of our domain. Nature has a way of reducing us down to size and after Sandy departed we all seemed a bit small. Meetings that seemed so important just days before had to wait. Phone calls that seemed urgent could not be returned. The availability of artificial lighting suddenly seemed nostalgic in the darkness of night. The warmth of heat that we simply came to expect was yearned for in the chill of increasingly cold fall evenings. Yes, a little suffering goes a long way.
It is too early to tell if we have learned our lesson. The humility of the post-storm reaction has quickly transitioned to the usual bravado that we attach to our region. Instead of reflecting on the events of the last week, we have quickly moved to the rebuilding phase; ready to pick up the pieces to be prepared for the next summer season on the shore. We seem to have forgotten that winter has yet to come and all forecasts indicate that we might be in for quite a season of weather. And sooner than that, we have another storm potentially heading our way in 48 hours.
Perhaps we should just keep the lights off and wait for spring, or for that time when we are seriously ready to reconsider how we live on the planet we have been given.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.