Nation Now

Five questions to ponder on the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy

A year ago, Superstorm Sandy rushed ashore in New Jersey and created a path of destruction. As the nation remembers the first anniversary of the deadliest and most costly storm of the 2012 season, here are five questions worth pondering:

1.    Was Sandy a fluke or is it part of a pattern of catastrophic weather change generally attributed to global warming?

What elevated Sandy from a nasty Category 1 hurricane into a superstorm was when it merged with other weather systems from the Midwest and Canada. Eventually, the storm affected parts of 24 states including the East Coast from Florida to Maine and covered an astounding 1.8 million square miles, according to NASA.

Experts are divided on whether we can expect more such storms because of global warming, but government officials insist they need to prepare for the worst. That means making plans for how to deal with meteorological disasters including twisters, earthquakes and flooding.

PHOTOS: Before-and-after photos of Sandy devastation

2.    Should people be allowed to rebuild along coastal flood zones?

Many people love the beach. But as Sandy showed, enclaves near the water are exactly the areas that are at risk during storms. Sandy, like some previous disasters, has sparked a debate over whether taxpayers should subsidize flood insurance.

For example, if you live near the shore, you probably get your insurance from a government program. When disaster arrives, you may get washed out, but you are protected, with the help of taxpayer dollars.

Should people be allowed to rebuild on what will likely be areas of pain in the future? Further, should taxpayer dollars go for insurance, in effect, subsidizing some homeowners for what arguably is high-risk behavior? Should the government instead buy out destroyed homes like those on Staten Island and parts of Long Island? Your answer may depend on where you live. 

3.    What should be the role of government help?

After weeks of nasty political fighting pitting House Republicans against themselves and against the Obama administration, the federal government approved a disaster relief measure of some $60 billion. That sounds huge, but the usual estimate of the cost of damage from the storm is even higher, $65 billion.

At least $14 billion has been spent so far, but there are still people who have yet to get the money they need. And some people's emergency relief benefits have expired.

Nobody can rebuild alone from a disaster like Sandy or Katrina. Yet after both storms, the nation found itself slogging through unseemly political battles over how much help to give and how quickly. Should the nation establish a mechanism to fund cleanup and emergency response and protect against fraud, cheating and corruption without having to go through the political infighting?

4.    Can anything be done to protect society from power outages?

During Sandy, millions of people across the region had to do without electricity and heat.

For places with high-rise apartment buildings (like New York), some people were stranded on upper floors because elevators couldn't run without power. Neither could refrigerators, so food and clean water quickly went into short supply. Electricity also is needed to pump gasoline, and gas station lines ensued.

The various utilities have rebuilt their transmission lines in the wake of Sandy and have begun to protect generators as well. But does anyone believe we have lived through the last weather-related outage? Snow is coming soon to the Northeast.

5.    Why do yesterday’s heroes become tomorrow’s goats?

The best of intentions always depend on political realities, and disasters are no different. Some would say disaster relief is especially dependent on political figures. But what is it about disasters that make elected officials heroes, a job with a notoriously short tenure?

Take New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In the days after Sandy hit, the Republican governor was hugging everybody, even President Obama, a Democrat running for reelection. That caused great consternation to Christie's fellow Republicans, who accused him of aiding Obama's reelection. Christie's response was that, as the state's chief executive, he was responsible for doing what he had to do to improve the lives of his constituents. Christie seemed to be walking above the floodwaters then.

A year later, he is still beloved, according to polls, but his presidential luster in his own party has dimmed -- in part because the right-wing dominates the nomination process, and those are the people who were most infuriated by Christie's cordial treatment of Obama. In addition, some in New Jersey have complained that aid has been distributed too slowly. Christie blames the federal government, headed by Obama -- proving yet again that politics, like love, often comes with an expiration date.


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