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Hurricane Sandy's Austerity Lessons

by Lucine Kasbarian Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 at 5:19 PM

While surely unintentional, this natural disaster has afforded those affected by it a small taste of how countless others around the rest of the world live – and many not just during a crisis, but on a regular basis.

Hurricane Sandy's Au...
hurricane_sandy_flooding_avenue_c_2012.jpg, image/jpeg, 800x531

Teaneck, N.J. — The damage incurred by Hurricane Sandy – the largest Atlantic super-storm on record — is second only to New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina in terms of magnitude and cost. Occurring just before Halloween and dubbed “Frankenstorm,” Sandy demolished coastal communities in the Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States.

One hundred-mile winds and powerful high tide waters ripped into coastal barriers and the landscape, causing an estimated $60 billion dollars in damages1. Flooding and power outages were commonplace, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and millions without electricity, heat and/or provisions. Others devastated by the storm included the sick, elderly, handicapped, and poor who could not get vital medicines by pharmacy or mail; those who lost life savings because the damage to their homes were not insured against certain eventualities; and those who lost their livelihoods through destruction. And although there was no gas shortage by cause of resource depletion, the lack of electricity prevented filling stations from dispensing fuel, resulting in long lines and rationing.

While the level of distress among storm casualties should not be underestimated, and many Good Samaritans rushed to the aid of the less fortunate and continue to selflessly volunteer right up until today, there were those in the Northeastern United States who were wholly unprepared to be inconvenienced by ensuing power outages. It is to “the inconvenienced” that this article is dedicated.

Following are bona fide statements made by some New Yorkers and New Jersey-ites during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

“I couldn’t take living in a cold house, so checked into a hotel.”

“The storm has been devastating. No Internet and TV for two days.”

“I’m dying to wash my hair, but it’s too much work to heat the water on my stove top.”

“It was murder waiting in line for three hours this morning for gas.”

“How am I supposed to survive without eggs?”

Now let’s compare these to comments made by authentic casualties of the super-storm:

“Our house got washed out into the Atlantic, but we’re glad to be alive and will make a fresh start.”

“A tree fell on our roof and other neighborhood homes, so we’ve gathered the downed limbs and hosted an outdoor bonfire to build morale.”

“Winds were whipping through my windows when I heard screams for help. I saw my neighbor clutching a fence as water surged around her. If I didn’t open our door and drag her in, she would have been swept out to sea.”

“I’ve stayed behind to chainsaw down a tree that fell on our house, but the worst hasn’t happened. The important thing is that my wife and children are out of harm’s way.”

“Floods displaced almost everyone on the block, so we hosted a Hurricane Party to offer a safe place and serve the food that was going to spoil without refrigeration.”

The latter category of commentaries demonstrates that there are many who know the meaning of life-and-death circumstances, and can even uplift others in the wake of hardship.

While surely unintentional, this natural disaster has afforded those affected by it a small taste of how countless others around the rest of the world live – and many not just during a crisis, but on a regular basis. Perhaps the most ironic here is that a great number of the deprived in less fortunate lands have been disenfranchised or “bombed back into the Stone Age” as a result of US foreign policy.

According to a 2009 report in Scientific American magazine3, more than one quarter of the world’s population does not have electricity.2 Obviously, since that estimate was recorded three years ago, it does not include the more recent destruction, sometimes of entire infrastructures, in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, or Gaza. And a World Watch Institute report3 notes that the United States, with less than five percent of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s natural resources.

Perhaps Americans — especially younger generations who have not experienced war, shortages or poverty — are unaware of the above statistics and the privileged lifestyles that they themselves enjoy. More than 1.5 billion people around the world live in absolute poverty4, with scarce access to food, shelter, water or sanitation. In many countries, people customarily wait on lines for the distribution of food and fuel. Kenyans, among many other nationals around the globe, boil untreated water for cooking and drinking. As Peace Corps volunteers will attest5, firewood remains a primary everyday source of heat and method of cooking in many countries where reliable electricity and gas supplies are still not always available. Families in Armenia with the means to do so salt their meats, pickle their vegetables, and preserve their fruits to cope with the absence of refrigeration or food in winter. According to an Aleppo native who only wanted to be identified as “Takouhi,” and who, like her neighbors, roams for food while dodging indiscriminate shelling in Syria, “we eat what ever we can find at this point.” The above are where austerity lessons are to be learned.

If Hurricane Sandy has helped those inconvenienced by the storm begin to identify the however temporarily missing privileges they have taken for granted, the storm’s damage may provide a ‘teachable moment.’ But if a college-educated, foreign-born-but-local acquaintance of mine is any barometer (she was nonplussed that her grocery store stocked no bananas in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane), let us not be surprised if cognitive dissonance persists among some who can’t or won’t gain insight from adversity. As such, I welcome the notion of a lawful requirement that every American perform volunteer humanitarian work, particularly abroad, to get a sense of how many others must live.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo6 is among those who consider climate change “the new normal,” and calls for fresh approaches to protect the environment and public. As natural resources continue to deplete and pundits debate the reality of global warming and its effect on the planet, will Americans wake up to the realities and necessities of conservation? Are we prepared to survive amid hardship if, and when, we cannot simply retreat to the nearest hotel, restaurant or safe house? Do we know how to deal with scarcity, practice self-reliance, and band together? While municipalities are increasingly on the alert, it would be circumspect for individuals to also prepare for future environmental disasters, and interrupted or altogether eliminated conveniences down the line.

A woman slated to participate in the New York Marathon7 was interviewed on CBS News Radio, saying, “As soon as Mayor Bloomberg cancelled the Marathon in the face of Sandy, I donated my hotel room to someone displaced by the storm, and volunteered with relief workers to help those in need.” Once electrical power returned to her home in Queens, civic-minded Rocio Duque immediately joined with the “Occupy Sandy”8 volunteers to help the dispossessed in Staten Island. “We want to teach our children that while there may always be somebody more fortunate in life than they are, there will also be those who are less fortunate, too,” said Wendy Loszynski of Bergenfield, New Jersey, who, with her husband and three children, helped out at a hurricane relief center in Moonachie. “Volunteering this way can help our children better appreciate what they have in life, whether possessions or good health, instead of worrying about what they don’t have,” Loszynski continued.

Particularly as Thanksgiving approaches, may these and other examples of altruism, charity and solidarity in the face of adversity continue to emerge, inspire, and even guide us if and when disaster comes along.

Lucine Kasbarian, a Teaneck, New Jersey-based writer, has lived and volunteered in needy communities abroad. She feels fortunate that while Hurricane Sandy did wipe out electrical power in her neighborhood for more than a week, she and her family were not hurt or displaced. Read other articles by Lucine at:

Caption: Hurricane Sandy Flooding Avenue “C” in NYC
Photo credit: David Shankbone



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