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Hurricane Sandy’s Silver Lining: A Reaffirmation of Progressive Principles
FEMA Community Relations (CR) team members moved through Breezy Point and Rockaway, New York, after Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Walt Jennings / FEMA)

Hurricane Sandy’s Silver Lining: A Reaffirmation of Progressive Principles

FEMA Community Relations (CR) team members moved through Breezy Point and Rockaway, New York, after Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Walt Jennings / FEMA)

At a time when the country is still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the storm has reaffirmed progressive principles that have been under attack in recent years. Sandy has, in fact, brought together a trifecta of progressive policy vindications: the dangers of climate silence, the importance of a strong and responsive federal government, and the necessity of collective bargaining rights for workers.

1. Action on climate change.

Climate hawks–also known as people who understand the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change–have long warned that climate change would lead to more extreme weather patterns.

There are by now many studies showing that higher temperatures and rising sea levels have increased–and will continue to increase–the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Despite this year’s already-extreme weather, including one of the worst droughts in American history, climate change has been largely overlooked in the election. For the first time since 1984, it was not mentioned during any of the Presidential debates, leading to charges of “climate silence” from activists, citizens, and the media.

Hurricane Sandy seems to be reversing that trend. Perhaps it is due to the nature of “Frankenstorm”itself, which extended unusually far inland, combined gale force winds, torrential rain and even snow, seemed to represent a new species of storm. Perhaps the fact that it was concentrated in the population-heavy economic and political centers of the mid-Atlantic region between New York and Washington. For any number of reasons, Sandy seems to have given climate change awareness new headwinds in the public discourse, right at a moment when it was being ignored the most.

Sandy has also reaffirmed the financial cost of climate change inaction. Reuters reported that Sandy caused between $5-$10 billion in insured losses, and $10-$20 billion in other economic losses. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has only $1 billion in reinsurance funds, or money insuring its in-house insurer, indicating it may need to be bailed out by taxpayers. This comes on top of $20 billion in federal crop insurance that the summer drought cost taxpayers. The national flood insurance corporation is apparently still $20 billion in debtfrom claims it paid out due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Many long-time climate activists organized on the Internet to raise awareness of climate change issues during the storm. Bill McKibben, one of the country’s top climate activists and an organizer of the massive Keystone XL pipeline protests, initiated a petition and fundraising drive through his group asking the fossil fuel companies responsible for extreme weather to donate their profits to hurricane relief efforts, and only then asking the same of petition signers. Matt Stoller, a policy fellow for the Roosevelt Institute, called for a “hardening” of our infrastructure to increase storm preparedness, and the building of a clean energy system, and took several mainstream environmental groups to task for featuring animal rights- and election-related issues on their websites. Stoller and others are promoting the site, a creative new activism site that includes a “Weather Caster Watch”exposing meteorologists on local news channels who deny climate change and giving people the tools to pressure them.

Meanwhile, one of the Internet’s most influential climate bloggers, David Roberts of Grist, debated the merits of highlighting one extreme weather event, when any one occurrence may or may not be the direct result of climate change. Roberts counsels us to think of climate change’s role in Hurricane Sandy-level storms as similar to that of steroids in baseball.

“When the public asks, ‘Did climate change cause this?” they are asking a confused question. It’s like asking, ‘Did steroids cause the home run Barry Bonds hit on May 12, 2006?’ There’s no way to know whether Bonds would have hit the home run without steroids. But who cares? Steroids mean more home runs. That’s what matters.”

So too the ongoing force of climate change will mean more storms like Sandy.

2. A strong, well-funded federal government.

You might say there are no libertarians during natural disasters. The basic argument for a strong federal government received a major boost from Sandy. That’s because, as usual, the federal government, and specifically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), played an important role in helping states and cities prepare for the storm, and will undoubtedly be key in helping them rebuild.

But the storm did not just positively affirm the role of government–it also discredited the right wing’s war on key federal agencies and misguided obsession with states rights. The storm’s concurrence with the presidential race brought out positions of that many top Republicans have taken on emergency disaster funding, FEMA in particular. The Huffington Post reported that during a Republican primary debate in June 2011, Mitt Romney called for privatizing FEMA or turning it over to the states. When asked whether he would shut down FEMA and let states handle disaster relief on their own, Romney said:

“Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

The Romney campaign’s tail-between-its-legs attempts to deny it ever held this position attests to how short-sighted state’s rights or privatization seems when disaster actually strikes.

This gave progressive writers the chance to reiterate the case against federalism as a whole. As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic points out, states often mismanage or neglect responsibilities to their citizens. For example, many states, especially in the South, severely underfund and limit eligibility for Medicaid. Even when states have the political will to provide basic services, however, their ability to do so is often limited because, unlike the federal government, states must balance their budgets. As a result, without the federal government, states would be unable to fund basic programs during recessions, when revenues decline and demand for state services increase. With states as cash-strapped as they are currently, one can only imagine them trying to fund Sandy relief on their own.

In addition, Sandy put across-the-board austerity of the kind Republicans, and sometimes Democrats, are proposing under renewed scrutiny. Suzy Khimm reported in the Washington Post that the Romney-Ryan Administration would cut FEMA funding by between 22% and 40%, unless it were offset significantly elsewhere. For its part, the Obama Administration has cut FEMA funding by 3%, which it says is due to declining residual costs from Hurricane Katrina. That may be true, but given the increases in extreme weather we are expecting, cutting back for the sake of making cuts is risky. The Obama Administration tends to favor a lighter version of austerity than the Republicans, but Sandy reminds us that preparedness should be our top consideration, not the deficit boogey man.

3. The right to form a union and bargain collectively–in both the public and private sectors.

There could be no more stinging rebuke to recent attempts by Republican state lawmakers to strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights than Hurricane Sandy. The storm was yet another reminder of the crucial, often dangerous work civil servants do, and the need for them to be able to bargain collectively for decent wages, benefits and working conditions. Republicans rely on characterizing public sector workers as an amorphous bloc, because when the public identifies them by their individual professions they are more sympathetic. During Sandy, there were no abstract “public sector workers,” only the individuals police officers, firefighters, and EMTs rushing into flooding waters to evacuate people and put out burning houses in a time of crisis.Organized labor made sure to highlight this to the media. On the eve of the storm, Mario Cilento, President of the New York AFL-CIO, publicly stated:

“We’re hopeful that preparations will prove unnecessary, but we have peace of mind knowing that union workers – public sector, private sector, and building trades – will be there for us: supermarket and retail workers making sure that supplies are available; utility and communication workers laboring day and night to keep the lights and phones on; police officers, firefighters and EMS professionals maintaining our safety; transportation workers preserving our subway, commuter rail and bus infrastructure; state, county and municipal employees keeping the roads clear; construction workers repairing our homes, businesses, and community; hospital workers providing care to our family, friends and neighbors; teachers and child care workers keeping our children safe until we can be with them; and hotel workers making sure there is a place to stay for those who cannot remain home.”

The power outages and other disruptions that Sandy caused may also shine a light on the rampant union busting in power companies and the effect it could have on restoring power. After the derecho this past June left thousands of Washington, DC-area residents without power for days, Mike Elk reported in In These Times, that the extended outages may have been the result of local power company Pepco’s reduction and replacement of its unionized electricians with less skilled contractors. We await news of any evidence of the effects of unionbusting on restoration of power in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the wake of Sandy.

Storms like Sandy show just how much Americans’ standard of living depends on the workers who serve them being able to bargain collectively for a decent standard of living of their own. Would our civil servants be as willing to jump into flooded streets or climb burning buildings without the protections offered by collective bargaining rights? How quickly would our electric line workers fix power outages? Since virtually all of the states that were significantly affected by Sandy were highly unionized states, it is hard to say exactly how the storm would have been handled in right-to-work states. But there is little doubt that Sandy would have been far more tragic were it not for union workers from Maryland to Massachusetts.