Gyory: After Sandy, LI voters will lead the way on climate change

The bay waters come ashore in Mastic Beach The bay waters come ashore in Mastic Beach as a nor'easter hits Long Island in the wake of superstorm Sandy that left this home in shambles. (Nov. 7, 2012). Photo Credit: John Roca

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It is not too early to assess the consequences for governance after superstorm Sandy. People are demanding meaningful changes from their leaders, and Long Island will lead the way in driving them.

The national media's anchors were immediately drawn to the devastation along New Jersey's coast and the tragic fire in Breezy Point, Queens, and largely ignored Long Island's plight. But four factors will make Long Island the bellwether for how government responds.

First, events like Sandy are behavior-altering catastrophes. Hurricane Katrina should have been the wake-up call on climate change, but collectively we put it aside -- especially once the Great Recession seemed to render large infrastructure improvements unaffordable.

Catastrophic weather events are happening with increasing frequency, from droughts to tornadoes, but the storm surges attending hurricanes and superstorms are devastating to large population centers. Tropical Storm Irene, which hit New York's Upper Hudson Valley, and Sandy, which concentrated havoc in three states, were separated by a mere 14 months. The communities impacted will demand better governmental planning and prevention.

Second, elected officials must acknowledge that they are not in control during or immediately after a storm. If they try to pretend that there will be a prompt return to normalcy, they'll meet with public fury, not approval. Elected officials should internalize the sagacity of Abraham Lincoln's admonition: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Pointing fingers will just enrage voters, who will demand that leaders roll up their sleeves to deliver, first, relief services and then productive planning. Long Island voters, never bashful, will hold politicians accountable.

Third, Long Island was unique in that the initial damage and power outages affected essentially all of its communities. The geographic narrowness of the Island meant that dense cores of population -- from Baldwin to Babylon and Hempstead to Huntington -- were hit hard. It wasn't just the shoreline communities, such as Long Beach and Montauk, that were devastated. People who live in high density communities on Long Island, once thought to be safe, now understand their vulnerabilities to future storms.

Politically, that means all of Long Island will demand change.

Fourth, given its size of 2.8 million people and its political heft -- Long Island casts roughly 70 percent of the vote from New York State's four swing suburban counties -- if Long Island mobilizes behind its demands for infrastructure improvements and reliable power, government will have to be attentive.

Long ago, suburban voters demanded a bipartisan consensus behind environmental initiatives from Presidents Richard Nixon through Barack Obama, and from Govs. Nelson Rockefeller, George Pataki, and Mario and Andrew M. Cuomo. In recent years, national Republican leaders have retreated from the pact, while their Democratic counterparts have too often taken the concerns of green voters for granted. Long Island voters will not ask for the recasting of that bipartisan resolve, they will now demand it, around preventive planning for climate change.

This planning and leadership will cover a wide range of issues. There's the need to restore wetlands around damaged shorelines. Then we must consider the extent to which we can redevelop and insure shorefront communities, or whether we establish a new rule of reason: Let the builder beware and assume the risk. And will we alter our aversion to higher taxes to invest in infrastructure improvements, from seawalls to power lines, to protect sea-level communities near high-density populations?

The answers to these questions are neither easy nor obvious, given the price tag. But the mainstream media missed the long-term story when they didn't come to Long Island immediately after the storm hit. Long Island's reaction to Sandy will define our nation's response to climate change.

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Bruce N. Gyory is a consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany.

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