She came through like a thief in the night
She was so seductive, so beautiful, but yet so deadly at the same time. She came in, got what she wanted, but ended up destroying the apartment in the process. She crept in for a one night stand that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Her name was Sandy, and may we never forget it.
So Hurricane Sandy has come and gone. Or, at least the hurricane is gone, but she ransacked our homes, and our communities. It’s almost like she went through our pockets, and stole all our TVs and appliances while we were asleep. When we awoke our stuff was gone, our pockets were rabbit ears, and we had no cash to live off of.
New York State governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Address (SOS) has roared through, and dissipated – like Hurricane Sandy. But, understandably being drowned out by all of that loud noise there is one thing to consider – sustainable democracy.
Relief for New Yorkers still coping with Sandy’s aftermath
Sandy was the most devastating natural disaster to hit New York in years. And, in the wake of the storm’s aftermath it looks like a replaying of what happened after Hurricane Katrina. That is disaster relief efforts are working quite well for some New Yorkers, and not so well for others. Playing out like a skipped CD, the situation is unfortunately all too familiar – people with access to power make things happen, while regular working and lower income folks make do.
“Now more than ever, we can’t afford to have a city that serves some New Yorkers and not others” said Alexa Kasdan, Director of Research and Policy at the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. “As we recover from the storm, we have an opportunity to rebuild the city in a smart, sustainable, and just way that addresses economic equality and gives real decision making power to those that are most affected.” “Three out of four immigrants in devastated areas have been unable to access relief” says Deborah Axt, Co- Executive Director, Make the Road New York. “Many of our members……are traveling to their jobs in communities that have fully recovered from the storm. Unfortunately, they are going back home to neighborhoods that are still facing severe devastation from the aftermath of Sandy” expresses Pat Purcell from UFCW 1500.
Falling skies - The big issue here though is climate change
As the 2013 rolls in this is the predicament that we find ourselves in. New York State (and especially New York City, and the tri-state area) is not the typical hurricane prone region of the United States. Hurricanes typically haunt the mid-west and western parts of the country. But with the advent of climate change – anything weather wise is possible in any part of the world. Consider that in 2010 according to the associated press, it snowed in 49 of the 50 states of the union. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or meteorologist to see that something is wrong (or out of the ordinary) with the weather.
The big issue here though is climate change. Many of the world’s top scientists have already gone on record, and many more are starting to come to a similar conclusion – our weather is just not what it used to be.
Many have attributed our falling skies with the rise of global warming. This is the idea that as the planet (Earth) heats up, the weather on all continents is affected. The heating up of the planet is due primarily to mankind’s burning of fossil fuels (and other environmentally altering practices) into the air. This is not something that I just made up there is plenty of research done by some of the world’s most brilliant scientists that backs up what I’ve said.
The solution is a simple one - if we don’t like snowstorms in Florida, or hurricanes in New Jersey, we have to be more sustainable in our energy, and life choices. And, the burning of fossil fuels should be about as extinct as the dinosaurs. It’s either that, or we can expect many more unexpected visits from thieves in the night.
The bigger issue is the decentralization of energy production
I just watched the Mad Max movie marathon on AMC. In a post nuclear holocaust, apocalyptic world, a loner travels the roads and fights evil. In this world gas or energy is a valuable commodity. In the second movie of the series The Road Warrior, our hero Max (Mel Gibson) runs into group of people who have built a community around an underground gas well. They have extracted many gallons of gas. Max ends up helping the group do battle against a crazy biker gang hell bent on destroying their community, and taking all of their gas.
Taking some power out of the few big energy company’s hands would place more control of energy (gas, lights – resources which we need to live), at the neighborhood level. Why in the world would somebody want to do that? Well for starters a huge power system wouldn’t get knocked out all at once if another natural disaster like a surprise ice storm, a hurricane, or a blizzard hit a community. Another thing to consider is that there are alternatives to producing the energy that we need to live much cheaper at the neighborhood level. The NYS 2100 commission (one of a few that were created by Cuomo after Hurricane Sandy) suggested that decentralization of large utilities be explored, and that the state study other methods of creating energy like co-generation, combined heat/ power, and solar power.
More oversight of utility companies
To his credit the Governor is making some moves in the right direction. The current system has been “skewed in favor of the utility companies” Cuomo recently stated. Alluding to the aftermath of Sandy he has expressed the idea of giving more power to the NYS Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC which is charged with regulating utility companies in NYS is working in an environment where “the utility companies are very powerful” he said.
The National Fuel Accountability Coalition (based out of Buffalo NY) has been in a struggle with National Fuel Gas to create more sustainable housing in their community. The coalition believes that its weatherization efforts in an area that desperately needs it works in tandem with the progressive suggestions put forth by the 2100 Commission. “This goes along with what we’ve been saying all along, and weatherization reform is a part of that process” says Jen Mecozzi Director of Organizing for PUSH Buffalo, a member of the coalition.
The ban fracking movement held a rally the same day as the SOS, making peaceful noise downstairs from the speech. What does fracking have to do with sustainable democracy? Anytime a drilling process destroys a natural resource like water, it can’t be taken seriously as a sustainable practice. This leads to the big picture item of looking into renewable and clean energy alternatives, and there are some that do exist – they’re just not getting the attention they deserve.
Instead of having a few super huge energy grids, why not create a series of smaller, more neighborhood concentrated grids? Add to that the possibility of running these grids with cleaner alternative energy producing methods – the possibility is limitless. Some of these methods could work no doubt, but we’ll never know for sure until we try.
The Minimum Wage Increase
In his SOS speech Governor Cuomo called for an increase in the NYS minimum wage. This is an increase that would potentially raise the minimum wage to $8.75 (up $1.50). Although it’s not a very large financial windfall, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Citizens of Buffalo (now one of the top 5 poorest cities in the nation) as well as residents across the State certainly can use any wage increase. This is a band aid approach at best. The next step is to tie the minimum wage increase to inflation, and continue the conversation around creating a living wage.
The biggest issue: Neighborhood input all the way
A big storm hits, and housing is destroyed on a mass scale. A huge grid is knocked out, thousands (if not millions) of people lose their utility service at the same time. The never ending story of two communities begins again. One community (the one with the more expensive housing) gets services restored in a timely manner, while the other is still waiting. Service isn’t restored for many for months afterward, and worse still these same people go without proper shelter for this same amount of time. These are the types of things that can happen when regular folks are completely left out of the decision making process.
We have an opportunity here albeit out of a natural tragedy to build energy efficient, and a smart green sustainable development infrastructure that works well for all members of our community. Good things are happening. Take for example PUSH Buffalo and PUSH Green’s (PUSH Buffalo’s energy efficiency arm) recent announcement that funding has been secured to weatherize more than 80 homes in lower income parts of Buffalo. PUSH Green also has money, and energy saving programs available for people with incomes both above, and below HEAP eligibility.
The State has been working with community based groups statewide in a few different capacities to lay the foundation for this work. People know what they need where they live, and they know they need access to power to better direct what happens in their local communities. This won’t happen unless we get the powers that be to see the big picture. The big picture includes eliminating the political absurdity and gamesmanship being played out over disaster relief, and sustainability efforts.