For most of us in the New York/New Jersey area, this entire week has been consumed by Hurricane Sandy and its effects. Some have been struggling to get by without electricity, running water, or elevator service on the 20th floor of an apartment building. Some have had their homes and cars destroyed by uprooted trees, flood waters, wind, or fire. Some have lost their lives from electrocution, falling trees, drowning, or lack of power for their medical devices. Others of us (like me and my neighbors) have just been inconvenienced and immobilized by the lack of transportation options due to flooding, power outages, and fuel shortages.
I hope that one effect of Sandy has been that everyone realizes how much we have been taking for granted the incredible infrastructure we use everyday. We have a huge, complex subway and commuter rail system that needs constant maintenance to continue to move us from place to place. We rely on gas stations that provide a steady supply of fuel that has been pumped up from beneath the earth’s surface, processed in a refinery, transported thousands of miles, and put into an easy-to-use machine that takes credit cards. We depend on a nonstop flow of electricity to keep our food cold, our showers warm, and our minds informed and entertained.
Eight years ago, after spending three months in Ocotal, Nicaragua, some of these simple facts dawned on me. The infrastructure in most communities in the United States is absolutely amazing. I mean, we have water hydrants every 500 feet just in case there’s a fire someday. We have a uniform system of addresses and zip codes so that we can expect to receive all mail that has been sent to us. We have stations that list the time that the next bus or train will arrive.
Traveling to a place that’s very different from home is one way to gain a lasting appreciation for these systems that we base our entire lives on. Being in the path of a “superstorm” is another way, apparently.
Maybe Sandy’s aftermath will also push us to develop even better forms of infrastructure that don’t promote the same systems that have caused climate change in the first place.