New York can be as compelling in a hurricane as it is on a starry Saturday night. Some of the thrill of living in the city arises from its combination of majesty and vulnerability. Coming to terms with apocalyptic scenes is easier here than in other cities because the scenes have already been imagined, scripted and filmed by Hollywood’s dystopian directors. We step outside this week as if onto a familiar movie set.
New Yorkers like to tell themselves stories about their extraordinary resilience. There is truth in these stories, as we’ve seen in the past few days—the rescues and coöperation in devastated communities, the absence of looting, the well-rehearsed emergency-response protocols by many institutions of government. Yet there is a collective sense of denial, too, about how poorly prepared the city is for events of this scale.
Any city facing open seas will occasionally be hit by surprises, of both the natural and the gunship varieties. But the scenes in Manhattan a few days after Sandy—a third or more of the island in darkness, emergency crews digging and rebuilding, political leaders speaking from command bunkers, citizens adapting as best they can—should not be understood as a once-in-a-century or even a once-in-a-decade exception. They are what we must come to expect regularly. The September 11th attacks, the 2003 blackout, Tropical Storm Irene, and Hurricane Sandy are events in a pattern. Technological, economic, political, and climate change all but guarantee that New York will be repeatedly disrupted during the twenty-first century in ways that it managed to avoid during the last one.
It is not just the changing weather—though there is that—it is what the weather makes vulnerable. Globalization, the knowledge economy, computers, and speedier communications mean that New York will increasingly be a center of concentrated power, wealth, creativity, and learning. Its proportionate importance to the country and the world will likely grow, even from the current high level. Stanford University, Cornell, and New York University all are planning major expansions here; Wall Street, fashion, technology innovators, and media remain concentrated in the city, despite predictions after September 11th that those industries would dissipate or migrate. Yet the same forces all but ensure that the city will be regularly attacked and disrupted.
Terrorism and cyber warfare are rising trends in political violence and state-directed warfare worldwide; the technologies and strategies needed to carry out such attack are accessible, cheap, and have a powerful impact, in comparison to old-fashioned warfare. These are unhappy developments for a city that has symbolic cultural power and serves as a congested hub point of computerized market, media, and banking integration.
Since September 11th, the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have done much to harden New York against Al Qaeda-type asymmetric terrorist attacks that might be carried out with conventional explosives. A massive video surveillance system downtown is the latest plank in these defenses. Small-time operators still get through—Faisal Shahzad’s incompetence was the only thing that prevented his car bomb from exploding in Times Square on May 1, 2010—and sophisticated groups using biological weapons or radiological materials could still wreak havoc. But there is no question that the city has up-armored itself, as they say in the military.
New York’s defenses against cyber attack are comparably paltry because preparations have been left to the private sector and Congress has failed to pass basic laws to encourage coördination, planning, and common standards. Here a coming disruption in New York is entirely predictable—it will probably take a massive, successful attack before the United States starts to build remotely adequate defenses. Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar, who presciently warned against Al Qaeda during the late nineteen-nineties, has again documented a threat that is a problem of when and how, not if. It is also a field where the United States has been taking provocative offensive action without having adequate defenses against retaliation. Whenever it is that Iranian, Chinese, Russian, or anarchist hackers get around to a big cyber attack, New York may be attractive to them for the same reasons it was to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden.
And then there are the rising seas. The Times reported this morning on how predictable—and predicted—this week’s flooding was, as a result of global warming and the changes in climate patterns that it is creating. The just-missed storm surge during Irene last year was plenty of warning by itself, but because of the expenditure required to protect New York from inevitable rising seas and extreme climate events--perhaps ten billion dollars for seawalls and barriers alone—it is human nature to ignore the problem for as long as possible.
A friend who is teaching an undergraduate class about the future asked students to review the most conservative-to-median forecasting models about the impact of climate change on American coastal cities, and then make policy recommendations about spending taxpayer dollars to defend against the coming floods. The amounts of money required to protect all of the real estate on vulnerable coastlines seemed so enormous as to be irrational—best to let insurance companies and market forces dictate the futures of, say, Sarasota, Florida, or Charleston, South Carolina. New York may be different. It should be easier to find the will to borrow ten billion to support New York’s viability for at least another half century—but in these fiscal times, hardly a sure thing.
In Sandy’s teeth, citizens overwhelmed the 911 emergency-call system with non-emergency requests—a damaging breakdown of social cohesion at a moment of great danger. Despite the downtown blackouts, Con Edison has seemed reasonably prepared for the floods; the utility induced some of the outages to prevent even greater disruptions, and the recovery times it has forecasted for restoring power to Lower Manhattan are normal for a weather-related disruption. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has seemed remarkably clueless and unprepared for the damage caused by floodwaters to the city’s subway tunnels. Either the M.T.A.’s leadership knew how bad the damage could be and couldn’t bear to acknowledge it publicly beforehand or it was surprised by something that was completely predictable.
The new normal will require large-scale public investment to protect New York from extremist shocks. Even with those investments, we who volunteer during the next few decades to share the city’s risks in exchange for access to its thrills would be advised—if the empty shelves of my neighborhood Rite-Aid and grocery store are any guide—to think a little further ahead about our private supplies of D batteries, bottled water, and tuna fish. There are more days to come when we will be on our own.