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Where Do We Go From Here?

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You Didn’t Need One Of These

One of These Days

On a warm spring day in April 2008 I checked in to the New Jersey State Police Disaster Response facility in West Trenton.  The weather was about as nice as it gets around here with temperatures in the low 70’s, beautiful blue skies and a slight breeze. Inside the building, which as far as I could tell was built to withstand a simultaneous nuclear blast and asteroid impact, it was quiet. The command center, with its banks of desks and computer monitors, was dark and empty. The walls were ringed with high-tech data displays and HD television screens that were blank, save for a single T.V. tuned to the Golf Network showing one of the early rounds of the Master’s.  This was not the kind of day this facility was built for.

I spent the afternoon meeting with the state’s disaster response coordinator as part of the background work for creating a new version of the New Jersey State Plan. A long-term assessment for the state, the State Plan was designed to steer decisions on land use, infrastructure investment, capital projects and resource conservation and protection.  A large portion of the research involved meeting with each of the state’s agencies and departments to obtain their input and to try to align each agency’s programs with the State Plan to the greatest extent possible.  This session focused on two aspects of disaster response: the vulnerability of infrastructure to potential disasters and the nature and direction of recovery efforts.  No responsible long-term plan could ignore these issues.

If you want to make enemies-try to change something- Woodrow Wilson

The updated State Plan was going to contain a new section on Climate Change and recommendations for a comprehensive response, from the way we contributed to continued greenhouse gas emissions to preparation and response for the inevitable effects that climatologists, including the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist, warned we were facing. From hardening our infrastructure to handle the likely flooding, to protecting roads and bridges to, perhaps most importantly, planning to rebuild differently after any disaster, these issues were all explored and incorporated into the long-term outlook for the state. A plan that was eventually buried by the Corzine Administration and outright rejected by the Christie Administration because it contained some hard truths that may not have been politically expedient, it addressed getting ready for the inevitable. Four years later, on October 29, 2012 to be exact, the day the disaster response center was built for arrived. It really didn’t take a crystal ball to know this was coming.


Time for a Change

While the State Police were preparing for every sort of potential disaster from terrorist attacks to chemical spills to nuclear reactor accidents, we knew what the main threat to New Jersey was-the state’s vulnerability to coastal storms. Whether a nor’easter or a hurricane, a strong storm moving up the east coast or making landfall somewhere along the Jersey Shore was clearly the most likely danger facing the Garden State.  Rising sea levels made damage from flooding more likely, even from ordinary storms. Bridges and causeways were prone to inundation, cutting off escape routes for residents along the shore. Infrastructure, such as water and sewage facilities, electrical transmission equipment and other necessities of modern life were at risk. Homes, businesses and people in the path of such a storm were in danger.  Hurricane Sandy was the first of what will probably be many tests of the resiliency of our infrastructure and the communities it serves.

The effects of sea level rise have been studied. Mapping, like the interactive map that can be found here, clearly indicated where the largest risks existed and continue to exist. Yet we took little or no action.  This is as much an environmental issue as it is an economic and social issue and, not the least, an issue of public health and safety. As shore towns undertake rebuilding efforts, the question becomes are we taking the necessary steps during this process to avoid being right back in the same predicament when the next major event occurs. In a rush back to “normalcy” and trying to recover economically will we make the same mistakes again?  We never had the excuse that we didn’t know this would happen and we certainly can’t say it now. Sea level will continue to rise, storms will increase in intensity and frequency and the ocean will go where the ocean wants to go. Even though he didn’t really say it, we like to quote Einstein as saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Whether Einstein said it or not, its a good way to look at things.

The response to events like Hurricane Sandy will say a lot about us as a society. Our ability to make hard decisions. Our capacity to plan ahead. Our commitment to future generations. The nature and character of our political leadership. All of these things are subjects for consideration and evaluation. These are not abstract or theoretical issues. They have a real-world effect and we have a responsibility to demand that we cease senseless political debate and start to do things differently-and better. There is a lot on the table here.  We’ll continue to come back to this topic because of its importance and because it says so much about how we operate as a society. My mission for 2013 is to motivate visitors to this site to take action and hold our leaders accountable. Come back and check in often for discussion of ways to accomplish that. We can make a difference.  There are two ways to deal with hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer. The first is to put some ice on it after you hit it. The other is not hitting yourself in the first place. This was one shot on the thumb. Let’s try not to hit it again. -Ben Spinelli

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