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Superstorm Sandy: How Soon We Forget

With climate change, eventually more people will be living in blackout zones. How do we fix that when it's disturbingly easy to forget all about them?

Since Superstorm Sandy soaked the East Coast, there's been a presidential election and a CIA sex scandal. So I can hardly blame you folks in California for forgetting that there are people like me who still have no heat or elevators in our buildings. I find it disturbingly easy to forget about such people myself as soon as I get a few blocks out of the blackout zone.Uptown vs. Downtown: Above 29th Street, it's been too easy to forget about the blackout zone in Lower Manhattan. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The former Sri Lankan ambassador to Cuba happened to be staying in our apartment when Sandy hit. My husband and I had arranged to stay uptown so that our old friend could enjoy a vacation in Lower Manhattan.

On the Monday Sandy was expected, Madame K — she's got one of those five-syllable Sri Lankan names — phoned to say the computer was making a strange sound. Then pop. Neither phone, nor Skype, nor cell, nor email now connected us. So we drove down to rescue our guest, taking suitcases so we could also rescue the stuff in our freezer. When we opened our apartment door, we found the ambassador in bed: "I didn't know where else to go once it got dark."

K wondered why no one from the building had come around to check on her storm preparations and make sure that a visitor had up-to-date evacuation information, the way they would have in Cuba.

Over the years K and I have had our disagreements about Cuba. But at that point in Sandy, I'd have welcomed a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution to keep track of everyone.

The next day our building director held a tenants meeting. "This is the storm of the century," he said, opening with the cliche of the century.

Even if Con Edison managed to get power into Lower Manhattan in four or five days, as estimated, he told us, the building wouldn't dare turn on the electricity until the basement could be pumped completely dry and the salt wiped away. Multiple pumps were already working toward that end.

The water marks in the basement, he said, were over his head. Washing machines in the laundry room had floated up and now lay sprawled atop each other every which way. As far as heat, the boilers might not be salvageable and locating equipment vendors in a crisis would take time.

"How many times are we going to go through this same thing?" a tenant demanded. With global warming, the "once in a century storm" might happen every couple of years. The only reasonable solution, he declared, was to move the electrical and heating control systems out of the basement and up to a higher floor.

"This is an emergency!" the manager cut him off. The tenants agreed volubly. Climate-change architecture could wait. They wanted to know how long we'd have to keep living in the dark and cold without water or elevators.

Madame K was not impressed with the American can-do spirit as she saw it in my building. So I showed her an email from another friend who's the managing editor of a weekly trade journal headquartered in the blackout zone.

"Our owner was intent on getting out the issue, which is supposed to close today, and he finally found temporary office space in Midtown, which is where I am right now…. Our IT guy had to bring two servers from our office, walking down 16 flights of stairs!"

Was that IT guy any less heroic than the nurses at NYU Hospital who carried premature babies in their arms down nine flights of stairs while keeping their respirators going by hand? If the IT guy had failed, the magazine would have had to return the entire week's advertising revenue.

"But who determines which magazines get temporary office space?" my Fidelista friend demanded — "or that magazines get priority over other displaced enterprises?"

I countered that the total amount of spontaneous ingenuity unleashed during the crisis was in no way diminished just because it was commandeered for profit-making purposes.

"Besides," I argued, "a social priority list operates here too. There's no way those babies would ever have been left in the hospital. This is New York, not New Orleans."

But in the weeks since the storm, it's been harder to convince myself that we don't leave anyone behind.

What scared me most about Sandy were my own reactions. How quickly the people left in the blackout zone came to seem like the ones who didn't plan, the ones who didn't have friends — the losers you see on television demanding services from the mayor. Once I drove above 29th Street, my downtown neighbors came to seem like Romney's 47%. Those, as you remember, are the people you don't have to think about.

I know, of course, that it's morally wrong to forget the folks in my building still living without heat. So from time to time, I step out on the balcony of my uptown refuge and force myself to stay there for a full minute. But it's getting colder, so I do that less often. Now, even as I write about them, I only occasionally "feel their pain."

The oceans are rising and storms will be more frequent. In cities such as New York, it may be feasible to elevate the power systems, as that fellow at the meeting suggested, at least in luxury buildings — at least for a while. But eventually more human beings will be living in the world's blackout zones. And as I've learned from Sandy, the losers are frighteningly easy to forget.

Will we ever attack the real causes of global warming if we adopt a fix that allows some of us to dwell above the flood?

This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times and appears here with permission of the author.