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Made in Jersey
SoVaNow.com / November 15, 2012After Hurricane Sandy decimated large swaths of the eastern seaboard, one would have needed a heart of stone not to feel for the people and communities caught in her wrath. Having spent most of my seaside moments enjoying the warm sands of Virginia and Carolina beaches, I never really figured the Jersey Shore had much going for it beyond the cheese appeal of its oceanside arcades. Boy was I wrong: No thanks to Sandy, we’ve recently seen a cherished part of Americana swept out to sea. A similar sense of mourning and loss attends the destruction visited upon New York City’s inner and outer boroughs, Connecticut, Long Island and all the rest.
Yet every storm has its silver lining; Sandy’s was the reminder that in times of trouble, more binds us together than tears us apart. And while few pursuits in life can harden hearts and break bonds more quickly than politics, it was a pair of politicos who set just the right emotional tone in the immediate aftermath of the storm: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama. They might seem unlikely partners — right down to the physical contrasts between the skinny president and the rotund governor — but together they’ve gone a long way toward reviving a sense of shared community that the battered region needs, to say nothing of reestablishing the once-common wisdom that politics should stop at water’s edge.
Christie is a hard-punching Republican governor who delivered the keynote speech at his party’s convention this summer. President Obama is, well, President Obama. It would be impossible not to view their newfound partnership through the prism of politics, yet there are times when cynicism must stand down and human beings in leadership positions should receive their due.
Of the two, Christie has had the more fraught assignment — reaching out to embrace a President who most members of his party detest, during a time when Obama’s re-election hopes seemed to weigh in the balance. In such a hot-house environment, it would have been easy for Christie to keep his distance from Obama, but the big guy was having none of it, politics be damned. I can’t say I ever had much regard for Christie prior to this disaster, but he’s been pure Joirsey — brash, passionate, straight-talking and surprisingly large-hearted — and overnight he’s become a national star, and rightly so.
The key to it all, of course, is that Christie has done what all electeds are supposed to do: respond to the needs of the people. Obama has accomplished the same, from a position of being able to offer much-needed help to New Jersey through the machinery of the federal government. Much of this would have happened anyway regardless of the tone struck at the top, but the tone matters nevertheless. And just as it takes two to tango, this time it has taken two men — partisans both, but countrymen first and foremost — to broadcast the message that, after the storm subsided, help is available and life will soon return to normal for the poor souls affected.
With luck, the followup response will be equally effecfive. Now that the election is behind us, Obama would do well to use Hurricane Sandy as a launching point for his agenda for the next four years. On one level — that is, the level least likely to inspire actual political courage — the storm exposes our vulnerability to climate change, which may or may not have contributed to Sandy’s awesome size and power but surely has raised the sea level on New York Harbor by a foot over the past century, which certainly didn’t help matters any once the storm surge hit. More prosaically, the infrastructure of the Northeastern corridor, like that in most of America, was in a creaky state before Sandy came ashore. Badly in need of updating before, it’s in tatters now. And we don’t have much of a choice other than to fix it.
It’s long been our contention that infrastructure spending is one of the most useful investments the federal government can make — with the added benefit at the moment of generating sorely-needed construction jobs in the midst of a deep recession. Damages to subways, roads, bridges, the power grid and other infrastructure from Sandy are likely to exceed $50 billion. There’s your next federal stimulus package right there — assuming the next president makes rebuilding the Eastern seaboard the priority it should be.
None of this will happen, of course, without the sort of bipartisan comity that Christie and Obama have displayed throughout this disaster. It’ll be interesting to see if their example holds as the election fades into the background and business returns to something approaching normal in Washington. “Bipartisanship” is a word much evoked but little evinced in politics — uttered through clenched teeth and only with one’s fingers crossed behind one’s back. I don’t really look for the election to usher in a love-in between Democrats and Republicans, but I would hope that for the sake of our neighbors up north, Washington (and the rest of the U.S.) could stop bickering long enough to accomplish the rebuilding effort the region desperately needs.
As coincidence would have it, this newspaper just completed a retrospective on the largest federal project in the history of Southside Virginia — the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir, neé Buggs Island Lake — which arose out of circumstances not altogether unlike what New Jersey, New York et al are going through now. In 1940 the region suffered the worst flood in its recorded history as the remnants of a tropical storm caused the Roanoke River to overflow its banks, wreaking enormous damage. Periodic flooding had long pointed out the need to do something about the raging Roanoke, but earlier plans to tame the river bumped up against arguments that will sound familiar to this day: the government doesn’t have the money, the project would be an example of federal government overreach, the economy is too weak to justify the investment, etc. It wasn’t until the end of World War II — the greatest stimulus program in the history of the world, ultimately responsible for breaking the Great Depression — that the nation was strong enough, and sufficiently of a single mind, to tackle longstanding problems such as flood control on the Roanoke.
We know, of course, that Kerr Dam was built only because the objections of what today we’d know as “stakeholders” — farmers, outdoorsmen, utilities, environmentalists, Native tribes, preservationists — could be swept aside with relative ease. But one doesn’t have to hanker for the brutal efficiency of the old days, when the federal government could act with relative umpunity, to concede that the nation needs to step up and reinvest all over again in its future. Today we take the existence of Buggs Island Lake for granted, but the same was emphatically not true a few short generations back. The lake has been an enormous boon to the region; 60 years forward, perhaps we will be able to say the same for a clean energy grid, or a revitalized urban transit system, or any other such endeavor that makes America safer, cleaner or more productive, provided we can find the wisdom to seize the opportunity as it presents itself.
Major disasters provide clarity in times of confusion, but political leadership is required to make it stick. And who knows, maybe we’re seeing the first stirrings of a more cooperative era arising from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. First and foremost from the Garden State, no less. To paraphrase the sign that hangs from the Lower Trenton Bridge: What New Jersey makes, the world takes.
Let’s hope so, this time at least.