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The new heartland
SoVaNow.com / November 07, 2012After Hurricane Sandy decimated large swaths of the eastern seaboard last week, one would have needed a heart of stone not to feel for the people and communities caught in her wrath. Raised to enjoy 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 have just seen a piece of Americana swept out to sea. A similar sense of mourning and loss accompanies 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 tone for coping with the emotional and tangible aftermaths of the storm: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama. They might seem unlikely partners — right down to the physical contrast 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 sudden friendship through the prism of politics, yet there are times when cynicism must stand down and human beings in leadership positions should get 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, even as Obama’s re-election hopes have weighed in the balance. At such a hot-house moment, 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 generous when the chips are down — and overnight rightfully become a national star.
The key to it all, of course, is that Christie has done what all electeds are supposed to do: tend to the needs of the people. Obama has accomplished the same, from a position of being able to offer immense 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, once the storm subsides, help is available and life will soon return to normal.
Whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupying the White House for the next four years (a question very much in doubt at the time of this writing), either man would do well to use Hurricane Sandy as a launching point for his political agenda. On one level — that is, the level that is least likely to inspire much 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 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 in most of America, was in a creaky state before Sandy came ashore. Badly in need of updating before, it’s wrecked now. And we don’t have much of a choice other than to fix it.
It’s long been my contention that infrastructure spending is one of the most useful investments the federal government can make — with the added benefit of generating sorely-needed construction jobs in a 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 up as business returns to something approaching normal in Washington and less enlightened instincts reassert themselves. “Bipartisanship” is a word that is much evoked but little evinced in politics — spoken only through clenched teeth and with fingers crossed behind one’s back. I don’t really look for the election to usher in a national love-in, regardless of who wins, but I would hope that for the sake of our neighbors up north, Washington (and the rest of the United States) could stop its bickering long enough to accomplish the comprehensive rebuilding effort that the region clearly needs.
As coincidence would have it, this newspaper just completed a two-week 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 Mecklenburg County suffered the worst flood in its history as the remnants of a tropical storm led the Roanoke River to overflow its banks, causing enormous damage. Periodic flooding had long pointed to the need to do something about the raging Roanoke, but earlier efforts to tame the river had run up against obstacles that will sound familiar to this day: the government doesn’t have the money, the feds are overreaching, the economy is too weak to justify the investment, ad nauseam. 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 confident 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 — were 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 get stuff done because it also had far greater power to drive people off their land, to acknowledge 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 in time. 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 for the industrial Northeast and corners beyond, provided we can find the wisdom to seize opportunities in times of trouble.
It can only happen if the country is able to come to basic agreement about the appropriate path forward. Major disasters can provide the clarity that’s needed to achieve such a consensus, but leaders are 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. Out of 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.