We will lead on climate change

New York must press ahead with urgency to equip itself for the new age of extreme weather

Andrew Cuomo, New York Daily News, November 15, 2012

In just 22 months as governor, I’ve witnessed firsthand the destructive force of three powerful storms that have crippled the state: Irene, Lee and now Sandy.

Each has taken an immeasurable toll on communities. Precious lives have been lost, and homes and businesses destroyed. This storm alone was responsible for 60 deaths to date and more than $30 billion in damage in New York State.

Extreme weather is the new normal. In the past two years, we have had two storms, each with the odds of a 100-year occurrence. Debating why does not lead to solutions — it leads to gridlock. The denial and deliberation from extremists on both sides about the causes of climate change are distracting us from addressing its inarguable effects. Recent events demand that we get serious once and for all.

We need to act, not simply react.

First, we must begin by thinking about where and how we rebuild. The next generation’s infrastructure must be able to withstand another storm. We must also reduce the energy consumption that contributes to climate change — which means, for starters, upgrading our building codes.

Thinking carefully about where we locate critical pieces of our infrastructure networks will avoid a disaster domino effect, such as the explosion of the Con Ed substation that knocked out power to much of lower Manhattan.

Second, we must fortify and upgrade the systems that paralyze us when they fail. That means building redundancies into our fuel system and putting in place generators and pumping systems that are readily deployable. Actions such as these will avoid panic at the pump, lengthy lines and frustrated motorists.

Mass transit is the lifeblood of New York, and a 21st century city must protect and improve its mass transit infrastructure. Subways and tunnels are clearly vulnerable to major flooding that can bring us to a standstill. We must diversify transit options so that if one system is temporarily disabled, commuters are not stranded at work or stuck at home.

Similarly, cell phone networks and other communications systems must be strengthened to ensure that first responders and citizens never lose the ability to communicate fully and instantly. The power outage knocked out service in the hardest-hit areas and rendered service elsewhere spotty at best.

Our electrical power grid and the structures that control it must undergo a fundamental redesign. Power utilities are the equivalent of vinyl records in the age of the iPod: antiquated, 1950s-style institutions that don’t serve our current needs.

The electrical system is particularly vulnerable. Entire above-ground wire networks in heavily wooded areas spell disaster in virtually every storm, yet nothing is being done to rectify this obvious vulnerability. To a large degree, the state and local governments are captive to the utilities in an emergency, just like their customers.

Six utilities do not compete for customers, but in a natural disaster they must compete against one another for scarce materials and personnel. We must investigate the weaknesses in the system and reform it to ensure that customers do not face catastrophic power losses every few years.

Finally, common sense demands reforming for the way we do business to protect against the impact of disasters. For example, we need a better system to track patients in health-care facilities and vulnerable people in the community so first responders know immediately who may need help.

Recent experiences also underscore the need for an improved cybersecurity monitoring operation, a well-trained army of people who can step in and help protect and rebuild vital systems without delay.

There is no more time for debate. This is our moment to act. On Thursday, I am announcing the formation of three commissions to look at key components of managing a new, better prepared New York: how we get ready before an event, how we respond in its immediate aftermath and what changes we can make to our infrastructure that will better prepare us to face Mother Nature’s inevitable fury.

New York has a natural advantage in this seemingly daunting task. We begin with an extraordinary enterprising spirit, unparalleled resiliency and a long history of engineering the impossible.

We are the state that built the Erie Canal, opening up commerce to the West. We built a subway system so extensive that its 800 miles of track could run from New York all the way to Chicago.

Time and again, we pushed boundaries and broke records. We have been tested before, and we have always risen to the challenge. We will not allow the national paralysis over climate change to stop us from pursuing the necessary path for the future.

Cuomo is governor of New York.

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