In the Winter issue of Gotham magazine, Governor Andrew Cuomo is interviewed exclusively for the magazine by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The governor discusses climate change, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing New York City post-Superstorm Sandy.
The following is an excerpt from “Governor Cuomo on the Wrath of Superstorm Sandy.”
RACHEL MADDOW: It was not a hard sell to convince people across the country that a storm affecting our region—and New York specifically—was an issue of national significance. I think it freaked out the country as a whole that our largest city could be inundated—and it might not be the first time. It got me thinking, ‘What might be on the state’s agenda [now] that wasn’t before? What might be on your agenda as governor? Was this a kind of wake-up call for a state that’s not naïve about the impact of climate change?’
ANDREW CUOMO: This is a new threat. We looked at the world differently after 9/11. The nation woke up on 9/12 and said we have to prepare for terrorism. We thought of new security systems. After Sandy, we should also look at the world differently, and that is what we are doing.
I think the reason you felt the receptivity on the [part of the] audience is sometimes you have a thought or a feeling that’s percolating, but not actualized. And I think people have been sensing there is something going on with the weather and forget the politics of it—they just know from their own life experience something is going on. I said right in the midst of [the storm]: This is climate change. And it’s not a political concept; it’s a practical concept. It’s not debatable and not ideological or philosophical; it is reality-based. Changing weather patterns create real, practical issues for the world. Let’s build an awareness, a consensus, and let’s educate and mobilize the body politic around it. When do politicians succeed in bringing change? When the people are ready. Your point—well, the audience is willing. Let’s cement the understanding and use this moment to really develop a political consensus. Maybe that’s the silver lining [of] the storm. Step two is actually practical and easier. Once you accept the premise, what do we do? Well, we now have three commissions working, [studying] redundancy in hardening of systems, hardening of the power system, the utility system, the fuel delivery system, a better emergency preparedness response, better first responders.
MADDOW: You talked about the need for New York State and New York City to harden [their] systems, that we need to think about [the state’s] contributions to climate change, we [also] need to think about becoming more resilient and more prepared. What happens in the short term? Let’s say another Sandy doesn’t happen in decades; it happens in a couple of years. What is on the top of your wish list that could make New York City more resilient the next time the storm surge comes up?
CUOMO: First, a better system for first responders in natural disasters. When you have a situation like we had, with multiple counties and extraordinary damage, our emergency response system is not geared for this. It is from a different time, [designed] for a local situation, say, a bad fire in a county, [where] the surrounding counties would come and help.
Second on the list would be sealing the subway system and other entry points where water can fill the New York City underground. Everybody thinks the engineering marvel is how high we built in Manhattan. Actually, the engineering marvel is how deep we built. New York City goes down ten, 15 stories—subway tunnels, water tunnels, electrical conduits. There was never an anticipation that water could fill ten stories of underground. We have no capacity to pump it out. So when the subway tunnels flooded, this created a major debacle. We were lucky that the flood stopped where it stopped. It was just because the tide crested; otherwise, we would have been disabled for months and months.
Third, the fuel redundancy system—it can’t be [that] you disrupt the fuel delivery for two days and it wreaks havoc for two weeks. And the emergency response system, where the state has the ability to come in and work with or direct the utilities in an emergency, where people aren’t at the mercy of what the utility company decides to do on their particular block.
MADDOW: I know you’ve got commissions of very able people looking at the long-term security of coastal New York and New York City. Thinking bigger term about infrastructure to protect the city in the light of climate change, what do you see as the options? How do you think they’d change the way of life and the way of commerce for the city?
CUOMO: It depends how far you go. When you talk about rebuilding, there is certain real estate that Mother Nature owns. She may not visit often, but she owns it, and when she decides to visit, she is going to come and reclaim the property. How we build on the coastline, where we build, and mitigation [are the issues]. Is it more expensive short-term to rebuild the house with the appropriate mitigation—on pilings, let’s say? But you build it once, rather than rebuilding every time there is a storm. You could look to longer-term infrastructure issues like barrier protection with soft barriers—dunes, sand, islands. You talk about storm barriers; literally erecting a barrier in the ocean that is only there to protect against a storm if it happens, when it happens. That’s very expensive and multiyear, and I don’t know if that’s required at this point or feasible.
MADDOW: And is that the bottom line? That ultimately, no matter what we do, what giant Dutch seawall system we build, or however many more oyster farms we put in lower Manhattan, it’s ultimately [about] our relationship with the earth on which our government rests?
CUOMO: It was a great advantage at one time to build a city along the coast for commerce and travel. So we built cities, not just New York, but port and river cities all across the country. It was a great asset. Now, it’s also a liability, where climate change is a recurring reality, you have great exposure that you’re going to have to deal with. So deal with the reality of climate change, prepare for the emergency, and find ways to stop the damage so you can slow the worsening effect.
This article is reprinted with permission from Gotham Magazine.