Frankenstorm, Climate Change and the Ability to Adapt

Pictures show empty shelves that were full of water bottles and NYC subways stations that are shut down for the next couple of days. Hurricane Sandy could well turn into ‘Frakenstorm’. Just days before Halloween this year, much of the east coast and its approximately 60 million residents are coming face to face with what may be the worst storm in a century. “We’re not trying to hype it,” explains National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Kocin. Spreading across over 800 miles, there are predictions in some areas of 12 inches of rain, 2 feet of snow and sustained 40 to 50 mph winds. And most of the media is also reporting that Frakenstorm is worse than the sum of its parts.

Local news here in North Carolina is covering how the devastation spreads from the Outer Banks to upstate New York. Strong waves rip acorss the shore and in most major cities across the East Coast airports, trains and bus services have shut down. President Obama spoke out and said that everyone “across the Eastern seaboard should be taking this very seriously.” At a time when local media, our facebook/twitter friends and even the President of the US are calling on us to take this storm seriously, some climate justice activists are questioning why the issue of climate change and extreme weather weren’t topics in the recently Presidential debates. Neither Presidential candidate mentioned climate change even once during the Presidential debates; the first time since 1984 that has been true.

Some media sources are writing compelling articles questioning the connection. NPR questioned ‘Frakenstorm: Has Climate Change Created a Monster?’ and NY Times Blog explored ‘The #Frankenstorm in Climate Context’. Both articles straddle the balance of pointing out the connections of extreme weather and being true to science, with including the diverse voices in the ‘debate’.

Adam Frank’s NPR article begins: “It was not a good year for people, weather and climate. The winter was strangely warm in many places and the summer ridiculously hot. As a large fraction of the country suffered through extreme or even extraordinary drought many folks naturally wondered, “Is this climate change?” Then along came a presidential election in which the words “climate change” disappeared from the dialogue. Now, just a week or so before voting day, the convergence of westbound Hurricane Sandy with a eastbound cold front is creating a massive storm, a Frankenstorm even, that is threatening millions of Americans. Weird weather is making yet another appearance in our lives and once again we ask, ‘Is this climate change?'”

The question for climate justice advocates isn’t simply is this hurricane caused by climate change, but also what are the impacts that extreme weather like this have on the least capable of dealing with the devastation. What about the East Coasts’ poor, elderly, disabled and incarcerated peoples who are facing the full force of the winds and waves? It is troubling how these stories are not being told as broadly today.

One example of this can be seen in Mayor Bloomberg response to a reporter’s question about the evacuation plan for those incarcerated at Rikers Island. A breaking article about Mayor Bloomberg’s inadequate response explains, “According to the New York City Department of Corrections’ own website, more than three-quarters of Rikers Island’s 400 acres are built on landfill–which is generally thought to be more vulnerable to natural disasters. Its ten jails have a capacity of close to 17,000 inmates, and normally house at least 12,000, including juveniles and large numbers of prisoners with mental illness–not to mention pre-trial detainees who have yet to be convicted of any crime. There are also hundreds of corrections officers at work on the island.” When a reporter questioned about the safety of these people, Mayor Bloomberg apparently stated in an annoyed tone, “Don’t worry about them getting out.” In this he completely ignored the well being and potential safety of thousands of NY residents. This is not the first time that the well being of these inmates have been ignored during an extreme hurricane. Last year when Hurricane Irene hit New York, there was also no plan for these people to be evacuated.

We must start reporting these extreme weather events as a part of a global crisis. One that acknowledges their connection with climate change and the ways that we collectively have to figure out best adaptation practices that takes into consideration our disenfranchised communities. To everyone on the East Coast, those being forced to move and those being forced to stay, please be safe.