Lessons From Katrina

Four years ago this Sunday, our city suffered a terrible blow from which we are only now starting to recover.

Just two Sundays ago, millions of Americans in New Orleans, Biloxi and hundreds of other cities and towns across the Gulf Coast were hit by something that was arguably even worse, a category 4 hurricane, leading to the biggest natural disaster in our country’s history.

If you haven’t already, make a pledge to the Red Cross, and if possible, give of your time as well to help restore a sense of normalcy to all the people affected by this crisis. That must be our first priority.

But even as the floodwaters begin to recede in New Orleans, we must not let our own heightened awareness of the fragility of life obscure some deeper lessons. Katrina was not just a natural disaster; it was also a man-made catastrophe. Decisions made by people in authority, decisions not made, funds spent and not spent—these mattered almost as much as which way the winds blew and where the levees failed.

Americans are due answers for those failures, and it’s not too soon to start this exercise. Nor is it too early to look inward and think hard about what this episode means for New York City. What if it were us that were hit by a category 4 hurricane? How would residents of the South Bronx or East New York escape?

If a category 4 hurricane hit New York dead on, the New York City Hurricane Evacuation Map predicts the South Bronx and northern Queens would be severely flooded, along with most of southern Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Here in Manhattan everything below Broome Street will be inundated with flood water. The Hudson would reach Seventh Ave, and the East River would surge to First Ave. The map shows the Atlantic Ocean storm surge reaching as far inland as Flatbush, just south of Prospect Park, with Howard Beach under 31 feet of water.

Meteorologists say that this is not a question of if, but when.

Why is subway wireless so hopeless?

As the wireless companies line up with their bids to introduce wireless service to the New York City subways, one can’t help but marvel at the way good ideas tend to gather momentum. By now you probably know that some people have been pushing for just such a plan for a long time. Finally, the MTA and Mayor Bloomberg are starting to listen.

Obviously, New Yorkers want cell phone service on the subways, and they want elected officials with the clarity of purpose to bring it to them. (In case you’re wondering where current Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has been on this issue, the answer is nowhere.)

As the New York Times article points out, sometimes at a mix of private interests and public need can go a long way. In fact, it’s possible that the intense private sector interest in wiring the subways could dramatically reduce the cost to the city itself. And there’s no reason to think that the same thing couldn’t work to provide wi-fi access to New Yorkers as well.
Just imagine a future New York where we’re able to harness the power of technology and new ideas to welcome the 21st century.

NEW YORK, August 3 - With a line of volunteers holding “telephones” comprised of tin cans and string snaking up and out of a City Hall subway station, a Democratic candidate for Public Advocate exposed the fatal flaw in the MTA’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign — no emergency cell phone service available in the City’s underground subway system.
He used the tin can connection to demonstrate the lengths New Yorkers must go to contact authorities above ground in the event of a disaster — and how vulnerable subway riders are today without the ability to dial 911 underground. The demonstration also showed, he said, how the City’s current leadership does not understand the power and value of technology.
“The MTA is giving new meaning to the phrase ‘tunnel vision’,” he said. ” ‘The See Something, Say Something’ campaign is toothless if New Yorkers can’t communicate quickly and easily with the proper authorities.”

Reporters attending the event were given sample “If You See Something, Say Something Emergency Communications Systems”–two tin-cans tied together by string.

“Sadly, this is just another indication that our city’s current leaders — from Mayor Bloomberg to Public Advocate Gotbaum to the MTA itself — are suffering from an imagination gap - and we are all suffering for it. The fact is, the MTA’s inaction has created a huge hole in our public safety net, and it could easily prove to be a fatal one.”

He said there was simply no excuse for the MTA not to wire subway tunnels and underground platforms, noting the MTA recently announced it had a surplus of $833 million and has not yet spent most of the $600 million in funding already allocated for security upgrades. He also pointed out that many other urban areas both here and abroad had already managed to provide cell phone service in their underground subway systems, including Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Berlin, Madrid and even Sophia, Bulgaria.
“This isn’t an issue of money or technology, but of leadership and vision, and that’s why I am running for Public Advocate — to fill this imagination gap, connect New York, and bring it into the 21st Century,” He said.
“But we can’t wait to change horses to change these misguided policies. We simply can’t afford to have the MTA be MIA any longer. That’s why I am speaking out today, to give the MTA the 411 on 911 in the subways and get them to fix this huge hole in our safety net as soon as humanly possible. It’s time to stop hanging straphangers out to dry.” 

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