I remember hearing the argument years ago that Israel was the model to follow when it came to the prevention of terrorism, and I remember thinking just how idiotic that was: Keeping 99 out of 100 terrorists from successfully attacking you is not preferable to not having any terrorists want to attack you. By the same logic it makes more sense to live where there are fewer disasters than to live in a place which must constantly successfully overcome them.
For decades it seemed to me that my community was the former. Except for the occasional heavy snow I can’t recall any climatological events that caused any real disruption in my life beyond a day of school being cancelled. In just the last three years I’ve experienced just how disruptive a tornado, a freak early snowstorm, and a couple of hurricanes can be, though I can happily report that I feel as though my neighborhood, while not immune to natural disasters, is not at all fragile either.
These storms have been record breakers in terms of wide spread utility losses as well as the extent and the expanse of the damage they have done, and yet what I’ve found is that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that my decaying industrial age urban core neighborhood is much more resilient than many a modern edge city or suburban area.
When my neighborhood, my street, even my house, were directly in the path of this tornado I saw how quickly order was established and recovery took place. Being only a few blocks from hospitals, police and fire headquarters, and even emergency shelters gave me and my family a sense of security; a “sense” which never had to grow beyond anything but a sense because having electric, phone, and cable lines all below ground, and having outlets which satisfy all of our basic needs within walking distance, we never actually experienced any diminution of life.
So when a major disaster actually struck as close as a disaster can strike, granted, without actually destroying my home (which just a few dozen yards of course deviation could have caused and only good fortune can explain), my life was only minimally disrupted. On the other hand, the Halloween snowstorm of 2011 devastated thousands of square miles north, south, east, and west of my home, and yet my neighborhood was left completely unscathed. While almost literally everyone else I knew was without heat, without power, without water, without phone service, without an Internet connection, and without access to gasoline, I not only had all of those things, but found found myself in no need of the latter because everything I could want was within walking distance. We opened up our home to family and friends and it functioned as a shelter for more than a week.
This matters. Many people say outright that they do not live in cities for reasons of safety and security. Beyond the fact that urban living is far safer than people think, and life in the exurbs somewhat more dangerous than many believe, city centers may be more resilient than other places in 21st century America.
I’m not sure what scientific methodology could falsify this claim, though I would love to see a study addressing this(Here’s an article published after I wrote this post)My evidence expressed here does not go beyond the anecdotal, obviously, and a thoroughgoing analysis would need to take into account the frequency and expanse of the various types of disasters, and statistical evidence of resiliency of design typologies. Regardless, I feel comfortable saying that the infrastructure which forms the foundation of my life in a material sense is strong, and includes numerous redundancies.
Every variety of transportation other than air transport has my neighborhood as its hub: My neighborhood. That’s public and private, local and regional, “rubber wheeled” and “steel wheeled”. There are two energy generating facilities visible from my backyard and that electricity seems to make its way here along a very stable transmission network as my home has never been without power, to my knowledge, since I moved here four years ago. My water comes from a system the Romans would have been proud of: It flows from the hills west of the city downhill to the valley in which the city rests. The region is not prone to drought. The regional hubs and switching stations of every major modern communication system are also, again, in my neighborhood. (Beyond all this, there are farms, many of them, in nearly all of the towns around my hometown: One of the great benefits of being a region which experienced only negligible population growth in the last 75 years.)
What all of this means is simply that if ANYONE in my region is “online” then my neighborhood will be online. I can’t imagine that being a bad thing in an age of uncertainty.
From another perspective, looking up instead of down i suppose, I’m curious to see if the realities of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will begin to justify the claims of James Howard Kunstler relative to the future of the largest urban centers. Mr. Kunstler has often said that the conditions of “The Long Emergency” will prove too difficult for cities which have grown too large to adapt to the realities of our changing natural, energy, and economic circumstances. He has stated that New York City itself may see relative decline in the near future. While New York clearly has many more redundancies than my own community in the way of infrastructure, they are at such a scale, and under such constant pressure to work at absolute peak efficiency that I wonder if they can bounce back effectively from this and any subsequent disasters. To be continued?
(To quote the hosts of the Today Show just now: “…more than two million people still without power mostly in New York City’s outer boroughs and the New York suburbs.”)