Now for the hard part (2): Hurricane Sandy… and the post-election national agenda.

“Hard” is a four-letter word.

We don’t like “hard,” whether it applies to recovery from Hurricane Sandy, or the political challenge now facing our polarized nation. Let’s dig a little deeper…

Hazards researchers like to talk about four stages of disaster. The lists vary from expert to expert, but they all look something like the following:

–       mitigation: steps such as better building construction, reducing construction in floodplains and on fault zones, etc.

–       preparedness: building public awareness, taking measures to ensure that when emergency response is necessary, that all players, including the public, know what to do

–       emergency response: warnings, evacuations, standing up and staffing emergency shelters, etc., in the face of an unfolding event; and

–       recovery: bringing things back to normal after the disaster

[Please forgive this impoverished description. My hazards-scholar friends are probably depressed that after I’ve listened to them give great talks at meetings for a quarter of a century this is the best I can do with their concepts, but the rest of you get the idea.]

Compared with warnings/emergency response, recovery is the hard part. More than a week after Sandy, the full implications of just what recovery entails are only beginning to sink in. Some 100,000 people still lack power. Thousands remain homeless; a housing crush confronts the broader New York area. Difficulties in every area of life continue: the daily commute is complicated by subway problems. Gasolene is being rationed. A cleanup of stupefying proportions has only just begun. Legal complications are surfacing. Yesterday’s nor’easter dumped several inches of snow across the region. Months of hard work lie ahead. The burden will fall on area residents unevenly, stressing the social fabric.

And that burden is considerable. Recent estimates of Hurricane Sandy losses – property damage and economic disruption – have totaled as high as $50B; the final estimate may prove substantially higher still. Only a fraction of that will be covered by insurance or government at all levels. Much if not most of the cost will be born individually. The sorry fact is that while warnings and emergency response may save lives, when it comes to economic losses, they do little more than produce relatively small dollar savings at and around the margins. Picture a reduction in that $50B figure of 10%.  Worth the effort? Most definitely. But does it feel any better? Not really.

And the result of those fatalities and dollar losses? Everyone will be tested: at the very time we need to bring out our best, exhaustion and frustration tempt us to show our worst. This is true not only for those directly impacted, but also for those not so affected. When we who weren’t directly impacted fail to remain mindful of the needs of those who were, when we return to our quotidian concerns leaving them to fend for themselves, then resentment, alienation, and feelings of disenfranchisement lurk nearby. All of us need to stay engaged.

The pain and stress of recovery remind us that we really want to do more pre-event mitigation. As individuals and as a nation we need to shoulder more responsibility for learning from experience, not repeating mistakes of the past, not rebuilding as before. Instead of condemning our children and grandchildren to repetitive loss, we need to ensure that a disaster like this one, for these causes, will not happen again.

There’s a parallel between the Sandy disaster recovery and what needs to happen on the national political stage.

Think of the election campaign just concluded as the emergency response. A lot of activity, gadding about the countryside by each campaign’s staff, a lot of messaging about what you and I should do (how we should cast those precious votes). The action wasn’t confined to the campaign staffs in question. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers nationwide worked tirelessly, especially in the recent weeks, to shape the outcome. And, much as emergency responders come under public scrutiny after the disaster, all those candidates and campaign managers who lost on November 6 are coming under the microscope today. There’s a lot of finger-pointing.

And actually, we have another big emergency coming, and another all-hands response needed. We’re looking to all those political leaders we elected Tuesday, and two years ago, and four years ago, and even six years ago, even the lame ducks, to come together and keep our country from falling over the fiscal cliff. Between now and January 1, 2013, we’re praying they will take the steps needed to avoid the re-imposition of a bunch of taxes that we’re pretty sure will stop our fragile economic recovery over the past four years dead in its tracks and send us spiraling into a new recession. For that matter, we’d be thankful if they could start us on the track of avoiding that threat of sequestration (those draconian cuts in defense and discretionary agency funding) that looms soon after. In fact, we’re told that days or weeks before the nominal drop-dead dates for these needed actions, the economy will already be compromised. Business leaders will be forced to cut back purchases, delay hires, trigger furloughs or layoffs, and take other steps that are prudent in the face of such calamity. So, just as Hurricane Sandy began to do damage before its actual landfall, these fiscal threats will start to do damage soon. Some experts tell us that the damage has already begun.

Just as we need to reduce our vulnerability to repetitive loss to natural hazards, we need to get off this vicious cycle of self-imposed financial and fiscal crises. We need a plan that provides vital stimulus for the short term but morphs over the intermediate to long term into a sustainable fiscal plan, one that begins to reduce the national debt as a fraction of GDP over time…a plan that balances tax policy, the social safety net, and stimulates the innovation and economic development our country needs if it’s to remain the indispensible nation for the 21st century. A plan that brings stability and continuity to our lives.

Not an easy task. A task that looks a lot more like recovery than emergency response. That calls for hard work and commitment and the best we each have to offer. A task that leaves no American on the sidelines. A task that even as it challenges us, inspires us and brings out our best…whether our political leanings align more closely with President Obama or Governor Christie.

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