NYC's Road to Resilience: Our First Earth Day Since Superstorm Sandy

04/22/2013 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
  • Yetta Kurland Civil rights attorney, educator, radio host, small business owner and community activist

This year the celebration of the 44th Earth Day has a heightened urgency for New Yorkers. Though our city has long endeavored to be a leader in environmental advocacy, the reality of climate change in our lives can no longer be ignored. Indeed, thousands of our neighbors are still without permanent shelter as a result of Superstorm Sandy.

Superstorm Sandy presents us with among the gravest challenges we face as a city, and it is vital that New Yorkers work together if we hope to effectively address them. Working together is a key takeaway from the experience. In my neighborhood, the bastion of affordable housing known as Penn South, was the only place below 40th Street with uninterrupted running electricity. Almost immediately, residents organized to use that resource to provide meals, information, cellphone charging and more to their neighbors. At the historic artists' residence Westbeth, we helped organize dozens of volunteers who climbed stairs and delivered meals. Scenes like this were repeated throughout the city.

City workers of all job descriptions worked tirelessly to get our city's infrastructure back on track. For example, the Transit Forward Coalition, composed of transit workers from TWU Local 100 as well as riders and advocates, not only managed to get the NYC subway system up and running within 72 hours but organized thousands of pounds of relief supplies and hundreds of volunteers to deliver to communities from Chelsea to the Rockaways. "New York's Strongest," our sanitation workers, pulled off the heroic task of cleaning dangerous debris from our streets and homes with lifesaving skill and speed. Emergency responders climbed thousands of flights of stairs to help homebound and other neighbors in need. It is essential that as a city, we continue to set our city workers up for success. We must provide workers with the training and resources needed to serve our city in times of crisis and the times between crises.

New York is an island city. That has been our strength for centuries, but in this era of climate change, there can be no denying that it is also a vulnerability. Planning of everything from zoning to housing policy to the location and design of health, fire, police and other public safety facilities must be acutely aware of this. Just as we learned on 9/11 that a prominent target is no place for an emergency command facility, we have now learned that clustering many of our hospitals and nursing homes along the waterfront is not sustainable. It is not that we should abandon our waterfront; rather, we must take special care for it, knowing that the tides will surely rise again -- and likely sooner than we expect.

But preparedness is only one part of the equation. Proposals like burying power lines, increased flood-proofing requirements for residential buildings and health care facilities and alternative emergency communications systems are important and even vital. But it is essential that we work to reduce our contribution to climate change, as well. This involves everything from implementing white roofs to retrofitting our building stock for energy efficiency to moving more of our energy consumption to renewable, job-creating sources like wind and solar. While many of these suggestions have been around for years, this Earth Day we know that we must commit to making these suggestions a reality, and not an example or an exception but the rule.

On Saturday, April 27, I'll take part in a panel discussion with Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University and other scientists and community leaders to help plot a course forward for our city. The panel runs from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Hudson Guild, on the first floor of 41 West 26th Street. It is free and open to the public, and I hope you will join us. Please RSVP and find more information at