11/01/2012 03:43 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2013

After Sandy, Building the Future

I was born in the Dominican Republic and spend 200 days a year crossing the U.S. as a community organizer, but I grew up in the South Bronx, and I'm a New York City girl for life. As I watched the disaster of Hurricane Sandy from halfway across the country, my heart broke for all the people whose lives were turned upside down by the storm. They've always been my brothers and sisters. Their home will always be my home.

Many New Yorkers responded to the massive flooding with the same disbelief that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed. "I never could have imagined," many of us said.

The shock was real, deep, and painful -- especially for those who literally saw their lives washed away.

But we can't let shock and sympathy be all we feel. We can't look at Sandy's destruction and think: "We never could have imagined. We never could have prepared. All we can do now is clean up and move on."

In Wednesday's New York Times, Jim Dwyer wrote about an amazing meeting he attended in 1991, when federal emergency planners warned what a Category 4 hurricane could mean for New York City. They showed a slideshow of doctored photos to illustrate -- the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel flooded out. Airports underwater. Dwyer wrote, "It seemed far-fetched." Until he saw it happen in real life this week.

The point is not that there was an easy way to avoid the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. The point is that for decades, America has been crying out for major investments in our infrastructure. The kind that protected our port cities for generations. The kind that created millions of jobs, and helped millions of families enter the middle class, including many low-income people and people of color. The kind that connected us as a nation -- not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

Each time we face a disaster like Sandy, there is a moment of opportunity. Minds seem to open. Politicians say far-thinking things. Suddenly it seems possible to win real investments in our future, to break out of the endless cycle of cynical political games that only the richest and most powerful ever seem to win.

Then, too often, the moment passes. We can't let this moment pass.

Governor Cuomo is now calling for multi-billion-dollar investments in New York's harbor infrastructure to protect the city from future flooding risks. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- who in 2010 axed a major NY-NJ transit tunnel project that would have created thousands of jobs and served millions of commuters -- has put aside partisan divides to deal with his state's post-hurricane crisis.

We need to seize this moment. We need to win a nationwide commitment to building America's infrastructure -- not as crisis response, but as the new normal. Our economic future depends on it, as do our lives. Sandy cost up to $20 billion in economic damage, but it also cost at least 50 lives.

While countries like China and Germany are building their economic future by investing billions in their national infrastructure, we've been neglecting ours. While life-threatening severe weather events are becoming more and more frequent, we've failed to invest in the infrastructure to survive them. As Governor Cuomo said: "They call it the hundred-year flood, because it's only supposed to happen every hundred years. I told President Obama, we have a hundred-year flood every two years."

We can't wait for the next Sandy, Irene, or Katrina. We can't wait for the next bridge collapse or subway crash. We can protect ourselves and build our economic future by finally committing to investments in America's infrastructure.

Community organizing campaigns by Gamaliel members and allies have pointed the way, creating or saving nearly 640,000 jobs over the last five years alone, largely by winning infrastructure investments. These investments have built careers, families, and communities, especially for low-income people and people of color. Through our Fire of Faith campaign, we plan to do far more. But rebuilding America is a fight we all need to be in together.

Sandy has been a tragedy for many. Let's honor them by making it the moment we began to build our future.