11/02/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hurricane Sandy: A Chance to Regain Something Squandered After 9/11

As New York City struggles back to its feet after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, I can't help but feel I've drunk some sickening cocktail: a shot of Katrina mixed with a lethal twist of 9/11.

The Katrina shot of this cocktail has the bitter taste of Mother Nature's brutality, heightened by the angostura of hot-off-the press photos of devastation.

And there's a flavor of 9/11 in the look on the faces of people walking down the street: shock, loss and displacement, worry.

This concoction has the powerful whiff of random vulnerability in a city that prides itself on tough. It also has the bad, sad aftertaste of tragedy, fermented by stories such as that of the young man who, with his girlfriend in leafy Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, walked their dog at the wrong time and the wrong place, and both died, crushed by a falling tree.

Over a decade ago, after 9/11, the nation lost the chance to move to a higher level of cooperation and shared purpose. It was a "moment" that lasted months, but, as the nation marched into war, finally petered out. Hurricane Sandy, through broader in swath, was a lesser crisis.

Now, after Katrina in New Orleans and 9/11 in New York, local people are saying, I never thought I'd see the day ... yet -- wiser from tasting the bitter fruit of experience -- in the same breath, they are already talking about whether this kind of event might actually happen again. How quickly the unimaginable becomes possible: Governor Cuomo, the day after the hurricane, broached the idea of building a levee in New York Harbor as a smart preventive measure in an era of global warming.

In these long, tough days after Hurricane Sandy, in the Big Apple strangers again trade stories, as they did after 9/11. Again, people make remarkable connections during unremarkable moments: Waiting in line to buy milk, one speaks from the heart about a loss and a total stranger standing next in line offers solace.

Let it be said: This across-the-aisles collaboration is a great thing, even (or perhaps especially) in so humble a place as a Brooklyn supermarket.

And so it is beyond poignant, on the eve of a presidential election, that apparently it took an act of nature -- a hurricane, for heaven's sake! -- to get a Republican, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, to embrace and publicly say nice things about the nation's first black president -- across, as it were, not the supermarket, but the political aisle.

Curiously, the hurricane of the century arrived a week before one of the most divisive elections in memory.

And so, thedeja vu factor, the familiar taste of our coming together after a tragedy, forces the question:

Which presidential candidate can capture and nurture this latent sense of American community so that we are empowered, not embittered, by our differences and diversity? Who can best capture Americans' longing for collaboration and nurture that into the reality of working together?

Mitt Romney may shape-shift to win votes, but his record suggests his goals are: paring down federal government, privatizing the social support network, letting poor folks fend for themselves. (For my part, I'm glad FEMA is distributing water to the kids in flooded Red Hook, Brooklyn tonight.)

For voters, it's a pretty stark choice, like a "before" and "after" picture of a town hit by a hurricane. If one compares tax policies, health policies, and policies about women's reproductive rights, then clearly one candidate will create stronger class divisions, further polarizing the super-wealthy and corporate interests against the 99 percent. President Obama may or may not succeed, but he will at least try to bring people together and level the playing field.

I have more to say. But an email just came through, and I've got to run. From a local faith institution, it reads, "Urgent Need: 600 Hard Boiled Eggs In Shells Before 8 PM." Hurricane Sandy evacuees in the local Brooklyn shelter need something for breakfast.

And so it goes. Faced with disasters, Americans pitch in, find ways to engage in bridge-building, and renew the bonds of community.

This post-hurricane recovery period might give our nation, or a large chunk of it, another chance to grab the ring that was lost after 9/11. For that, we need leadership that prizes bipartisanship, working together and chipping in. It's something to think about when you vote on Tuesday.