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The Power of Water and the Vulnerabilities of Port Cities

Today’s guest blog post is by Stephanie C. Kane:

Tropical Storm Sandy takes a left turn into the Eastern seaboard and meets a Nor’easter, they say. Con Edison’s Lower East Side power station explodes, darkening the iconic skyline from Midtown to Manhattan’s estuarial southern tip, turning Ground Zero into an Iguazú Falls. Families, like mine, stranded in edifices towering above the flooding tunnel networks, familiar sidewalks evacuated, government agencies animated, the eco-blind presidential campaign rhetoric sidelined.   “Often found underground, or on the periphery of cities, infrastructure remains largely invisible until the precise moment at which it breaks down,” writes Pierre Bélanger in Ecological Urbanisms.[i] Wealthy and poor together experience the dread and thrill of a socio-natural disaster in this precise moment. But as events unfold, the different resources available for withstanding disruption reveal the biophysics of inequality. The sudden changes in earth, water and infrastructure  simultaneously affect all people distributed in geographic and social space, but not in the same way. This is why, like climate change-related phenomena more generally, the design of and investment in intelligently integrated, eco-savvy infrastructure are social and environmental justice issues.

In recent decades,  artists, environmental activists, urban planners and landscape designers have been reimagining the world’s post-industrial waterfronts, in New York City and globally. But even as they reimagine the functions and aesthetics, the fixities and flows,[ii] of edge spaces, how many of the newly built environments have seriously grappled with the problems of flexibility, flooding, and problematic interconnectivities of the larger infrastructure of which they are a crucial part? (For a good example, see HafenCity . (http://www.hafencity.com/en/home.html).

As the sea surges onto Battery Park City’s South Cove, mocking its hardscapes,  inhabitants who might normally appreciate artist Mary Miss’s conception of a jetty as “a place where people could smell the river, hear it, get their feet wet and actually go out on the water,” are, if their electronics are working, more likely to attend instead to the  monstrous swirl of fraudulent image-clouds about to devour the Statue of Liberty in the Twitter-world. While in the nearby backwaters of the Gowanus canal, the vitality of its art activism scene succumbs to the toxic legacy brought back by the Superstorm, reminding residents– what may indeed never be that far from sensory awareness—of the incompleteness of the Superfund clean-up.

So even as  corporate interests are tempted to displace human agency and responsibility on to the storm, we cannot, as the Maritime Executives do, hold “Sandy Responsible for 300,000 Gallon Oil Spill on U.S. East Coast.” Shell Oil and Saudi Refining (Motiva) surely have primary responsibility for risk management and recovery in the Arthur Kill channel, with continued assessments by the Coast Guard, NJ Department of Environmental Protection, and Middlesex County Officials. A responsibility we all share. For even as we want the lights to come back on and for recovery in hard-hit neighborhoods to proceed apace, we cannot simply stop at restarting the failing, increasingly hazardous systems of energy, waste, and transport that contribute to climate change and water degradation.

As reality and metaphor, Superstorm Sandy dramatizes the on-going encounter between a densely populated industrialized megacity and the aquatic environment which it inhabits. The concentration of economic and cultural transactions in New York City and its surround has been accompanied by concentrated industrial harms, only some of which are technically coded as eco-crime.  Once upon a time, when indigenous peoples still roamed the island of Mannahatta alongside bear and beaver, coves and marshes slowed the full moon estuarial tides and springs and creeks flowed above and below ground: visitors to the Museum of the City of New York were provoked by an exhibit that altered our sense of future possibilities. Before such possibilities can flourish, however, we must end dependence on the most dangerous infrastructure: the four nuclear power plants in the New York-New Jersey region, one of which (Oyster Creek , Toms River NJ) went on “ALERT” when Sandy’s storm’s surge threatened to overwhelm the water pumps needed to cool 700 metric tons of nuclear waste in its rooftop storage pond—we were spared a Fukushima-scale disaster, this time. This includes “creeping disasters”[iii] that are too easily ignored when the weather is good, like the chronic problem of sewage overflows into the Hudson River upstate, which seems tolerable until a storm surge, like Sandy’s, reverses the normal downstream flow back into the roads and homes from whence it comes.  Aboard the Riverkeeper’s patrol boat during the storm, Captain John Lipscomb captures the extensive intricacies of ordinary pollution mixing and intensifying  in extraordinary times: “This is like an Exxon Valdez spill from nonpoint sources. … and instead of being from one source like a tanker, it’s from a thousand different locations.” We’ve got to get our collective heads around this.

Stephanie C. Kane is the author of Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water, an ethnography of port cities in Brazil and Argentina (for excerpt, click here.) She is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Indiana University.  stkane@indiana.edu.


[i] pg. 332 in “Redefining Infrastructure (pp. 332-349),” in Ecological Urbanism, Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, eds. Lars Müller Publishers (Zurich, 2010).

[ii] Desfor, Gene, Jennefer Laidley, Quentin Stevens, and Dirk Schubert, eds. 2011. Transforming Urban Waterfronts: Fixity and Flow. New York: Routledge.

[iii] Rosenthal, U. (1998) Future Disasters, Future Definitions. In What is a Disaster? E.L. Quarantelli, ed. Pp. 146-159. New York: Routledge.

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