Learning From Disaster

Cities, like people, tend to learn from experience, especially painful experience. It's a principle that Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted in his talk in December about post-Sandy New York.

"In fact, the city that we know today exists, I think it's fair to say, only because the New Yorkers who came before us responded to tragedy and adversity with inspired vision and impressive resolve," said Bloomberg, whose presented his vision for the city's post-Sandy future in December at an event hosted by Regional Plan Association and the New York League of Conservation Voters. The mayor cited a series of events, including the Great Fire of 1835, the Blizzard of 1888, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"After each one of those calamities, New Yorkers recognized that the city had to survive and thrive, and we are only going to do that if we adapt. And in each case, New Yorkers put politics-as-usual aside and set a new course that would redefine the future of our city."

Indeed, for two centuries, responses to disaster transformed the city significantly.

Before the Great Fire of 1835, there was the great cholera epidemic of 1832. Even more than the subsequent fire, historians say, the epidemic generated political support for the expensive Croton Aqueduct water system, which opened in 1842. New York City still enjoys one of the best water supplies in the country.

The great blizzard of 1888, which tangled streets for days with fallen telegraph poles and halted streetcars and carriages, generated political support for two projects from which the city continues to benefit: burying communication and power lines, and the construction of the city's first subway system. Voters in 1894 approved municipal financing for the city's first subway.

Now, Manhattan's power lines are subsurface, while the outer boroughs and larger region have a mix of subsurface and above-ground lines. If Hurricane Sandy had met Manhattan streets lined with poles and overhead wires, the power and communication outages in the city's core could have been far worse.

In addition to these headline historical events, there are other, less well known but still significant events. 

In the harsh winter of 1917-1918, the Hudson River froze, stopping barge and ferry traffic. This led to a severe shortage of coal, which at that time was essential for heating. The shortage boosted support for a new vehicular tunnel to match the new train tunnels under the Hudson. Construction began in 1920 ,and the Holland Tunnel opened in 1927.

The sinking of the General Slocum steamboat in 1904, with death toll of more than 1,000, reformed safety equipment on ships. The looting and violence that followed the great blackout of 1977 helped initiate stronger crime-prevention programs and repair of the city's crumbling infrastructure.

But responses to large disasters have costs as well as benefits, and not just in money.

The draft riots of 1863, which killed at least 100 African-Americans, and subsequent riots in the 1870s, built support for the then-new institution of the metropolitan police force, as well as construction of citizen-manned armories. While this made the city safer, the more militarized state also clamped down on dissent, ranging from street protests to labor unrest.

Lisa Keller, a historian and author of Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York & London (Columbia, 2008), said policies put in place in the 19th century still influence New York to tightly limit displays of public dissent, far more than London, for example. This was evidenced by New York City's segregation of protesters during the Republican National Convention in 2004 in New York, Keller said in an interview.

As the region regains its footing after Sandy, discussion has already begun on policies and projects, ranging from multibillion-dollar floodgates across the harbor to revised insurance regulations. No one knows what will happen, but it is clear the probability of action is higher now.

"We tend to sit on our butts until something really bad happens," said Columbia University Professor Kenneth Jackson, a longtime historian of New York City. And for obvious reasons, he said. Projects are costly in money, and tumultuous in interests bolstered or damaged. "There is no such thing as a free solution."