Hurricanes And Individualism: Lessons From Historic Sandy – OpEd


By Horace G. Campbell

Tropical storm Sandy swept through from the Caribbean up the Eastern Seaboard of North America in the last week of October 2012. The date is itself important because by the end of October, it had been expected that the Hurricane season was over. But this massive Hurricane called a ‘super storm’ swept through the Caribbean and struck an area of one thousand mile radius on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. More than 69 persons were killed in the Caribbean but the western world did not pay attention until this storm hit the most densely populated areas of North America. When the winds died down more than 119 persons had lost their lives in the United States with many of the victims killed by falling trees. More than 8 million people were left without electric power in the New Jersey and New York area after punishing winds and destructive floods brought the great tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to a standstill.

Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy landed in New Jersey and hit New York City, the world was exposed to the realities of rising sea temperatures. As the center of international banking, finance, media and the infamous New York Stock exchange (NYSE), what affected New York affected the world. For many stockbrokers, the major catastrophe lay in the fact that the trading on the stock market floor was suspended for two days. The business of conjuring wealth in the form of creating derivatives had to take a temporary backseat as nature asserted itself with another warning to humans that the present social system must be changed.

The superlatives that described this ‘historic storm’ did not lead the mainstream media commentators to ask deeper questions about the relationship between global warming and the basic ideation system that guides our everyday human activities. The hurricane pointed to the fallacy of the ideas of building houses everywhere without concern for the wrath of nature. The ideas of possessive individualism of western culture had run wild with neo-liberalism unfurling extreme ideas about the role of the individual. Cities have been built around commerce, financial institutions, industry and the communities to serve finance /industry and not the other way around. Those with money had the right to the city and those without property were either outsiders or lived in areas with very little protection against the elements.

For the majority of Africans at home and abroad, the ideas of private property are anathema because when capitalism and free enterprise began in the world, African peoples were considered as property. Individualism, the organization of life for the protection of property and individual accumulation of wealth over community, were considered hallmarks of ‘progress.’ Property took precedence over the well-being of society as a whole. Petroleum companies and those involved in the production of coal have been arguing against the realities of Global Warming and have used the power of international finance to block international agreements to combat global warming. With their millions of dollars these oil conglomerates silenced politicians who refuse to seriously discuss the need for alternative energy sources. Hurricane Sandy coming fast and furious after the numerous storms of this century is one more wake up call for humans to retreat from the wrong headedness of private accumulation of wealth.

It was more than 24 years ago, on June 23, 1988, when the noted scientist, James Hansen, testified before the US Congress that ‘the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible.’ James Hansen had noted that global warming ‘enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods.’ Dr. James Hansen is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He had warned that the world had passed a tipping point in relation to Global Warming. The tipping point has been reached so that the more we cross the closer we get to the point of no return, ‘where amplifying feedbacks create runaway climate change. In this possible future, the chaotic mix of rising sea levels, extreme storms, floods and droughts, would lead to ecological collapse, ultimately making our planet uninhabitable.’ Bill McKibben had carried forward this work by drawing attention to the fact that we have crossed the red line and it will not be possible to avoid cataclysmic climate events such as Hurricane Sandy. In Africa where the poor have witnessed devastating droughts, floods, forest fires and daily signs of global warming, new organs such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance have joined with the global environmentalists to mobilize against the destructive patterns of the extractive industries in the global South.

We will argue this week that Hurricane Sandy is one more reminder that we are in the era of ecological collapse and only drastic transformations will repair the planet earth and our ability to escape catastrophic events such as Hurricane Sandy.


The indigenous peoples of the Americas, especially the Tainos, were keenly aware of the powers of the storms and they were humble enough to recognize the powers of nature. The Taino word for storm, hurrican, has been handed down to us through the Spanish conquistadors who decimated these peoples in their expeditions to the Americas. These tropical storms that are called hurricanes emanate from an intense, rotating oceanic weather system that possesses maximum sustained winds exceeding 119 km/hr (74 mph). It forms and intensifies over tropical oceanic regions. In short, hurricanes are fueled by hot ocean surface temperatures. The scientific evidence has been clear for the past twenty years that temperature in the Atlantic Ocean has been rising. There is mounting information that the Atlantic Ocean is about five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual this fall (September through December 2012).

Over the centuries as humans began to develop the capabilities to measure the intensity of these storms, they have given categories to these storms according to the wind speed. Hence a Category 1 Hurricane is one with a wind speed of 74-95 miles per hour. The Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale categories for hurricanes are:
1. 74-95 MPH
2. 96-110 MPH
3. 111-130 MPH
4. 131-155 MPH
5. 156-up MPH

In recent years the deadliest Category 5 Hurricane had been Hurricane Katrina where over 1,800 persons lost their lives in the United States.


This storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season had crossed from the Caribbean into Florida as a Category 1 Hurricane and strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane over the warm Gulf waters. This storm weakened before making its second landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005 in southeast Louisiana. This major Hurricane caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from Central Florida to Texas. Hurricane Katrina pointed out the fallacy of the neo-liberal policies of the George W. Bush government that had called on citizens to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their own evacuation. The Republican Party had even called for the abolition of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In the 2012 election cycle, Mitt Romney, the candidate for the Republican Party, argued that FEMA should be handed to the private sector.

Under this policy of ‘personal responsibility’ in the Katrina manmade disaster, most of the 1,800 persons who lost their lives and livelihoods were the black and very poor of Louisiana, especially the city of New Orleans. On top of the unnecessary deaths of the poor, the failure of an engineering system that was not designed for Category 5 hurricanes exposed the technical limitations of the claims of the United States to be a super power. Nineteenth century ideas about engineering and flood protection ensured that the most significant number of deaths occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana, which flooded as the levee system catastrophically failed. Many older citizens had heard stories of the great Mississippi flood of 1927 that affected millions of people in the South. Racism had been so pronounced that law enforcement officials had used the poor blacks as levees so that white citizens could flee the flood. The book by John Barry, Rising Tide the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America had chronicled the devastation of that flood and its impact on the politics of the United States.

Seventy-eight years later in 2005, Hurricane Katrina registered itself as another historic occasion demanding a rethink of the conception of the organization of society. Hurricane Katrina had been a wakeup call about individualism and the free enterprise system. In 2012, seven years after Hurricane Katrina, one other feature of the aftermath of this storm has been the ways in which private developers had turned this catastrophe into a profitable enterprise to move an entirely new class of persons into the best properties in New Orleans. Thousands of poor and black citizens from this historic city can never return to their homes as the linkages between individual wealth and reconstruction were laid bare in the ongoing gentrification of New Orleans in the aftermath of this disaster.


Comparisons can now be made between the Caribbean islands and the United States in their response to hurricanes. Hurricane Sandy had swept through Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba before ravaging the Bahamas leaving over 69 deaths and destruction to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. However, the peoples of the Caribbean had been able to minimize the large scale deaths that had been witnessed in New Orleans in 2005 because disaster management had been taken seriously in most of the islands. Cuba, in particular, has demonstrated in Hurricane Rita in the same period (2005) that the government had to develop robust measures for evacuation and preparation for massive public health measures. The Caribbean societies have known since the period of the indigenous peoples that disasters such as hurricanes must be met by state planning with emergency management and medical response systems. These societies understand that hurricanes cannot be handled at the level of the individual and that the management of disasters is a measure of the seriousness with which a government is prepared to look after its citizens. The Cuban model of disaster preparedness is now so well known that the Mayor of New Orleans travelled to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to learn from the Cuban leadership in the management of disasters. International non-governmental organizations have invaded Haiti and have crippled the ability of the Haitian people to respond seriously to disaster management. Hence, when Hurricane Sandy swept through the Caribbean last week, the bulk of those who lost their lives in the Caribbean were in Haiti.

Hurricane Sandy created death and destruction in all parts of the Caribbean but the world woke up when the storm hit the USA. The storm worked its way through the Caribbean when an Arctic jet stream wrapped itself around this tropical storm to create an unprecedented weather event.


Usually, by the end of October, the Hurricane season dies down as the cooler temperature tone down the ferocity of the winds as the storm enters the Northern Atlantic. However, with the warmer seas and the changing climate, this Hurricane gathered intensity as the warm sea surface temperatures pushed the winds that converged with a winter storm. Scientists had warned that fiercer and more-destructive hurricanes will sweep the Atlantic Basin in the 21st century as climate change continues. According to meteorologists, Sandy was a rare event where two weather systems merged. From the insights of noted scientists we have learnt that: ‘rising temperatures will give hurricanes warmer oceans to feed from, and more moisture to dump on us, making them more destructive.’

This observation going back over the past seven years since Hurricane Karina have been reinforced by the prediction that ocean temperatures will keep rising and blocking patterns will become more frequent. Hurricane Sandy was one example of this blocking pattern. Scientists are now writing that Hurricane Sandy occurred when an Arctic jet stream wrapped itself around a tropical storm. Hence North Americans witnessed the bizarre event of a snow storm in West Virginia while next door there was a tropical storm unleashing massive floods up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States. In the words of the scientists, ‘There are at least three factors which made Hurricane Sandy historic: 1) Warm sea surface temperatures, 2) a ‘blocking pattern’ shoving the storm back on shore, 3) a merger with a winter storm.

What made the storm especially destructive was its enormous size, at least 1,000 miles in diameter. The prolonged high winds and storm surges, coupled with the full moon on Monday October 29 night that increased high tides, all contributed to the massive, almost unprecedented flooding over such a wide area.

The destruction in the urban areas of New York and New Jersey has been plain for the world to see. All the major media houses in the United Sates operate from New York so the evidence of the devastation was graphically relayed all over the world.


The scale of the destruction of the City of New York has forced the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to openly state that the issue of Global Warming has to be engaged by US policy makers. Both Michael Bloomberg , the Mayor of New York, and Governor Cuomo spoke boldly about the realities of climate change and that there will be more super storms; such as Hurricane Sandy. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said there should be more conversation about ‘a systemic solution long-term, because this is really a long-term issue. It’s a longer conversation, but I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable.’

‘Climate change is a controversial subject, right? People will debate whether there is climate change … that’s a whole political debate that I don’t want to get into. I want to talk about the frequency of extreme weather situations, which is not political … There’s only so long you can say, ‘this is once in a lifetime and it’s not going to happen again.’

‘The frequency is way up. It is not prudent to sit here, I believe, to sit here and say it’s not going to happen again,’ Cuomo continued. ‘Protecting this state from coastal flooding is a massive, massive undertaking. But it’s a conversation I think is overdue.’

African people and the peoples of the Caribbean can only say Amen to this statement. They can ask where Cuomo and Bloomberg were when the US government was blocking discussions on global warming in the debates at Copenhagen and Rio. Andrew Cuomo, as the Governor of the State of New York, was making a case for the Federal Government to come up with billions of dollars for reconstruction. This case could not be made as a technical one; it needed the clarity from environmental justice forces that a new ecological infrastructure can only come out if a new protracted struggle against the oil and gas companies who spend millions to deny the existence of global warming.


Governor Cuomo has spoken of the billions of dollars that will be needed to repair New York and for the building of storm barriers for lower Manhattan. Engineers and construction magnates are salivating on the new business opportunities that will come from this disaster, but with this capitalistic mindset, these leaders are asking the wrong questions. Slowly, city planners in the United States are wrestling with the weighty issues of the building of surge barriers and tide gates as storm surge research groups look to the planning that is going on in places like London, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo, where sea walls, levees and wetlands, flood plains and floating city blocks have been conceived.

There have been many seminars and conferences by engineers on how to deal with storm surges and how to develop the scientific and engineering information base needed to evaluate storm surge barrier concepts. I will agree that in the short run these engineers need to meet, but the more fundamental question lies in a global response to Global Warming. The United States cannot combat global warming by reference to its engineers and its capital markets. If, indeed, we have passed the tipping point and there will be more cataclysmic events, then there will be a fundamental challenge to the free market ideas that convey power to developers to build everywhere and to bribe city planners so that building permits are granted for capitalists to build and endanger the lives of innocent citizens.

The entire international system of markets has been built on the model of the urban planning and the priorities of New York City. Hurricane Sandy struck New York and called on humans everywhere to reconsider their relationship with Mother Earth.


Environmental justice activists will need to intensify their work and build networks in order to change this social system that places individual greed and private property over the interests of community. From the Global South the environmentalists have been mobilizing against the catastrophic climatic changes that have been threatened the livelihood of millions. From Africa, the basic information of global warming is being suppressed by the oil and gas companies who are extracting petroleum resources without basic regard for Africans as human beings. The activities of the Shell Oil Company in the Niger Delta of Nigeria have been chronicled as ‘criminal.’ While the battles against Shell Oil has taken a legal form, there are numerous formations in all continents who are going beyond legal challenges to be able to register new forms of politics to call for system change not climate change.

All over the world the realities of global warming have pointed to the pressure to transform the way we interact with nature and use energy. Global warming is real and the evidence as marshaled by scientists is incontrovertible. Concerned citizens will be called upon to mobilize to hasten the development of alternative energy sources while strategizing for the building of a new ecological infrastructure that suits the needs of humans. Already, activists have been working to educate others to stand up to the oil companies. This is a global struggle because Global warming does not discriminate. International cooperation must be the call to share experiences so that humans can transcend these old ideas about individualism and ‘personal responsibility.’


Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. He is also a Special invited Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Global NATO and the catastrophic failure in Libya’.

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