Thoughts on Hurricane Sandy

Let's put aside our differences and realize that hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes know not of political affiliation.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Yesterday, I came out of a nine-day, no-time-off marathon deadline project, so other than checking to make sure my in-laws in Trenton were okay, I didn't really have the time to pay real attention to the effects and aftermath of Sandy until last night.

I was fortunate that I could focus on something as mundane as a deadline. I've lived through a number of devastating natural disasters. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 (right in the middle of the World Series, some of you may recall), I was in San Francisco, driving home from a project meeting at the Apple Media Lab.

I remember thinking someone had shot out my tires, and pulled into a local gas station to check. I wasn't alone. Two other drivers felt the same thing from inside their cars and also were checking their tires. What had really happened was the brick facing from some of the buildings had collapsed around us. We were fortunate. Many others were not.

It took me hours to make it home to Foster City, only to find that the inside of the house and my home office were completely destroyed. Thankfully, I found my cat, safe, hiding under a chair.

In 2005, my wife and I had just moved down to Florida when Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma hit. We were here less than two weeks before Katrina, and barely a month or so before Wilma. We were fortunate that only a piece of the fascia on the house blew off, but my parents weren't quite as lucky.

My parents live about two hours south of here, and they were without power for 12 days. Fortunately, they were able to come north and stay with us. My wife and I had only been married for about six months, and we'd only just moved into our first house weeks earlier. She and my parents got to know each other very, very well over those 12 days. My wife is a saint.

Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about Sandy, not just because I know what it feels like to be on the somewhat lucky side of natural disasters, but because my native soil was hit so hard. I was born in New York (that's where most of my family comes from and still lives), and lived more than half my life in New Jersey. I spent four years in engineering school in Massachusetts, which was also hit pretty hard.

When I read these stories, I know all these places. I still have friends in many of them.

Here at ZDNet and CBS Interactive, we also have a great many employees and team members in New York, New Jersey, and the rest of the northeast. I was on a webcast yesterday with two producers who have been migrant workers for the past week, since there's no power at home. They've been hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop, any place they can get a plug and some level of connectivity, trying to do their very big jobs from less than ideal circumstances.

Despite the discomfort and worry, they're soldiering on.

During the actual storm's main run through New York and New Jersey, ZDNet's international team took over and kept coverage coming. If you were able to look at our news feed during that time, you'd notice that we didn't drop coverage, not even for 15 minutes. Our UK, Asia, and safe-and-dry domestic teams all jumped in and did their part to bring you ongoing IT coverage.

The stories of Sandy are the stories of any natural disaster. It seems worse, though, because it's New York and New Jersey. These are the strong states, the tough people, people you know can handle anything -- and they're handling this. But there are people who are hungry, people who are cold, seniors who are without power and have to walk down or up hundreds of steps to get in and out of their apartments.

Many people lost homes. A 20-foot tidal wave blasted through Staten Island. Tidal waves aren't supposed to blast through Staten Island! Most of the New Jersey Shore is now gone. Much of the famous boardwalk is gone. The New York City subway system is pretty much fried. It will take days, if not weeks, to get it all up and running again.

There will be political discussions over the next few weeks, before and after the elections. Many of them will center on whether A did enough, or B didn't do it right. Some of them will swirl around the question of climate change, and what role global warming did or didn't have on recent weather events.

But that's not the point. The point is: this is life. We live on a volatile planet and we do our best to carve out our caves of steel from the bedrock and firmament.

There is no way to really "process" this kind of event, except in a practical way. Some people will soldier on. Some people will suffer terribly. Some people will help others. Some will prey on the pain and desperation of their fellow citizens.

When I started writing this, I didn't have a theme or a conclusion or a lesson in mind. I just felt the need to talk with you about it. I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion for all the people of the northeast -- people I still think of as "my" people, even though I now live down here in Florida.

I also worry, to be quite honest. When I bought this house last year, here in Central Florida, I rebuilt it to be fortress-strong, with hurricane shutters and a roof that can withstand 120 mile-per-hour winds. But is that enough? I look around and wonder if I've built in enough protection, stockpiled enough supplies, prepared well enough for an evacuation. If a Sandy were to hit here, could I protect my family?

I'm not sure, but it's certainly a wake-up call. We've got about six months until the next major hurricane season hits, and you bet that stockpiling and preparing will be high up on my to-do list (I hope, if I don't get sidetracked with mundane things, like making a living).

I may have found a way to close out this meandering chat with you. I was a Boy Scout. In fact, I was an Eagle Scout with bronze, gold, and silver palms. For a while, I was an underage district commissioner for an inner-city district in Massachusetts that couldn't find enough adult leadership.

I learned a lot in the Boy Scouts (although, apparently, the organization has changed a considerably since my day). The biggest thing I learned was the scout motto: be prepared.

I think "be prepared" needs to be the take-away lesson from Sandy, on both an individual and national level.

Individually, we each need to assess where we live and what we're likely to encounter. Some of you are in earthquake territory. Some of you are in tornado zones. Some of us are in hurricane zones. Listen to your local authorities and take all recommended precautions.

Many of us, though, may not be able to predict what may befall us. After all, who thinks of New York City and hurricanes in the same sentence? We should all, though, develop emergency preparedness plans and resources. Keep a supply of water and non-perishable food in your home. Learn evacuation routes. Explore how to handle family situations. Check with your local emergency preparedness authorities and follow their recommendations.

From a national perspective, it's time to stop denying what we don't want to hear. Whether or not global warming is "real," our infrastructure needs work and we spew way too much toxic material into the environment and atmosphere.

I know we're all concerned about jobs and the economy. I wrote a book about that, after all. But we're going to need to balance boosting consumer spending, with spending to protect consumers. We need to strengthen our roads and bridges, so they don't collapse when Uncle Bob or Aunt Margie drives across on the way to work. We're going to have to look at reigning in our emissions, so that Cousin Johnny can breathe better and, perhaps, we don't get more superstorms.

Most of all, we have to work together. I was very heartened to see Governor Christie (a Republican) and President Obama (a Democrat) working together this week, putting aside politics and doing what they were hired to do, be leaders when their people need leaders.

Let's all do the same thing. Let's put aside our differences and realize that hurricanes and earthquakes and tornados know not of political affiliation. Let's get back to being Americans. Let's work together, live together, and stop bickering so much.

As I learned more about the devastation left in the wake of Sandy up in New York and New Jersey, I realized that these weren't just people I'd moved away from seven years ago. No, I realized that I thought of all of them, each and every one of them, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Christian or Jew or Atheist or Muslim, straight or gay -- all of them -- as simply my family.

We are family. We are Americans. Together.

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