Editorial: Coming Up Big in a Crisis

Chief Leader - November 07, 2012

by RICHARD STEIER

The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is staggering and sobering. Dozens of people in the New York area lost their lives. Millions were without electrical power for days, and more than 80,000 in the five boroughs still did not have it restored as we wrote this Nov. 6, a week after the storm had subsided. More than 40,000 people were left temporarily homeless, with some of them--notably in places like Breezy Point, Queens, other parts of the Rockaways and sections of Staten Island--unlikely to have homes to return to.

And so any positive developments related to the storm are tempered by that backdrop--they may provide some comfort to those who survived but suffered greatly, but they won't do much to relieve their hardship in the short term, at least.

Yet there was something heartening about the response by government workers--particularly those in the emergency services--to this crisis.

That included the Federal Government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency got to many of the hardest-hit areas so quickly and effectively that its former director under President Bush, Michael "Heckuva Job, Brownie" Brown--who was maligned for his incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago--actually had the nerve to criticize President Obama for moving too quickly while implying that his motivation was strictly political. A ringing rejoinder to such partisan nonsense came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made clear how grateful he was that Mr. Obama got personally involved and visited his battered state while promising financial and physical aid from the Federal Government.

But the most-inspiring work in this city was produced by its own employees, with cops, firefighters, Emergency Medical Service workers and others braving the dangers of the storm and the great physical discomfort it forced them to work in to protect the city and its citizens and their property.

The natural response for most of us when a storm like Sandy is raging in full fury is to hunker down in the shelter of our own homes, grateful that we are indoors and hopefully protected from its destruction. Emergency workers don't have that luxury. They are required, by both the nature of their work and the pride they take in doing their jobs, particularly under duress, to do what they can to cope with the horrendous conditions and either try to abate them or else directly assist those who are in harm's way. They continue to do this past the point of physical fatigue, at times when it would be easy to yield to the mental stress that weighs upon their aching bodies and tell themselves that they have done enough and someone else should relieve them.

Yet so many of them persevered, leaving themselves at risk. Some of their stories are chronicled in this newspaper. They include a Queens fire company that spent nearly eight hours getting through flooded streets and then battling a wave of fires spreading through the Rockaways in difficult and hazardous working conditions before getting relief, and a Carpenter with New York City Transit who climbed out of his partly submerged SUV to pull to safety a cop, a fellow transit worker and then others who had to climb onto car roofs to avoid being submerged in the flooded streets of Coney Island. They were almost matter-of-fact in describing what they had done and the conditions they surmounted to do it, as if taking for granted that extreme circumstances demand extraordinary performances, and so they shouldn't make too much of having risen to the occasion.

Other workers were less fortunate, including Lenny Montalto, a postal-union activist, and Artur Kasprzak, a young Police Officer. Both died in the basements of their Staten Island homes, Mr. Montalto after persuading his daughters to leave the area, Mr. Kasprzak after ensuring that seven other people in the house, including a small baby, had found refuge in its attic. They are mourned even as we honor their selflessness.

One Sanitation Worker, Damian Moore, endured the unspeakable tragedy of losing his two young sons, who drowned after they slipped out of the grasp of their mother while seeking a safe place to be when their vehicle, bound for Brooklyn to get away from the carnage wracking their Staten Island neighborhood, became trapped in the flooded streets.

Other city workers, including Mr. Moore's colleagues in the Sanitation Department who regularly logged 12-hour days in the storm's aftermath, labored mightily to help bring the city back to normal, often handling duties that fall outside their job descriptions. They understood that in a crisis, what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a "civil-service mentality" means that you do whatever is necessary to help the public you serve, as well as the people with whom you work.

All those who subscribe to the notion that the private sector will always outperform public workers only had to look at the contrast between the speed with which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority got subways, buses and commuter railroads back to near-normal service and the continuing problems the private utility companies experienced in returning power to many of their customers. Doing so would quickly cure them of that belief.

The response by government workers in ameliorating the damage done by Sandy was a stirring reminder of why a strong government workforce is so important, and never more so than in confronting catastrophic conditions.