Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A public administration exam.

This past week has been all about public administration field tests. First, with and entirely unprecedented earthquake in the middle of the week trembling the very ground upon which we walked, and then a strong - although not as much so as we had originally believed would be the case - hit from a slowly spinning down Category 1 hurricane, the leadership and governance systems in the great State of New York were sorely tested. But New York State, as well as the City have experienced both of these types of adverse conditions before, and not nearly as far back as you might believe (but long before it was discovered that oversized - even for New York - rats of a separate genus from our usual Norwegian brown rats are now scurrying the tunnels below the City streets. Where might all these Herculean rodents escape to once their underground havens become inundated with spillover from a storm surge at high tide?). So, as photos of damage and videos of rivers rushing through rural (and not so rural) America populate the previously unseen corners of the interwebz, let us explore some of the more pertinent questions from, even for New York City, what amounts to a really wild week.

On Friday of last week, I published an article in my Examiner.com column asking a whole range of difficult questions about the operation of the State, whether our infrastructure is prepared to handle two natural disasters in one week, and what we could possibly do about it. In the interim, I've managed to rediscover this page documenting New York's share of the 2009 stimulus funds (referenced in the article) which offers a clearer picture of what the former governor's office identified as areas where he should dedicate spending, which, if I remember correctly, met with some changes after he was ousted. That minor detail is now more crucial than ever since, in a recent Wall Street Journal article that drew direct relationships between reactor safety and their geographic location in earthquake prone areas the author said:

"Last year, the NRC produced an updated assessment as part of the seismic review, which found that many of the 96 reactors east of the Rockies faced higher earthquake hazard levels than previously thought. The assessment found 22 reactors where a rough estimate showed a potential hazard higher than several important metrics, including the level of shaking the plants were originally designed to withstand."

Asked to react to these sorts of statements, industry officials tended to repeat the same message as Alexander Marion - Nuclear Energy Institute's VP of Nuclear Operations: 

"I'd caution against reacting too much to the data since the hazard analysis is still under way and the industry already is looking for ways to increase the safety margin."

Which is closely akin to a collective thumbing of the industry's nose at the American public. Population security be damned, there's money to be made. Following that inherently faulty logic is the Aleberta Canada Tar Sands debate. Here we have an entire portion of another country's province specifically dedicated to the production of a type of crude oil that is expensive to extract, rips up the environment in the process, and threatens people, wildlife, and the global climate as a result, all in the name of, as the Manhattan Institute's Robert Bryce said: "cheap, abundant, reliable energy." Later on in the PBS interview where he made the statement, he clearly says that the tar sands project will produce energy that is 'abundant and reliable,' the subtext being that economic exclusionary principles will undoubtedly apply. 

The very well known and possibly overused statements are recycled as he cites unemployment rates and reduced dependence on foreign supply. That is an argument, however, that presupposes there is only one conceivable solution to the problem at hand - fossil fuels. With the variety, breadth, and quantity of unemployed, high achieving, highly educated individuals in the country at this moment, there simply has to exist the possibility that alternatives can be produced. Bryce's position throughout the interview is that despite environmental costs - the potential for a spill underneath the largest freshwater aquifer in the middle of the country, the potential for terrestrial leaks similar in scope and effect to the BP Macondo blowout, the fact that greenhouse gas emissions (read: contributing factors to larger storms that will effect the coastline) are all allowable costs to be paid for an energy solution that is outdated, expensive, and dangerous. So dangerous and unsavory the potential consequences that protesters have begun risking jail time in the nation's capitol  for the cause. 

This century, it was promised - from both the current administration and the last - would be all about alternatives to oil and renewed interest in clean, renewable, profitable energy sources. If you have any doubts about the fierce urgency of now, and whether we can actually afford the environmental costs, you should definitely view this slideshow, and read its accompanying text. Possibly one of my side projects may become researching this line of thought and attempting to cobble together some form of policy paper which could be exported to those with sufficient clout to make a change. Anyone out there have any ideas of where to start?

Lastly, there was quite a bit of messaging, movement of people, administering to the public, and distribution of resources in preparation for, and in the wake of Irene. Many in the regions that were not utterly destroyed are vociferously complaining about their minor inconveniences due to forced evacuations. I still have difficulty fathoming this concept. Had there been catastrophic devastation, and the government either not been prepared, nor issued these warnings, those same people - given their unlikely survival - would be the same mugging the camera to complain on any available news source that they had been slighted. All reports point to the fact that there is more flooding yet to come,  a smattering of information for which can be gleened from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's website dedicated to Irene's after effects.

And just because I can't leave you without a little music - 

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