Exclusive: Governor Cuomo on the Wrath of Superstorm Sandy
by rachel maddow
On October 30, after Superstorm Sandy battered our shores and destroyed countless communities, New Yorkers woke to a stark new truth, says Governor Andrew Cuomo. The hurricane brought home the indelible effects of climate change and forced the city to a halt. “This is a new threat,” Cuomo points out. “After Sandy, we should look at the world differently.”
Here the governor discusses how New York must deal with this new reality, what he saw the night of the storm in lower Manhattan, and how we can rebuild. Cuomo, a former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and well experienced with disaster relief, spent a lot of time on the ground before, during, and after the hurricane. He says he was shocked by the devastation that unfolded before his eyes. What didn’t shock him, though, was the spirit, determination, and resilience of those he met fighting back the storm surge and emerging with determination from shattered towns in the days after Sandy hit. “New Yorkers never cease to amaze me,” says Cuomo. “Even in the face of historic and unparalleled tragedy, people were there for each other. First responders, in many cases whose own homes had been damaged or destroyed, were tireless in their efforts. Neighbors helped neighbors. So many people were suffering in so many ways, yet they still did whatever they could to help ease the suffering of others. That gave us strength. We will build back, and we will do it better and stronger than before.”
RACHEL MADDOW: It was not a hard sell to convince people across the country that a storm affecting our region—and New York specifically—was an issue of national significance. I think it freaked out the country as a whole that our largest city could be inundated—and it might not be the first time. It got me thinking, What might be on the state’s agenda [now] that wasn’t before? What might be on your agenda as governor? Was this a kind of wake-up call for a state that’s not naïve about the impact of climate change?
ANDREW CUOMO: This is a new threat. We looked at the world differently after 9/11. The nation woke up on 9/12 and said we have to prepare for terrorism. We thought of new security systems. After Sandy, we should also look at the world differently, and that is what we are doing.
I think the reason you felt the receptivity on the [part of the] audience is sometimes you have a thought or a feeling that’s percolating, but not actualized. And I think people have been sensing there is something going on with the weather and forget the politics of it—they just know from their own life experience something is going on. I said right in the midst of [the storm]: This is climate change. And it’s not a political concept; it’s a practical concept. It’s not debatable and not ideological or philosophical; it is reality-based. Changing weather patterns create real, practical issues for the world. Let’s build an awareness, a consensus, and let’s educate and mobilize the body politic around it. When do politicians succeed in bringing change? When the people are ready. Your point—well, the audience is willing. Let’s cement the understanding and use this moment to really develop a political consensus. Maybe that’s the silver lining for the storm. Step two is actually practical and easier. Once you accept the premise, what do we do? Well, we now have three commissions working, [studying] redundancy in hardening of systems, hardening of the power system, the utility system, the fuel delivery system, a better emergency preparedness response, better first responders.
RM: We’re talking about political will here. I think on issues where you have people ahead of the political process, it’s because there are interests in society that have a disproportionate effect on politicians. [These are] usually moneyed interests or well-connected special interests that have a desire on a specific issue that is contrary to what the public at large wants. The public at large doesn’t have lobbyists, but in this case [concerning] climate change, the big oil and gas companies absolutely do. [I’m] thinking specifically about powerful interests in New York state that may not be excited about the prospect of scaling back waterfront development or scaling down the amount of livable space in a place like New York City and our coastline, because it’s not good for the city as a whole to have buildings built out to the water’s edge. Those kinds of very powerful interests have been, I guess, only partially in play in terms of being persuadable that they need to be part of the solution on climate change. You’ve been good at moving people you wouldn’t expect to be in your coalition on issues that are important to you. Do you have any insight into how to get developers, oil and gas companies, and people on the other side of the climate-change issue to be more progressive on this?
AC: I think there is a different dynamic we try to generate. The issues I try to make progress on very rarely have the advantage of moneyed interests behind them. They usually have the liability of moneyed interests against them. So the only strategy that works for me is to develop the consensus, the political power to such an extent that it actually overwhelms moneyed interests. That is a high bar, but it’s doable. The utility companies have no desire to spend a lot of money hardening their systems. It would reduce their profit. As a matter of fact, I think they would rather go through these situations and then do reconstruction rather than the level of hardening that would have to be done. So how do you get around it? My M.O. is always [to] develop the political will and that’s [done] by going to the people. I believe people are smart, and if you educate and mobilize them, you can overcome moneyed interests. I mean why do I watch your show? Because you are educating, informing, motivating, mobilizing, exciting the body politic. And I don’t have the advantage of the beautiful set you have or the distribution mechanism, but I try to do the same thing.
RM: You talked about the need for New York state and New York City to harden its systems, that we need to think about [the state’s] contributions to climate change, we [also] need to think about becoming more resilient and more prepared. What happens in the short term? Let’s say another Sandy doesn’t happen in decades; it happens in a couple of years. What is on the top of your wish list that could make New York City more resilient the next time the storm surge comes up?
AC: First, a better system for first responders in natural disasters. When you have a situation like we had, with multiple counties and extraordinary damage, our emergency response system is not geared for this. It is from a different time, [designed] for a local situation, say, a bad fire in a county, [where] the surrounding counties would come and help.
Second on the list would be sealing the subway system and other entry points where water can fill the New York City underground. Everybody thinks the engineering marvel is how high we built in Manhattan. Actually the engineering marvel is how deep we built. New York City goes down 10, 15 stories—subway tunnels, water tunnels, electrical conduits. There was never an anticipation that water could fill 10 stories of underground. We have no capacity to pump it out. So when the subway tunnels flooded, this created a major debacle. We were lucky that the flood stopped where it stopped. It was just because the tide crested, otherwise we would have been disabled for months and months.
Third, the fuel redundancy system—it can’t be [that] you disrupt the fuel delivery for two days and it wreaks havoc for two weeks. And the emergency response system, where the state has the ability to come in and work with or direct the utilities in an emergency, where people aren’t at the mercy of what the utility company decides to do on their particular block.
RM: How are the utilities going to feel about that last item?
AC: I don’t think they will be so happy.
RM: I know you’ve got commissions of very able people looking at the long-term security of coastal New York and New York City. Thinking bigger term about infrastructure to protect the city in the light of climate change, what do you see as the options? How do you think they’d change the way of life and the way of commerce for the city?
AC: It depends how far you go. When you talk about rebuilding, there is certain real estate that Mother Nature owns. She may not visit often, but she owns it, and when she decides to visit, she is going to come and reclaim the property. How we build on the coastline, where we build, and mitigation [are the issues]. Is it more expensive short term to rebuild the house with the appropriate mitigation—on pilings let’s say? But you build it once, rather than rebuilding every time there is a storm. You could look to longer-term infrastructure issues like barrier protection with soft barriers—dunes, sand, islands. You talk about storm barriers; literally erecting a barrier in the ocean that is only there to protect against a storm if it happens, when it happens. That’s very expensive and multi-year, and I don’t know if that’s required at this point or feasible.
RM: How much does the federal government need to have a say in what happens? Obviously you’ve asked for a lot of money from [it]. The president made the decision to appoint Shaun Donovan [HUD secretary], who has a big New York history, to be the point person overseeing recovery efforts. What do you think about your relationship with the federal government and their appropriate role beyond signing the checks?
AC: Aah, federal-state relations. When I was HUD secretary, I had one view of federal-state relations and—it might surprise you—now that I’m the governor I have a different view. I think the best thing the federal government can do is coordinate the federal government. You have a lot of agencies that are involved in this response—the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, HUD, the Department of Transportation. The first order of business for the federal government is to make sure [its] response is coordinated, efficient, and effective. The second is to work “quote unquote” in collaboration and partnership with the states. We are lucky because we have good personal relations, and I know the federal side as well as the state side now, so I think that’s going to work well.
RM: You say that like a man who is more interested in working at a state level than a federal level.
AC: You know, it’s different. [With the] federal government you make these broad policy moves that affect many people across the country. I worked very hard when I was at HUD on anti-discrimination cases and empowerment strategies. We went back into the housing business. We started creating more affordable housing than we were destroying. [At the state level], you have a more practical, tangible effect, and it is by definition smaller in scope, so you can actually get more done faster. That is very appealing to me.
RM: Should I not ask you the inevitable question now? Do you want to just answer it before I even ask? I’m allergic to talking about 2016, so I’ll understand when you inevitably shut me down. People are talking about you as a potential presidential contender because you are popular in this state with both voters generally and specifically with Republicans. You seem able to work with the legislature, to get your priorities accomplished when people thought the legislature couldn’t accomplish much more than its next indictment. Do you feel like your national profile helps you get stuff done in New York? Or do you resent the presidential speculation?
AC: Resent is a strong word. Presidential speculation comes with the job in some ways, but it is not helpful, and it can be hurtful. Number one, my relationship with the people of this state is what is most important to me. It is also my main asset. I think one of the reasons I have a good relationship with the people of the state is they know I work for them, they know my only agenda is for them, about them, to make the state a better state. You start suggesting I want to run for president, Rachel, and then they think, well, maybe he is more interested in his career and his political ambition than the state. Or maybe this is a complicated equation for him. Complicated is bad in relationships. I like to keep it simple. I want to be the best governor I can be. I’m all about making this the best state, period. So that is why I go to great lengths to avoid the conversation.
RM: That sense of [your] being practically accomplished while being a sort of out and proud progressive Democrat is something that a lot of people, a lot of Democrats, find exciting.
AC: I come from a long tradition of proud, progressive Democrats, as you know. Progressive Democrats are very good at articulating goals. What I try to do is not just articulate [them], but actually implement [them]. If you can implement policies and make a change and it works, well that’s very, very powerful. And that’s what we are doing here in New York. You can only go so far with articulation and concept.
When I was 20-something, it was all about urban development. I went out and built and operated homeless housing, domestic violence facilities, facilities for people with AIDS, and I found there was great power in the actual success of doing. So it wasn’t just “trust me, we can do this,” [it was], “look, we did it.” You believe in the government, good—make it work and show that it can be efficient, effective, that it can get something done, and then people will support you. That to me is the next generation “progressive,” if you will. Or the next phase of progressive politics. Do it. Does that make any sense?
RM: Absolutely. I think that is what this modern era of democratic politics is in fact about. Let me ask you to turn the telescope the other direction and look through it. Look at it from the micro toward the macro instead. One of the most heart-wrenching situations after the storm was to [see] the folks in concentrated old-school public housing in the Rockaways and Red Hook. Government has direct responsibility for their welfare because it’s public housing. The suffering and need that went on for those folks fending for themselves; for weeks after the storm, things did not work and in some cases things still aren’t working well. For someone like yourself with a background in housing, why did that happen and what does that say about what we are not doing right?
AC: You start with a difficult situation, with concentrations of poverty, with buildings that in many cases shouldn’t have been built. When I was HUD secretary, we blew up a lot of the failed public housing projects. Why? Because it was just a mistake. We built and subsidized ghettos in many cases. During Clinton’s term, we finally acknowledged the mistake, if you will, said it was well-intentioned, but it didn’t work. We blew up the buildings, and we came back with mixed use, less density, etc. So you get to the Rockaways, that is the greatest concentration of public housing in New York—it was a problem to begin with. It was a problem aggravated by the storm because now you have people in a crisis who don’t have the resources to pack up the car and, say, go to their sister’s house on Long Island. So it made a bad situation worse. But I believe the city was doing everything it could in a difficult situation.
RM: On a personal level, what was it like for you watching the subway system fill up with water that Monday night? We didn’t know at that point how big the storm was going to be, or the impact, but we knew it was probably going to be unprecedented.
AC: It was frightening, disorienting. I had done disaster response when at HUD but never like that night—it was much more profound. You had the sense of how quickly things could go bad, how quickly chaos could ensue. One of the immediate questions was, When does the tide crest? Because if the water had continued to come, there was no defense. We couldn’t even pretend to have a defense. You were just purely at the mercy of Mother Nature. And if the tide had gone up another foot, there would have been this exponential damage. You think New York City, big buildings, all sorts of capacity—the fragility of it all is frightening, and how powerless you can be. Being the governor of the state of New York is a powerful position, but not when Mother Nature says I’m bringing a storm.
RM: And is that the bottom line? That ultimately, no matter what we do, what giant Dutch seawall system we build, or however many more oyster farms we put in lower Manhattan, it’s ultimately [about] our relationship with the earth on which our government rests?
AC: It was a great advantage at one time to build a city along the coast for commerce and travel. So we built cities, not just New York, but port and river cities all across the country. It was a great asset. Now, it’s also a liability, where climate change is a recurring reality, you have great exposure that you’re going to have to deal with. So deal with the reality of climate change, prepare for the emergency, and find ways to stop the damage so you can slow the worsening effect.
photography by jeff gale (cuomo); courtesy of metropolitan transportation authority/patrick cashin (truck); nys executive chamber (remaining); by pete souza (obama); courtesy of metropolitan transportation
authority/paul cashin (train); nys executive chamber (remaining)
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.