Last Thursday, my family decided to walk over to the neighborhood hardware store to see if a promised shipment of post-Sandy candles and firewood had arrived. (We were hearing estimates -- accurate ones, it turns out -- that the power outage could extend into this week in our north Jersey town. If true, we wanted to start the hoarding early.) A neighbor told us that the gas station next to the hardware store was trying to get its pumps up and running that afternoon, so on a whim, I ran back and grabbed the two one-gallon red plastic gas cans sitting in our garage.
Sure enough, cars were already lining up down the block as we approached, and we could hear the roar of generators hooked up to the pumps. (Where they were getting the gas to run the generators, I didn’t want to speculate.) Two police officers were directing traffic, and about a dozen people carrying red containers that dwarfed ours were standing on the sidewalk. We jumped in line and waited about an hour, then filled our tiny cans. The hardware store shipment hadn’t arrived, but we still judged the outing a success -- the gas I carried home could extend our car’s range by another 40 miles or so.
“How much gas you got?” quickly replaced “Are you safe?” and “Do you have power?” as the standard conversational opening all across north Jersey in the days after the storm. I’ve been watching our car’s fuel gauge over the past week more closely than my fantasy football scores. Trips for temporary heat, phone charging, or playdates for our companionship-starved 3-year-old have to be carefully measured against how far the needle is going to drop toward “E.” I’m determined to avoid waiting for hours in the insane gas lines that stretch more than a mile down the Garden State Parkway and anywhere else a station is open. But that “E” is inching closer...
By the weekend, when Governor Chris Christie decreed fuel rationing in our part of the state (he had already delayed Halloween, so this probably seemed like a minor proclamation in comparison), I listened as my relatives planned excursions across the border into New York, where no restrictions were in place. A woman at my son’s gym told the story of someone she knew who had driven an hour and a half in search of shorter lines; my neighbor said she had taken the car out late the night before and waited for more than an hour, only to get two cars away from the pump when the station declared it was closing. Someone else said he had seen a driver attempt to cut in line, only to be threatened by several others who got out of their cars with baseball bats and other makeshift weapons. (It is Jersey, after all.)
Christie revealed how poorly prepared New Jersey was for a storm of Sandy’s magnitude when he told reporters last week that he wasn’t even aware that many gas stations don’t have the ability to be connected to generators -- meaning their pumps can’t run when the power is out. “No one had a complete list of all the gas stations,” Christie said. The governor has by most accounts done a good job managing this crisis overall, but forgive me: that’s insane. It should have come as no surprise to New Jersey officials -- or their counterparts in New York, Connecticut, or anyone else in the Northeast -- that a storm of this magnitude was possible. The region has been hit by hurricanes before, after all. And we had a scare last year with Irene, and then the late October snow storm (a.k.a. Snoctober) that knocked out power to parts of New Jersey for a week (my house included).
Climate scientists and disaster preparedness experts have been warning for years now that global warming was making superstorms more likely. Sandy’s arrival, and its impact on our state’s power grid and fuel supplies -- not to mention our coastline -- was no surprise. And yet we were completely unprepared, to the point that our state officials didn’t even have a simple thing like a list of one of the most critical parts of our infrastructure: gas stations.
But it’s hard to point the finger. I should be as ready as anyone -- I covered hurricanes in the Southeast for years and now work at a publication that constantly sounds the alarm on climate change -- yet my preparations were also wanting. I made sure our car had a full tank of gas the day before Sandy arrived, but the only reason we had those two tiny gas cans in the garage is that my wife bought them while stocking up on other supplies. We’ve got a box full of batteries in the basement and shelves full of nonperishable food, but we decided after last October’s snowstorm that we didn’t need to spend the money on a generator right away. We couldn’t believe it would happen again so soon.
Our state and our country have been fooling themselves the same way. We know (those of us willing to accept the evidence, at least) that we’re going to have to deal with global warming sooner or later. We just don’t want to have to accept the costs. We thought we could put them off a little longer. We were wrong.
You’re probably going to start hearing the phrase “climate resilience” a lot in the coming weeks and months; it’s simply shorthand for saying that we need to prepare our communities and our infrastructure for shocks like Sandy, which are inevitable in a warming world. (In other parts of the country, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves all qualify.) If your leaders aren’t talking about how to prepare for the next climate crisis, call them on it. We may not be able to stop the damage that we’ve already cooked into the atmosphere through centuries of carbon emissions, but we can make ourselves better ready to survive the disruptions. Sometimes, it’s as simple as having a list of gas stations.
That’s a lesson New Jersey learned the hard way this past week. Let’s hope we don’t fuhgeddaboudit when the lights come back on and the gas is flowing freely again.
Image: Brian Kingsley