Clearing the debris

The place where I live, Morristown, a comfortable suburb in northern New Jersey, is situated in the path where Hurricane Sandy – a ‘Category 2’ tropical storm timed to hit the ‘Tri-State’ area of the US Northeast just prior to Halloween – struck. 

In the 24-hour lead up to what had been dubbed ‘Frankenstorm,’ New Jersey was on high alert: Governor Chris Christie ordered widespread evacuation, and large-scale flooding and loss of power were expected state-wide. Mass transit was suspended, making commuting in and out of New York near-impossible. The Garden State Parkway suspended tolling to hasten evacuation, and Newark Liberty International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport ceased inbound and outbound travel.

When Sandy did make landfall, it lived up to its ‘super-storm’ billing and made good on its threat of destructive might. As the hurricane abated, most of Morristown, the surrounding county, and a two-million-home swath of New Jersey, were left in darkness, as well as without hot water. But Morristown and North Jersey had escaped lightly: Sandy had saved its true Armageddon for the south part of the Garden State, wreaking untold devastation on the Jersey Shore, routing Seaside, a popular resort destination because of its beach and boardwalk. To date, $50 billion will be needed to mend the region.

As I took stock in the aftermath of Sandy, I had reason to be grateful – I, as well as the people I cared about, had emerged unscathed, suffering mere frustration, rather than traumatising hardship. New Jersey Transit (NJT), which I count on to get to and from work, had suspended service: I would need to telecommute (if and when power returned). 

Then a disheartening thing happened. ‘Disheartening’ because if I was not a professional journalist paid to write and think about it, ruminating on the impact of Hurricane Sandy on infrastructure and guessing what importance the private sector might have as a result would have never been a concern. 

Instead, for better or worse, it was all I could think about.

“Everyone in the industry knew what Hurricane Sandy meant,” stresses energy and infrastructure attorney Joel Moser, a partner with law firm Kaye Scholer.

A campaign issue revived 

Finding a narrative for a storm or natural disaster, be it based on catastrophe or heroism, is a given. So is finding a larger thematic significance. In Washington, Sandy revived what was effectively a discarded campaign platform filler – the debate on climate change and on infrastructure.

Successfully-reelected President Barack Obama had touched on the issues in his 2011 speech before a joint session of US Congress. But in the wake of Sandy, Washington is aligned with the public. With Hurricane Sandy, the onset of extreme weather brought about by global climate change can no longer be shunted aside. The fact that the hurricane damaged and obstructed infrastructure in none other than the media capital of the world will ensure as much.

Federal spending on infrastructure, meanwhile – to clean, repair, rebuild and build anew after Sandy – is also back on the table. There is a specific problem for big government to solve, followed by another specific problem: how to build infrastructure to withstand extreme weather. Here, the private sector can step in and do what it is best suited to do: provide innovation with innovative financing. 

The crisis of Sandy is fresh, but look past it. Though the private sector, or the asset class, has not yet mobilised – infrastructure investing is long-term and slow-moving – the time is right to get the ball rolling. Be on the lookout for requests for proposals (RFPs), but be prepared to make unsolicited approaches as well. Focus on a project related to energy. Or transportation. Or water/wastewater. 

That is: focus on everything that failed or was damaged or destroyed as a result of Hurricane Sandy.