NYU was not prepared for Hurricane Sandy. The odds are, if things stay the same, NYU will not be prepared for similar events next year or the years following. Hurricane Sandy is a product of climate change and is only a glimpse at what the future has in store for us. Therefore, NYU needs to recognize that disasters whose effects parallel and perhaps exceed those of Sandy will keep happening, and more frequently. Gov. Cuomo said on Tuesday, “We have a 100-year flood every two years now, we have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination.”
Never has the disparity between NYU’s response plan and actual response been more evident than in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Following Sandy, Jules Martin, NYU’s vice president for Crisis Management, wrote that life is “returning to normal for NYU.” However, with climate change bringing yearly or semi-annual disasters, Hurricane Sandy is the new normal. If we strive to go back to business-as-usual, continuing to reduce energy and emissions piecemeal but failing to address the systemic challenges we face, the same problems will result following the next disaster. Together, we need systematic improvement of our infrastructure and how we approach problems.
Not that we haven’t been moving forward. Since 2006, the university reduced greenhouse emissions by over 30 percent. But our successes have been disproportionately focused on operational improvements, with NYU’s leadership paying more attention to quick-fix energy and emissions reductions through efficiency technologies. These are important but the leadership hasn’t offered strong support for bringing change to our campus, engaging the community and meeting our needs as a student body to participate. NYU must invest in residence hall programs, support student organizations and provide academic integration of sustainability.
When NYU President John Sexton signed onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s University Carbon Challenge, the text said we would not only commit to reducing emissions but also to investing in change within our curriculum and research. When Bloomberg endorsed President Obama last week he did so specifically in response to Hurricane Sandy and the climate crisis, calling upon leaders and elected officials in New York City to make renewed commitments to action. How will NYU respond to this call?
Following the disaster, Sexton sent out an email that listed several examples of how NYU failed to adequately respond to the hurricane. These included conditions at NYU Medical School, research-related losses, colleagues and residents in Washington Square Village who struggled despite resources provided through Kimmel Center for University Life and Bobst Library and darkness in hallways after backup generators ran out of fuel.
These are merely a glimpse of the many ways in which NYU struggled in the wake of Sandy and ways that seemed to be a result of reactionary and operational failures which occurred because we lacked preventive systems. For starters, there are hardly any advancements towards renewable energy for university use. For years, NYU was the largest university purchaser of wind energy in the United States but used these purchases as an offset method as opposed to purchasing a renewable energy infrastructure to power the campus.
What did come in handy during the storm was NYU’s new multi-million dollar cogeneration plant that runs on natural gas. Following the storm, it was disconnected from the NYU grid and put into island mode to keep part of Washington Square reliably lit while the rest of the area remained in the dark. However, many negative comments on The New York Times’s Green Blog show that the New York City community did not agree that NYU’s reliance on fossil fuels in times of crisis is a suitable option for energy development. In fact, many believe that solutions like these need to be “retired, not expanded.”
Emergency reactions were needed because there were weak emergency systems in place prior to Sandy. Following the storm, NYU created a site that connects students to volunteer opportunities. This is not enough. We must create a permanent and formal student group that can provide aid after a hurricane and organize preventive systems in periods of calm. Unlike listed opportunities, these would be students and faculty working together as a community with transportation, a budget and a communications structure. This student organization thereby becomes a community-building exercise for students and a community-bridging exercise to our neighbors in the five boroughs. Once relief for Sandy is no longer pressing, there could remain in place an organized and dedicated branch of our community that is ready to respond if and when another disaster comes to New York City.
With the 2031 expansion plan going into effect soon, the university should incorporate measures that both improve sustainability and NYU and provide for emergencies like Sandy. Planning for our development in the years to come, we must consider that environmental conditions might stay the same or even worsen. Building this plan with experts from NYU’s sustainability and wellness communities could direct those infrastructural changes and community efforts and provide proactive long term solutions as opposed to quick fixes.
Furthermore, NYU’s plan for development is predominantly hard — infrastructural and physical — expansion with no formally written soft expansion programs — curricular and systematic. If long-term deliverables were implemented into our expansion plan, we might be better prepared for the years to come. Were plans in place to integrate sustainability into the student curriculum like those in Morse Academic Plan or required math classes, we could be giving students a systems-thinking approach to the current world we live in. This would allow them to more thoroughly understand climate change and become more educated responders to disaster.
Denying that Hurricane Sandy and climate change are directly connected is, as Gov. Cuomo said, “denying reality.” Those leading our university must understand that their decisions lead to actions that contribute to global warming and propagate catastrophic events such as Sandy. In the wake of Sandy, we sincerely hope that Sexton and our administration won’t be short-sighted. It is time to recognize the opportunity to lead NYU into a new era of true sustainability and resilience.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 12 print edition. Lauren Singer and Jason Lindy are contributing writers. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the previous version of this article, WSN incorrectly said the university plans to reduce greenhouse emissions by over 30 percent. In fact, the university reduced greenhouse emissions by over 30 percent since 2006.