No matter how high-def your screen might be, you can’t truly comprehend some disasters until you see them firsthand. I’ve been made speechless twice before: Once, when I went out on the Gulf to see the extent of the BP oil disaster two years ago, and also the first time I watched a mountain being blasted apart for coal. This weekend, though, it was my own hometown that stunned me.
Post-Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey shore resists description. Thousands of homes have been flooded or destroyed. Roads are ripped up. Boats sit incongruously in the middle of side streets or on train tracks. There is no heat, no gas, no power, no water.
The barrier island where my parents live was hit hard by the superstorm and was subject to mandatory evacuation. Fortunately, my mom and dad already happened to be safe in sunny California to see their newest grandchild. After ten days, they were able to return to New Jersey, but not their home. Like so many others, they were prevented from returning to their house to see the wreckage. Finally, all residents in the area were allowed to return home for about 7 hours yesterday, so they could see what might be left. I drove down with my parents and my sister, but none of us were prepared for what we saw. This was the house my dad built for his family, and where my brother and sisters and I grew up.
Like many families, we found that a foot or two of seawater had come through our house. Even though we wore masks, the smell hit hard when we opened the front door. Mold was everywhere: on the walls, in the insulation, in cabinets, and even on lampshades. We had to rip up the rugs and the floorboards. Every appliance was ruined. Furniture too. We tried to salvage an old shoeshine box that my late grandfather used when he was a boy in New York City. We were able to save an old folder of campaign materials from my dad’s first run for mayor in the 1970s (he won). We might not be so lucky with the old family photo albums we found soaking wet.
This is hard for our family and so many others. Sadly, we’re not alone. Families in Haiti are in despair after Sandy ripped through leaving 200,000 homeless. Last year in the U.S., we had 14 storms that each caused more than $1 billion in damages, breaking the previous record of nine. 2012 has been a year of living dangerously. Across the U.S., wildfires destroyed thousands of homes from Texas to Wyoming. Disaster areas were declared in nearly 1,500 counties, covering 32 states. Our planet’s temperature has warmed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit so far; scientists now estimate that warming could warm 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.
We can do better for ourselves. While we were cleaning my parents’ house, we watched as a helicopter carrying Vice President Biden flew overhead. He touched down a couple miles away. We appreciate the vice president’s support, sincerely. But the Obama-Biden administration needs to step up its response to the threat — and the opportunity — that climate change presents. During the recent campaign, Mitt Romney famously mocked President Obama for pledging to “slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” and said “my promise is to help you and your family.” What he failed to understand was driven home by everything I saw in New Jersey: We can’t do one without the other.
P.S. You can see the destruction we encountered in these shocking images by photograher Julie Dermansky.
Michael Brune’s book Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal was published by Sierra Club Books in September 2008. The Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers are partners, with other unions and environmental groups, in The BlueGreen Alliance.
This piece was first published on Huffington Post.
Follow Michael Brune on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bruneski