Sandy: Master Interdictor of Supply Chains

It was on Wednesday morning I finally began to understand New York City had been hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, because that symbol of the 24/7 city, the subway, wasn’t running. Since then, there have been dozens and scores of unsettling images: neighborhoods under water (if you can call a foul toxic sludge containing oil, trash, sewage and indeterminate chemicals, water), streets lined with destroyed household goods, city-dwellers suddenly made homeless, blocks-long lines of cars and pedestrians with plastic gas containers waiting for fuel pumps to service them.

I am one of the lucky ones: no loss of power or Internet service, no disruption to the heating (last week was not remarkably cold but those made homeless are now facing life-threatening conditions), no flooding or severe damage (but sadly, a couple of our neighborhood residents were killed last Monday night by a falling tree.) As a result, I rode out the storm in relative comfort, hunkering down at home with a well-stocked fridge and Netflix queue. While the day off from teaching on Monday was a little guilty pleasure, losing a second day of classes on Wednesday had become alarming.  Now, its pretty clear our academic calendar has taken a beating, and its unclear what sorts of rescheduling will be necessary later in the semester.

Somehow, through this all, the most unsettling image yet, was a row of empty food shelves at a coffee shop; on asking the barista why their normal snack offerings were not available, I was told it was because the usual deliveries were not being made by trucks.  At that moment, again, I became aware I lived on an island, one serviced by road and train connections to the ‘rest of the world,’ that bridges and tunnels were still lifelines for it, that most connections between its points occur in relatively mundane, non-glamorous, and as Sandy showed, eminently disruptable ways. It was at that moment too, that the fragility and contingency of our existence here became just a little clearer; I was reminded again of the logistical connections, of the coordinated work of hundreds and thousands of men and women that keeps everything  ‘normal’ on a day to basis: those trucks that make deliveries day and night, the gas that keeps them running (and that heats our buildings). All those supermarket shelves–normally bursting to the seams with packaged goods and produce efficiently delivered from afar–would rapidly empty, if the gas-tunnel-truck disruption continued. (For remember: we live on an island, we don’t grow our food around here.) This city is only able to play home to ten million people because a vast interdependent network of supply chains lets it do so.  And so again, that modern military cliché rears its head: amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. In this battle with the elements, among other things, the opposing forces of Sandy showed quite convincingly they had the upper hand with their ability to interdict supply and logistics lines so easily and effectively, bringing one of the world’s largest and richest cities to its knees.

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