Hurricane Sandy, Act II: The Fallout Puts Government (and Bloomberg) on Trial

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The next few days in the Hurricane Sandy disaster zones decide Mayor Mike Bloomberg's legacy and change the debate on government effectiveness

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Reuters

Jacqueline Pattison is giving Mayor Mike Bloomberg one more day. So far, she has been impressed by New York City's response to Hurricane Sandy. Along with millions of other New Yorkers, she is patiently enduring the lack of electricity, tortuous commute and a deep sense of uncertainty.

But if electricity does not return to her apartment a few blocks north of the World Trade Center soon, she will have lost faith in her government.

"I think by Friday we should have power at the latest," the 51-year-old co-owner of a small moving business said. "We live on the 28th floor."

Five days away from a presidential election that centers on the role of government, Hurricane Sandy has handed the United States an extraordinary experiment in how government performs. In an impossible-to-imagine sequence of events, the city with the country's largest police force, biggest fire department and highest tax revenues is being put to a historic test.

The political stakes are enormous. As the media blankets the rest of the country with saturation coverage of the recovery effort, an effective government response in New York and New Jersey could aid President Barack Obama in a deadlocked election. Looting, lawlessness and anger at government could aid Mitt Romney.

Thus far, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his government are generally receiving high marks from city residents. But over the next several days events in the New York area could prove pivotal.

In a dozen interviews across the city Thursday, residents expressed growing worry. Promised aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not arriving, fights were breaking out, and tensions simmered in gas lines that snaked for miles.

Despite Bloomberg's endorsement of Obama Thursday afternoon and a generally positive jobs report Friday morning, time is slowly running on believers in government. The socio-economic divide that I wrote about earlier this week is widening.

Tribeca, one of the wealthiest areas in the city  to lose power, is deserted. Its residents, it seems, have the means to flee the city. Meanwhile, officials estimate that 49,000 people are trapped in public housing buildings that lack power. Middle-class residents of Brooklyn, Staten Island and the suburbs ringing New York say they are being forgotten. The mayor's foolish decision to proceed with the New York City Marathon this Sunday is provoking a popular backlash. With only an estimated 50 percent of the area's gas stations working and with wind-chill adjusted temperatures expected to drop below freezing Friday night, Bloomberg is flirting with disaster.

"This is terrible," Max Okuendo, a 37-year-old security guard who has been without power in Lower Manhattan for three days, said Thursday afternoon. "It has taken so long."

Okuendo had brought his two daughters to midtown Manhattan after three days in a seventh-floor lower Manhattan apartment without power. He said he and his daughters had taken a packed city bus to the northern part of the city that had power.

"It was like sardines," he said. "I've seen three fights already."

He said that no assistance has arrived for residents of lower Manhattan.

"I don't think he has enough emergency stations," he said. "I must have spent one hundred dollars alone just for lights, candles and batteries for my mother's insulin machine."

Arne Balassanian, a 43-year-old property manager who lives a few blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, said he was unimpressed by the government effort so far. He said that local residents and businesses had done more to help him than city agencies.

"More than anything, the people in the neighborhood have done the most," he said as he walked his dog down a lifeless lower Manhattan street Thursday afternoon. "As far as the government, I don't know."

More positive responses, unsurprisingly, came from parts of the city that still have power.

"So far, I think they've done a pretty good job," said Bernard Martin, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in the Bronx and has had power throughout the storm. "I think the mayor's done a good job."

As with so many other issues in the election, Republican and Democratic orthodoxy don't fit reality on the ground. Local government should play the central role in preparing for natural disasters. But their efforts will be pointless unless the federal government funds them.

As a city resident, I have been impressed by the city government's response this week. Armies of police officers, utility workers and mass transit employees have worked ceaselessly to save lives, restore order and repair a city infrastructure that in places is centuries old.

Area political leaders have dropped partisan politics to address a grave crisis.

Fellow New Yorkers, though, have impressed me most of all. They have shown tremendous calm, understanding and patience amidst calamity.

In an interview Thursday, Robert Yusitalo, a 49-year-old Seattle native who moved to New York several months ago, summed up my own feelings.

"For a city this big to come together as they have," he said, "it's absolutely amazing."

At the same time, the frustration, fear and distrust of government that is rising among New Yorkers is real. I hope New York's government continues to perform well in the days ahead. And I hope its residents hold their nerve.

I wish the same patience, perspective and practicality that I've seen in New York this week could be transferred to our politicians in Washington. Natural disasters are real. We need a lean but effective government to respond to them.

It's foolish and naïve, but I fantasize that another impossible-to-imagine series of events will lead to a sea change among our leaders. Whoever wins the presidency next week will magically tack to the center, political extremists will lose credibility and pragmatists from both parties will engage in a serious effort to address our nation's staggering problems. Disaster does that to you.

This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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