In the past month, my Brooklyn home has flooded twice, both times due to historic storms: the first was the largest hourly rainfall in New York’s history; the second storm doubled that record. The word “flood” does not express everything that happened. The water got under the doors, seeped around the window frames and entered through imperceptible cracks in the foundation of the house. But the worst thing was that the sewer pipes couldn’t absorb so much water and they got clogged; in fact, the water began to flow in the opposite direction, filling the basement, toilets and sinks with sewage. Make no mistake: “Sewage” means shit.
I hired a team of cleaners to pressure wash and disinfect the floors (sewage is not only disgusting, it is also a serious health hazard). The team was part of a small army of industrial cleaners that arrived from Chicago, a caravan of half a dozen trailer trucks, full of equipment and workers; They were around the city for two weeks and then they packed up their things and headed back to Chicago (electric cars and solar panels aren’t the only industries created in reaction to climate change). Then I hired another crew to strip the walls and doors to a height of 12 inches – everything that had gotten wet – so mold wouldn’t spread (which is another serious health hazard). A third team lifted the curved wooden floor and soaked base and replaced them with waterproof tiles.
Needless to say, the cost of all this was enormous. When I contacted my insurance company, they told me that natural disasters — what in the United States are called “acts of God,” that is, events that cannot be prevented by human intervention — were not covered. Despite all that we know about humanity’s influence on weather events, a hurricane is considered a fatality and therefore they were not going to help me pay the heavy bill. It also goes without saying that most of the residents in my neighborhood are not as lucky as I am and cannot afford all these works. Forced to do what they can with store bought mops and cleaning supplies, they have no choice but to live with those health hazards. And it also goes without saying that this will not be the last time that New York suffers from torrential rains. What options are there?
I could just accept that there is going to be flooding and do my best to purchase additional insurance, covering flooding and sewer problems. It is a task that is already almost impossible and will soon be completely, just as some relatives of mine who live in California have no longer been able to take out a policy that would cover fire damage.
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I could put my faith in the municipal government and trust it to undertake the huge project of enlarging all the sewers in the city in anticipation of new meteorological phenomena. Given the size of the work, it seems unlikely. Above all, considering that New York is recovering from losses due to COVID, in addition to the long list of repairs that most citizens and politicians think are more urgent.
I could also install a shut-off valve at the point where my house’s drain connects to the municipal plumbing and put in yet another gate that closes during storms; that way, in theory at least, the water will never be able to reverse its course. That alone would mean a gigantic work, digging in the basement and the garden and building a concrete “chamber” 2.5 meters deep to have access to the valve in case of malfunction. A company has budgeted the work for me at $ 40,000 (about 35,000 euros), with no guarantee that it will be of any use. I haven’t even bothered to ask for another quote, I know I don’t have the money to pay it.
I have to insist as many times as necessary that I am one of the lucky ones. How do my retired neighbors, with health problems and the pension as the only income, manage? What options do they have to deal with climate change? And my neighbors who are moonlighting and barely making ends meet? And those who live at the foot of the hill, where the floods are much worse? Or those who live in neighborhoods closer to the shore? What will those who have no alternatives choose? The flood I have described is an example of the effects of climate change and, at the same time, it serves as a metaphor. We are faced with increasingly scarce and worse prospects: trusting that the Administrations act as they have never done before; “Disconnecting” from our surroundings (building more expensive homes or moving to safer climates), which is something only the truly wealthy can do, or just accept shit coming into the house several times a year.
The human ability to get used to the most radical changes is as exhilarating as it is depressing. Who would have thought a couple of years ago that we were not going to flinch or cry when we saw schools full of children with masks? Or that it would seem normal to us that the bus is full of people absorbed in some glass rectangles that they carry in their hands, instead of relating to what we previously considered the “real world”? If we can get used to dirt flooding our social networks, surely we can get used to it entering the house. And didn’t we all know that something like this was going to happen? Haven’t we seen it coming for years? Are we not saying that you have to accept incontrovertible scientific data? Is it possible that our situation doesn’t really seem so bad to us? Isn’t it clear that, consciously or not, we are choosing climate change?
We knew it. But we didn’t believe it. We know. But we don’t believe it. Apparently, what we have in the head does not get transferred to our heart. There are too many incentives to doubt. We are too scared. It is a catastrophe of such great dimensions that we cannot fully understand it. As for myself, even in spite of everything I just described, I still don’t believe it. I am realizing that I am incapable of having that kind of conviction. If I did, I would not write these lines in such a restrained tone; the appropriate response to a planetary catastrophe is hysteria or, at least, alarm. If I had that conviction, among the options mentioned I would have included a fourth: dedicating my life to doing absolutely everything I can to help find a solution.
Instead, I am learning to get used to the loss. My heart calls it a divine act. And that is, even more than the climate change caused by us, the supreme act of the human being.
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