In 400 years, New York City has seen relatively few disasters. And maybe that’s about to change.
That’s the view of the eminent historian Kenneth Jackson. He told me: “Maybe we need a little perspective. A terrible hurricane, with flooding and heavy loss of life in the New York metropolitan area may have seemed not so long ago like just a subject for academic discussion and not something that would actually happen. Now, that’s changed.”
Hurricanes caused terrible havoc in New Orleans, Jackson pointed out, and we were apt believe it couldn’t happen here. But Katrina, Irene and other disasters of recent years may no longer be the kind of things that usually happen out of town, Jackson said. As Jackson sees it, people may now truly discover that disasters can happen anywhere.
Jackson feels that climate change apparently is having a very strong effect on the welfare of the people of this metropolis. An article in The New York Times pointed out recently that scientists are increasingly concerned about what global warming can do to humanity. From historian Jackson’s perspective there may be great dangers for New York ahead.
Not that the disasters that have afflicted New Yorkers in the past four centuries weren’t seen by the citizens as devastating. Back in 1668, there was a yellow fever epidemic in the city. In 1776, after British troops captured the city, approximately 1,000 houses were destroyed in a fire. In the succeeding centuries there were recurrent yellow fever epidemics and, in 1832, an outbreak of cholera killed more than 3,500 New Yorkers. In subsequent epidemics, thousands more died of cholera.
In the great Blizzard of 1888, 400 died in the storm’s path. It was called “The White Hurricane.” In the early 19th century, 1,300 died when the excursion boat General Slocum burned on the East River and 145 people, mostly young women, died in a factory fire. The Great Influenza Pandemic in 1918 took hundreds of lives. Over many decades there have been plane crashes and murders that took thousands of lives and the major disaster, of course, was the attack on the World Trade Center and the terror attacks in which about 3,000 perished.
But the question raised now by the events of the two weeks is whether New York is facing new challenges because of major changes in the natural world like global warming. Could this increase the vulnerability of our metropolis? It covers a large area and is surrounded by water. Are fundamental changes needed in our approach to protecting the city?
The answers to those questions are needed to prevent the next great disaster from doing even more damage.