A Tale of Two Storms: Fragility and Resilience in the Food Supply of New York

by Thomas Forster

photo: Farmland damaged by Hurricane Irene, 2011; photo source: inhabit[dot]com

In the wake of severe weather events that struck New York City and the region around it from tropical storm Irene in August 2011, and just now from hurricane Sandy in 2012, impacts to food production, distribution and access are enormous. What lessons are there to learn for a more secure food and nutrition supply going forward?  This is only a first effort and you are invited to add your reflections in what should be an ongoing discussion about “climate smart agriculture for New York.

The character and geography of these “severe weather events” were notably different. In a press conference shortly after Sandy struck coastal areas and coastal cities on October 29, New York governor Andrew Cuomo called Sandy the “inverse” of Irene.  In terms of the food and agriculture related impacts this is especially true.

Last year’s tropical storm sliced through our region between August 20 and 28, packing torrential rains and high winds.  Irene’s impact was largely rural, sparing the coastal cities significant damage.  Swollen rivers and oversaturated soils led to extensive flooding of farms at the height of the summer harvest season.

The farms of nearly all the states in the Northeast that serve New York City and other urban markets suffered a significant economic blow in this “50 year flood”.  In fact, this was the fifth 50-year flood since 2005. It is the greater frequency of severe weather events that is critical to understanding the fragility of food systems that populations depend on.

Fourteen months after Irene now comes Sandy. This was a category 1 hurricane “super storm” 1000 miles across. Coming in late October, Sandy was a late season tropical hurricane. It collided with an early season winter cold front and the combination was called a complete “meteorological anomaly”.  The weather experts said nothing like this has been seen, ever. Even so, the storm’s landfall, rainfall and wind strength were all accurately predicted to hit coastal areas in New Jersey and New York including the cities of the Atlantic seaboard. Sandy impacted an estimated one-quarter of the US population.

Also predicted by the National Hurricane Center was a storm surge expected to concentrate along the New Jersey shore, in New York Harbor and along the length of Long Island. What was not predicted was just how high and far reaching that surge would be. In Sandy it was the surge, not rains, which flooded large areas and brought one of world’s largest transportation systems to a crashing halt for the first time in its history.

Both storms knocked out power for short and longer periods and now, over 10 days after Sandy, power is still out and people are still reeling from both Sandy and a snowy Northeaster winter storm this week.  However, Sandy’s impact is urban rather than mostly rural, affecting heavily populated urban and coastal areas. Irene hit rural communities and farmlands hard.  Irene crippled farmers’ access to markets and their livelihoods suffered. Sandy has affected urban residents’ access to essential food and water, essentially trapping large populations in low lying neighborhoods, especially hitting low-income, elderly and disabled people who may have had been unable to evacuate..

These two storms viscerally registered the reality of climate change for at least the region, if not the country. When more frequent and more severe weather is an accepted fact to face, adaptation to new patterns of disruption takes on new form and urgency. As in sectors that now plan for resilience as a matter of practice such as the power, communications and finance sectors, so now food and nutrition security planning for resilience is coming of age.  Professional planners approach resilience by creating “redundancy” or parallel systems to supply goods and services, much like back up generators and back up – back up generators. The same approach is beginning to be applied to the food supply of cities and regions.

But food and agriculture as a sector is not the same as power, communications and finance sectors.  It is far more dependent on weather at the farm level, is more complicated in terms of delivery systems, and has more complex institutional and decision support systems. Perhaps most important, food is a critical part of the social fabric of all communities and cannot be left to professional planners to “take care of it” for the rest of us.  Planning for food system resilience can take a lot of lessons from Irene and Sandy. 

Community-based tools, policy tools and risk management tools are all needed for more resilient food systems

At a very basic level disaster brings people together. People team up to respond to basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. In the case of food both storms saw neighbors helping neighbors, farmers helping farmers and communities helping farmers. According to Greenmarket and CSA farmer Cheryl Rogowski whose 150 acre farm was completely flooded by Irene last year, urban support for her and other farmers had enormous psychological effect and a ripple economic effect. Farmers like Cheryl in the Orange County black dirt area all received support that is being returned now. Her CSA and market customers became her and other farmers’ support network in their time of need. Sandy is giving farmers an opportunity to return the gift to their customers in urban communities.

Sandy, like Irene is stimulating powerful community response in addition to all that government and businesses can do. Urban farms flooded as rural farms had last year. Added Value in Red Hook is one and community volunteers have come to this farm’s aid. Pop up kitchens and food access points have been organized by humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross, but also by bootstrap citizen initiatives such as “Occupy Sandy.”  New York antihunger organizations such as the Food Bank and City Harvest that have hundreds of soup kitchen and pantry clients, have helped supply mobile soup kitchens and food deliveries in vulnerable communities like the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Red Hook in Brooklyn, Breezy Point and the Rockaways in Queens, and elsewhere.

Amidst the community response there are “pop-up partnerships” between non-profits, food businesses, farmers and market managers. As just one example, on the first weekend after Sandy, Cheryl Rogowski brought additional food to Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn sites beyond what she provides her usual farmers market stands. Market managers have worked with restaurants to cook meals for community access points. Larger food distributors have worked with City Harvest to repack pallets of product for family use and make deliveries in neighborhoods where food and water are most needed. Ad-hoc or “pop-up” response to storm related needs presents opportunities for future resilience, and in the future deserve more discussion, analysis and action.

Adhoc partnerships to supply food in crisis times that bring farmers, community volunteers, and business owners to transport, prepare and deliver food can lead to innovations that prepare for the next disaster or even better, lead to innovations that become a new common practice. Robert Newton, a chef in Carroll Gardens, and  owner of Seersucker and Smith Canteen, has long been a supporter of regional farmers, school gardens and farmers markets. After Irene he helped organize fundraisers for farmers like Cheryl Rogowski in the Hudson Valley and Vermont. During the Sandy aftermath he is helping fundraise for the Red Hook Initiative relief just a mile away where destruction was widespread. These efforts all require leadership and coordination and Robert spoke of chefs as “facilitators of community food security,” not just ambassadors for healthy regional food systems.

For innovations hatched in response to disaster, new policy and risk management tools can also become important, not only in the moment of need, but as a matter of practice.  In the wake of Irene farmers growing a diversity of fruits and vegetables or farming organically found themselves shut out from disaster relief and crop insurance programs. In the year since then crop insurances and relief programs for these farmers have become available where they were not before. Urban constituents now understand the importance of these policy tools and joined farmers to increase access to these tools in the next Farm Bill.  As one example of the change, after Sandy hit Cheryl Rogowski was welcomed to fill out claim forms at her local county Farm Service Agency office, where after Irene she wa told there was nothing available for her.

If the underserved of Irene included small and diverse farmers of our region, the underserved of Sandy have been and continue to be low income families in neighborhoods including many highrise housing apartments controlled by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). These very densely populated apartment complexes were without power, water and food longer than most other areas longer than most other neighborhoods.

During the days after Sandy much was made of how local authorities are the ultimate decision makers about the allocation of state and federal resources.  Decision making at the local level is critical in a disaster as it is the most local levels of government that really do know where the need is most acute. Outside government, it is the same: neighborhood churches and community-based organizations really know what is happening. It is only right that local authorities and community-based organizations should be allocating the resources streaming in from outside their communities.

When it comes to food access during non-crisis times, decisions are normally made outside the community by agencies, companies and non-profits removed from the local community.  After Irene an exception to this was that GrowNYC, the local agency overseeing the largest farmers market system in the US, ,allowed Greenmarket farmers to buy food from other regional farmers to keep their markets until the next season.  This is one of many examples of local decision making in our food system that could be institutionalized to allow for nimble response to changing conditions in the future. Such changes in food system governance should be a part of a New York “climate smart” food and nutirtion security plan.

The lessons of Irene and Sandy for the food system that links New York City, the region and global supply chains are still to be learned. There may be other adaptations and innovations to create a more integrated and resilient food supply for New York and other cities. Community, policy and risk management tools that protect and improve the food environment will be discovered, analyzed and incorporated to strengthen the food and nutrition security of this city-region.

If you have comments, reflections or see areas to strengthen the food system of our city and region, send your thoughts to Thomas Forster, New School Food Studies, at thomas.forster@practice2policy.org.