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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Cleaning Up from Hurricane Sandy; Building Safer Cities and Towns

Aired November 1, 2012 - 16:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. The East Coast of the United States is still reeling tonight from the devastating superstorm Sandy.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): In hard-hit New York City, it is a tale of two cities. Parts of Manhattan are gaining some semblance of normal life, but other areas are paralyzed, dark and desperate. In some sections, New Yorkers are still battling massive gridlock.

And for those trying to avoid getting stuck in their cars, huge lines form to board the few buses that were running. The wait for a seat was hours long in some cases.

Water remains a precious commodity. In some neighborhoods, people were forced to open fire hydrants to get water to drink and to wash with.

But the real crisis is in other parts of the city, one neighborhood called the Rockaways seen here on this map behind me, which is south of Manhattan; it's in the borough of Queens; it's been devastated. It is surrounded by water and it's where a terrible fire burned more than 100 homes the night the superstorm hit because those floodwaters kept firefighters away.

After that fire went out, the floodwaters remained and now residents are begging for support.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have no Red Cross. FEMA was supposed to be down here. They never showed up. We don't have a lot. We have no electricity, no heat, no hot water. There's not much we have. We need more help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just don't know what to do. We're stressed out here, you know, everybody's in the same spot here. And we need to put the politics aside. We need to get people help, man. We need to get people help. That's all the people here, we just want help, man. It's sad. I never seen nothing like this in my life. It looks like a war zone out here.

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AMANPOUR: The sounds of desperation in one of the world's great cities, it is hard to fathom.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): In New Jersey, the damage is even more widespread. Coastal resort towns are a wasteland, with many residents unsure that they can ever move back in. In a moment, I'll have a live report from there, and I will also talk to the former New Jersey governor and top environmental official, Christine Todd Whitman, who was herself stranded at her home by the storm.

But first, a look at some of the other stories we're covering tonight, all related to this terrible storm.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): A city is a living thing with bones and a central nervous system. Before disaster strikes again, is there some strong medicine that could save the patient?

And before there was Sandy, there was a hurricane that had no name.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Struck with winds roaring 100, 150, almost 200 miles a hour.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It got an even deadlier path from New York to New England. The great storm of 1938 arrived in the middle of the Great Depression. Lessons learned?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Let's now go straight to New Jersey, and CNN's Michael Holmes, who's in Toms River.

And, Michael, you're just back from touring including some of the most recognizable sights. What have you seen there.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, we're talking about Seaside Heights and, in particular, the casino pier and the FunTown pier.

You know, if you've ever watched "The Sopranos" or, Heaven forbid, the "Jersey Shore" or listened to a Springsteen song, these are the famed boardwalks that we're talking about and the pier that ran 300 yards out into the sea, into the Atlantic, which is no more, the iconic, the roller coaster sitting in the ocean. It's like the pier just dropped away from under it and it dropped into the sea, still remarkably intact.

This is the place that for millions of Americans represents summer. This is the place that is the destination for these people. They come year after year after year. And it means a lot to Americans. Those are the sorts of images that really stick out for people, particularly in the northeast.

We saw utter devastation on those piers and the foreshore there; entire sections of the boardwalk washed away, the rest undermined. Huge pylons, you know, a foot across, have been just snapped like matchsticks.

And we talked to a lot of business men there, who said that, you know, they'd lost everything. Some of them weren't insured for the contents, very valuable content, a heartbreaking scene and certainly a very much a visual representation of the tempest that was Sandy, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And, Michael, you've also spoken to the mayor of that town and obviously in many parts there is cleanup. What is he telling you about what it will take?

HOLMES: Yes, it's taking a lot, certainly over on those barrier islands. One of the big problems that they had is the gas from the gas leaks. When we were over there yesterday, looking at some of the other areas that were damaged, you could smell the gas in the air, a two-city- block area, full of houses, burnt to the ground because of fires caused by that.

They are still shutting off gas leaks over there to this hour. They are still trying to clean up, obviously, the sand that was washed in. Imagine a 12-foot dune that was there one day and gone the next. Well, all that sand is inland as well; that runs like two blocks down into those towns and communities.

The other big problem: trying to get the power back on. We've seen long gas lines here, people trying to get gas from the very few stations that do have power. Over there on those islands, rebuilding is a -- it's going to take years. It's going to take hundreds of millions of dollars, and it's never going to be the same.

Some of those areas, particularly on the ocean side, on the eastern side of those barrier islands, just destroyed. I'll just say very quickly, yesterday when we were over there, we saw three separate houses intact, in one piece, sitting in the middle of the street. That's the type of force of nature that was Sandy.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that it might never happen? In other words, will people just not rebuild or are they determined to rebuild?

HOLMES: There's a determination to rebuild, but saying it and doing it are two separate things. And where is the money coming from as well? For a lot of those homeowners, yes, they're just going to have to knock it down.

And if they do rebuild, it's going to cost them a lot of money; what kind of insurance, what kind of federal assistance there might be. And for the boardwalk, of course, too, that's going to take government money, the piers and the amusement parks that were once there. You're talking tens and tens of millions of dollars.

A lot of the places we saw are being destroyed. A lot of them look remarkably intact. But when you took a closer look, they were twisted. The frames were twisted or the foundations undermined by what was a wall of seawater that just raced through the town, 5 foot high in some places. So it's going to take an awful lot.

AMANPOUR: Michael Holmes, thank you so much.

And to answer some of your questions, we have the perfect next guest, a prominent New Jersey resident who's been unable to leave her home until just recently, trapped by a fallen tree in her driveway until this afternoon.

She is Christine Todd Whitman. And not only was she the governor of New Jersey, she also served as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.

Governor Whitman, thank you very much for joining me. And first, let me ask you, you now can move from your house, I think. But how bad was it?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, FORMER N.J. GOVERNOR: Well, we lost -- we were very lucky. I mean, we lost lots of trees, fences, barn roofs, things like that, tiles up. And what stopped us getting out the driveway was a huge tree down on the road that brought down the power lines and they've -- they came in today. They've been actually wonderful.

The crew that was here was from Florida, Tallahassee, Florida. They came and cut up the tree. The wires are still very low, so the road is officially closed, but we can move that and get in and out.

AMANPOUR: Wow, amazing that they're coming from so far. And I also heard the governor of New York say that people were coming to help from California and Texas as well.

You heard our report from Michael Holmes, or if you didn't, he talking about the amount of money --

WHITMAN: No, I did hear it.

AMANPOUR: -- the -- well, then, how will people, do you think, A, get the kind of reimbursement and, B, will they be allowed, will governors and officials now allow people to rebuild in those very vulnerable areas?

WHITMAN: Well, I think what you're going to see is that there's going to -- first of all, there will -- should be a discussion at the government level about where it's appropriate to build and where not. But these are communities that have been there for -- been over a century. And people have grown up there, people have a long history with them. So they're going to want to rebuild.

And then, to me, it's more the insurance companies that say, right. If you want to rebuild in this area, we're -- you can get insurance, but it's going to be extremely high. And then if you can afford it, God bless you.

But for the general public to have to continuously rebuild, I can understand and I would support federal monies going into building groins (ph) and building the kinds of things that can hold the sand and the oceans back, because tourism for New Jersey is enormously important part of our budget.

And we want to make sure -- we just had just -- we have 127 miles of beaches. We have a little less now, but we used to have 127 miles, and wonderful boardwalks, great places for people to come and what our hope is that the rebuilding that does place will make it even better and more attractive than it was before.

AMANPOUR: So as governor, did you know that this kind of thing was likely? So many of these scientists, particularly the leading ones of the U.N. Panel on Climate Change, basically have warned governors up and down this state, even under your term, when you were in office. Did you think that anything like this was going to happen?

WHITMAN: Well, we were always concerned about storm surges, and that's why we did encourage the Army Corps; we put our own money into putting out groins (ph). We did some big projects on taking old Army tanks nobody was using and sinking them out there to help do that and create some reefs and some barriers.

But you never, at that point in time, back in when I left office in 2000, well, climate change was becoming more and more of an issue, in this country, the potential devastation of it was not being seriously discussed.

And while we knew about nor'easters, because we had one while I was governor and it was -- it was bad, we weren't still getting these -- we've had, well, in the last 14 months, we've had 200-year storms.

AMANPOUR: Right. And you did leave the governor's office, but you then became the federal head of the EPA under President Bush. And you say you didn't really talk about these things and that even climate change itself was disputed, the, you know, our contribution to it.

Tell me what it was like, trying to get the word out when you were in charge.

WHITMAN: Well, it was very frustrating, because there were a lot of people, not (inaudible) on the Hill as well who just didn't believe it was happening. I think now people have to understand that climate is changing. We should stop the argument over whether it's (inaudible) and start the discussion about what do we do about this, how do we prepare for it.

I will say -- and I have said to everyone, look, humans don't call this climate change because the climate's been changing since it was formed, ere it was formed. But we are having an impact on it and we need to do everything we can to slow it down so we can better prepare.

The American Security Project just put out a released report yesterday. It was just happenstance that it happened yesterday, about climate change as a national security issue and what it means for deployment of troops.

How do we respond when there are crises around the world? What it does when you have severe droughts or severe flooding. I mean, you know, Christiane. You've covered this kind of thing. You understand about what displaced persons do and the pressure they put on local communities in their countries. It is very destabilizing and we need to understand that.

AMANPOUR: And to be honest, you know, from my point of view, it's extraordinary seeing this distress happening in the one world -- in the world's one superpower. So, again, I have to ask you, as a politician, as a former politician, as a governor, where is this leadership going to come from?

Look, the American people, according to the latest polls, now believe it. They say, climate change is happening, man is part of it and women, and we've got to address it. So if you've got the people, what else do you need?

WHITMAN: Well, Christiane, I'd say you don't need -- you need the leadership. You need somebody at the top to say, look. This is serious. We understand that we have enormous pressures on our budget.

We have to get our fiscal house in order, but there are some things that you pay for now in order not to have to pay -- what we're going to have to do with this storm -- tens of millions of dollars, if not billion, a billion dollars, that repays not just to rebuild but also in the lost economics from businesses that are just devastated by this.

So it's time for someone, I think that you're right. The American people are at a point where they're willing to have this discussion. But someone's going to have to get up and say, you know, it's going to be tough; it's going to mean we're going to cut some things that people like, but we can't do everything for everybody all the time.

And this one is really, really important. It was here at home and around the world. And what it means for our national safety and security as well.

AMANPOUR: Governor, you talked and you wrote in an article and you've written a book on your experiences. You called parts of your own party social fundamentalists and how in the Republican Party, in areas of the Republican Party, it is not possible to have this conversation.

Do you think that that's changing in your party? Do you think Mitt Romney, if he is president, will take this tough, you know, measure and lead on this?

WHITMAN: Actually, I think he will, Christiane. I -- he did that; he recognized climate change as a governor. And certainly when you have this kind of devastation, this kind of a storm, I mean, one of the things, the reason that it took the hard left turn that Sandy took, that hard left turn, is because there was a cold front that was blocked from moving that blocked it.

And a cold front was stationary where it was because of a change in the trade winds. And while no credible or reputable scientist will say that was absolute due to climate change, there very definitely could be a link between that and the melting of the Arctic ice. It's something you can't deny anymore.

And as you look at what your priorities are going to be, you're going to have to address this issue. And when you -- as you get the people there, the people start to understand the importance of this, I think you can see -- you'll see leadership bringing together both sides of the aisle -- this has to be bipartisan.

Everybody has to agree, we're going to have to make some really tough decisions. But we're beyond arguing over whether it's occurring or not. We're now underwater. What do we do about it?

AMANPOUR: And Governor, actually some of the scientists are saying that you're right; global warming didn't cause Sandy, but it certainly exacerbated the effects precisely because of the rise in sea levels.

Does it concern you that once the cleanup happens and the rebuild happens, it'll be out of sight, out of mind and then the political impetus will be lost?

WHITMAN: Well, you know, you're not wrong on that. That's what generally happens. But this rebuild is going to take so long that I -- it's not going to be out of sight, out of mind for a very, very long time.

So I'm not as worried about that. Plus the fact, as I say, you have this American Security Project report that's just come out. And last summer, the Navy did some exercises to anticipate what they might have to do with the Bering Strait's opening up, how that was going to change their mission.

The military's looking at it and I believe it was Ronald Reagan who was the first president to make climate change a part -- regular part of the National Security Council agenda. So the government is starting to recognize this and incorporate it into what we do about -- for national security. And I think the public is going to be there as well. And it's not going to go away.

AMANPOUR: Governor Christine Todd Whitman, thank you so much for joining me.

WHITMAN: My pleasure. Good to talk to you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

And just a reminder, the governor mentioned Ronald Reagan, well, it was a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was this nation's first environmentalist and conservationist.

The signs are predicting superstorms as becoming more exact, but even with more warning, a major metropolis like New York remains vulnerable. I'll ask an expert, is there body armor for Gotham City?

And before we take a break, a vivid look at Sandy's impact on the Jersey shore. This is an aerial view of the town of Seaside Heights, that we were just talking about, before the storm.

And this is the same view of the town after the storm, with shattered beachfront and buildings without roofs or walls. We'll be right back.

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): As the scenes of destruction from Hurricane Sandy continue to come in from New York, New Jersey and all along the East Coast, one question must be addressed: how can we rebuild our infrastructure to be better prepared in the future?

Kate Ascher is an urban planning expert who understands how all the pieces of this complicated jigsaw fit together.

Welcome. Thank you for being here with us.

Now more than ever, we need to understand how you rebuild in a better, safer way. First and foremost, is there a fail-safe, risk-free way to prevent any of this kind of damage?

KATE ASCHER, URBAN PLANNER: I don't think there's anything that will prevent every risk that's out there in the world. But certainly there are things we could do to avoid what we saw happening this week.

AMANPOUR: What could we do to avoid, for instance, the Far Rockaways, what we saw happened there? Now that is surrounded by water.

ASCHER: Right. And those are probably the most vulnerable communities in the region. And my guess is you're not going to be able to do anything to totally protect them. And they will be rebuilt and there will be issues as to how to do that. But there's a series of things you could do to really minimize the risk of it happening.

AMANPOUR: Such as?

ASCHER: As building sea walls, various types of protection to break the surf coming in. And some of those have been in place, just not on the order of magnitude that's needed.

AMANPOUR: So what would a New York City need? I mean, the waters are rising faster and exponentially faster than people predicted, and you've got all this building and infrastructure that is, you know, so low and so vulnerable, as we've seen.

ASCHER: Right. Well, since you're not going to be able to move most of the infrastructure and most of the building because there's so much of it, you're really talking about protecting against the tides and against the storm surges. So you need to build structures that would actually do that.

AMANPOUR: And what would you recommend and how much would it cost? Let's, say, you know, Battery Park City, that area?

ASCHER: There's a lot of people that have thought more about than me, but everybody is talking about various types of breakwaters and levees and barriers that actually would stop the sea coming in in certain targeted places, just like they do in London and in other places.

AMANPOUR: Well, you actually live in London and so what do they -- what's their structure like and what other places have that kind of stuff?

ASCHER: Well, London years ago built the Thames barrier, which is a huge structure that can be raised and lowered. So for navigation, it allows ships to pass except when it's raised. And it has been raised over 100 times since it's been constructed, when times seem like they're going to be dangerous to the city.

So I think it is possible -- that obviously wouldn't look the same in Newark as it looks in London. We have a different harbor, a different configuration of water. It's as doable here as it is there. It's just a lot of money.

AMANPOUR: And do you think, given your expertise and all that you've studied and looked at this, that this is a moment of opportunity? Or is this something -- and I asked the governor, Governor Todd Whitman, whether this would just pass?

And she doesn't think so, because it's going to be visible for a long time.

ASCHER: Well, I think she's right that it's going to take leadership for sure. But this is so serious and so acute that my guess is it will be a clarion call to action. In 1888, the great blizzard knocked down every cable that was in New York City as it was industrializing. And as a result, everything went underground.

And ever since then, New York's infrastructure has been incredibly reliable because of that incident. And I think one can only hope that this does exactly the same thing and prompts some kind of radical action that'll set the stage for, you know, improvements in the future.

AMANPOUR: But let's look at some of these pictures that we've had. We've got scenes of flooding subways and scenes of, you know, tunnels that were flooded, et cetera, and all the traffic gridlock. You say that, you know, some of this building of everything underground and putting that stuff underground was very clever.

But it seems that the entrances to these underground facilities are too low. To rebuild those higher, is that a huge thing?

ASCHER: You need to build all kinds of protective mechanisms. I mean, the infrastructure almost has to be underground. There's almost no big city in the world that can run mass transit without putting the trains underground. It's how you protect them. But --

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: -- entrances, right, have to be raised?

ASCHER: Well, it's entrances and it's not just entrances, because remember, there were grilles there, and air ventilation shafts. There's all kinds of puncturings of that ground level that would have to be addressed to keep water out of it.

AMANPOUR: And what about saltwater? I mean, as you kind of think about how these people are going to evacuate this water and prevent the damage and the corrosive effect of the saltwater, is that -- I mean, people are kind of worried that that might not -- might not work.

ASCHER: And it's not going to be easy. My guess is that some of that saltwater is going to have an effect, and it doesn't just come out of the system like that. But these guys that run the transit system are really, really know it.

This is a system that's been going for over 100 years. So they will bring it back as fast as possible, and certainly some parts of it will need to be replaced. And other parts of it will be have been able to withstand it.

AMANPOUR: You deal with not just this flood, you know, these flood areas, but infrastructure in the United States in general. Is the U.S. putting its money where it should be? Is infrastructure up to scratch around this country in general?

Bridges, roads?

ASCHER: Right. I mean, you remember what happened in Minneapolis and everybody said we're going to start an infrastructure bank and we're going to fix our bridges. Well, they never really did.

AMANPOUR: A bridge fell down.

ASCHER: Correct. And we never -- we never really got around to it. And so certainly in Europe and certainly in Asia, they take these things very, very seriously. But they also have a political system that allows them to act on it.

The national government can actually put some money in and make something happen whether it's France or England or there's different countries in Southeast Asia. Here it's very, very hard because we're caught up in politics. And if we don't have the leadership doesn't matter how much money we have, we won't be able to spend it.

AMANPOUR: So briefly, yes or no, will this enable that political leadership?

ASCHER: I think it can. I do think it can. I'm optimistic that we needed something like this to make it happen.

AMANPOUR: Kate Ascher, thank you very much indeed.

ASCHER: Great. My pleasure.

AMANPOUR: It may be hard to believe, but 74 years ago, a superstorm even more powerful than Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States, like Sandy did. Ironically, it was another disaster -- the Great Depression -- that came to the rescue. We'll explain after a break.

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AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a superstorm even more devastating than Sandy. It happened in 1938 in the middle of the Great Depression, when with barely any warning a category 3 hurricane slammed into the East Coast of the United States.

With top speeds of 200 mph, the nameless storm -- they had no nicknames back then -- leveled the landscape from Long Island to Maine and killed 700 people. But rescue and rebuilding began at once, thanks to the WPA or the Works Progress Administration, a government program originally begun by President Franklin Roosevelt to ease the bread lines.

At the time, critics denounced the WPA as just a big government handout.

Sound familiar?

But when disaster struck, this big government program was there, putting millions back to work.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching. Goodbye from New York.

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