For the past couple of days, the focus has been on Andrew Cuomo, the liberal governor of New York whose latest inaugural speech is about turning left, towards progressive. This comes from a governor has, over the past couple of years, set out to establish his reputation as a fiscal conservative. So what we have here is an interesting mix -- a useful mix, given what we (and New York state) have to face.
New Yorkers got a reminder when Sandy blew through. Let's not fool around here: global warming costs and we're going to have to pay for it. So in a state that wants to increase the minimum wage and fully meet its obligations to education and environmental programs and women's health and housing and infrastructure, some pencils will have to be sharpened.
And then there's this year's -- and next year's -- Sandy.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “It is denial to say each of these situations is a once-in-a-lifetime. There is a 100-year flood every two years now. It is inarguable that the sea is warmer and there is a changing weather pattern, and the time to act is now.”
Among his proposals were a bailout fund for homeowners who want to move out of flood-prone regions, and aid for building homes that can withstand floods — ideas that are contingent on how much federal aid comes through. He also called for measures to better protect subways, public utilities, the fuel delivery system and New York Harbor.
And he excoriated Washington for waiting so long to provide New York and New Jersey with federal storm aid.
“That is just too little and it is too late, and it has nothing to do with the way Congress has acted in the past,” he said. “This has long been established, that in the face of a disaster, the national government comes in to help.”
“Remember New York,” he added, “because New York will not forget, I promise you.”...NYT
The hitch is that New York is about one-fiftieth of the US. And even with an ideal Congress the response time and the response capabilities will continue to be a growing problem. How about -- right now! -- Illinois and Missouri and all the industries dependent on a major route to the Gulf?
This Nov. 28, 2012 photo provided by The United States Coast Guard shows man-made dikes along the shoreline of the Mississippi River South of St. Louis. (AP/Coast Guard) from OnPoint
TIM BLY: This is as low as I've ever seen it. So this is - it's pretty tough to get everything loaded.
MASTERS: That's Tim Bly, who manages this grain elevator owned by ag-giant Cargill in Muscatine, Iowa, along the Mississippi River. Standing on a windy levee, he wears a bright yellow vest, hard hat and has a thick, coal-black beard. Bly says they were already loading far less grain on barges before they stopped the traditional winter shutdown that's normal this far north on the Mississippi.
BLY: We had to lighten them up to a nine-foot draft because of the low water levels, which is about three or 4,000 bushels difference on a barge. It's that much less you're getting on each barge.
MASTERS: And that means more barges have to be used to fulfill contracts. Further down the river, south of St. Louis, barges are still plying the river. But because the water level forecast keeps changing, many companies can't plan far enough ahead.
Rick Calhoun is the president of Cargill's shipping company.
RICK CALHOUN: We're just holding barges back, hoping that we get enough water that we're able to transit at some time, and we're light-loading the barges.
MASTERS: Calhoun says in some cases, they've had to turn away overseas customers, losing their business entirely.
Mike Steenhoek heads the Soybean Transportation Coalition and says this is an especially bad time to be losing grain business. South American farmers are just starting to harvest their crops and global demand is fickle. It will just go elsewhere.
MIKE STEENHOEK: When the South American harvest comes online, U.S. exports dropped precipitously. And when the U.S. harvest comes online, their exports drop precipitously. So when you have a supply chain disruption at this time of year, it's kind of analogous to a supply chain disruption for retailers prior to Christmas.
MASTERS: And it's not just grain: energy sources like petroleum and coal, fertilizer that moves that up the river, all are facing shipping uncertainty, as well. So what are companies to do?
Chad Hart is an economist at Iowa State University, and says shipping freight on trucks is one option, but it's a lot more expensive, and not only hauls a lot less product than a barge, it burns a lot more fuel. Hart says moving commodities on rail is a better alternative, but there's a problem.
CHAD HART: Rail can be competitive on a cost-per-mile basis. But you've got to go where the rail goes, just like with barge, you got to go where the river goes. But we've designed the system around the river.
MASTERS: This is a river that runs more than 2,500 miles and spans 10 states. To keep the barges traveling, the Army Corps of Engineers released water last month from Carlyle Lake, just east of St. Louis. Increasingly, there are calls for the Corps to release waters from reservoirs on the Missouri River. It feeds into the Mississippi. But the Corps says that water is reserved for things like irrigation and recreation. And tapping that resource would take an act of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
MASTERS: Further down river, between Cairo, Illinois and St. Louis, is the Mississippi's weakest link. Here, the Army Corps is blasting rock and dredging river bottom to make it deeper. John Kennedy is the mayor of Thebes, Illinois a tiny town where the majority of this blasting and dredging work is being done. In his 35 years here, he's seen a lot on the river.
MAYOR JOHN KENNEDY: Just ungodly stuff on this old river over the years I've been here, you know. I've seen barges sink, hit the bridge. We was kids, one time we were down here messing around, and actually watched a barge hit the bridge
MASTERS: But one thing Kennedy has never seen is the river this low. The National Weather Service is forecasting that early next month, the Mississippi River in Thebes could be too shallow for any barge to traverse. ...NPR
And quite apart from the environment damage this represents, it's going to cost us big time.
And, of course, we don't have that ideal Congress, that group of serious legislators with a view towards the future and the energy and intelligence to plan. We are at the mercy of throwbacks -- bigots and zealots and do-nothings mixed with exhausted women and men of good will -- who find themselves unable to govern. In the White House we have an executive with, effectively, no legislative body willing to meet our current obligations, much less plan for future obligations, even though they come from states hard-hit by environmental degradation. (Let's not depress ourselves further with what we have in that other branch, the Court.) Finally, we have an industrial sector which has allowed itself to be the main culprit in environmental degradation which, if the climate prevents it from growing or manufacturing and selling its products, can't pay for the damage it's done.
So what's a hard-working, progressive or conservative, fiscally responsible governor to do?