Sandy was a bitch, not the apocalypse
This storm reminded us that nature can be tough but that the people of New York are even tougher.
The lights went out a little before 6pm here in western New York state. The kids were doing their homework. I was cleaning up in our brightly lit kitchen after a day spent cooking in advance of the storm. Suddenly, everything was dark and quiet, except for our exclamations of surprise. Not that it was a surprise at all, since we had spent most of the past two days thinking about Sandy, the monster hurricane bearing down on the east coast.
Of course, a hurricane this far inland (we are about five hours from the sea) is a novelty. We are used to windstorms and ice storms and we are expert at blizzards, barely flinching at the snow that brings large metropolitan areas to a standstill. But Sandy was different, not just for people here, but for people up and down the coast, and especially in New York City.
Part of this is satellite imaging. We watched Sandy, its winds so strong that it appeared as an impossibly large red doughnut, making its way northward. It dwarfed Hurricane Irene, the storm that prompted New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to order residents to evacuate parts of the city back in August 2011. In that case, the hurricane petered out, much to the annoyance of people who left town to spend the night in hotels inland, and to the disappointment of media figures like Anderson Cooper who stood around in rain gear for hours waiting for the dramatic storm that never came. If that was crying wolf, Sandy seemed like the real McCoy. But that wasn’t the only reason Sandy felt different; this time, it was almost as if we were expecting disaster.
‘Are the aeroplanes going to crash?’, my youngest son asked me as we walked around the house with our flashlights. ‘No, the aeroplanes will be all right.’ ‘What about the cars?’ These are questions you might expect from an eight-year-old, except that in this case I am reasonably sure they were prompted by the NBC hit series Revolution.
Revolution is one of a number of popular dystopian sci-fi dramas on American television, others being The Walking Dead and Fringe. In the pilot of Revolution, we watched a family in circumstances much like our own: a typical weeknight scene, flickering lights and then darkness spreading out across the city. Except in Revolution, the lights never come back on and all technology mysteriously fails. Planes fall from the sky. Cars stop dead and society dissolves into chaos. Fifteen years later, Charlie Matheson, one of the children in the opening scene, and a rogue band of survivors set out to rescue her brother and to solve the mystery of why the power failed and if it will ever return. The bad guy, militia captain Tom Neville, is played by Giancarlo Esposito. ‘Is that Barack Obama?’, my son asked me. I told him ‘no’, but he was right that there was a resemblance. And it wasn’t just a physical resemblance. Consider the opening voiceover:
‘We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren’t prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don’t know why the power went out. But we’re hopeful someone will come and light the way.’
This is the dominant morality tale played out over and over in American culture right now, in everything from The Hunger Games to nature documentaries: we are vulnerable. We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control, and some catastrophic event will bring it all to a head and put our collective character to the test.
Sandy was not just life imitating art. Sandy had a strange sense of inevitability about it. Invest in a $1,600 generator? You may as well. If it’s not Sandy, it will be something else. And generators did sell, hundreds of them. At the very least, most people bought batteries, charged their cellphones, and filled their tanks with gas. And we all bought gallons of bottled water as instructed, though it was not, at least where we live, a forgone conclusion that power cuts and flooding would interrupt the water supply.
‘I wonder what they expect us to need the water for?’, I joked with the cashier while buying a twelve pack. ‘Maybe it’s just better not to die thirsty’, she quipped. I wasn’t sure if she was joking.
In the event, Sandy was very bad. Trees fell on roofs and cars. Seaside towns flooded, with as much as six feet of water in parts of Ocean City, New Jersey. In New York City, some subways flooded with brackish water and the rivers poured into Wall Street and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. From Brooklyn at the height of the storm, power failures made it look as if some great dark knife had sheered off the bottom tip of Manhattan. It was a monster of a storm, as bad as anything to hit New York in living memory, bad enough to confirm all our worst fears. Except that it didn’t.
Yes there were tragedies: 15 people died in New York and an estimated 39 across the region, mostly as a consequence of falling trees or downed power lines. Tunnels and roads have been badly damaged and many people are still without water or power. But in spite of all that, Sandy was no apocalypse. In the end, it wasn’t about the damage, which was substantial, or the disruption, which will continue for months to come. Sandy was not about fear and confusion and panic; it was about the way that people rose to the occasion and dealt with it.
Less than a day later, life is slowly getting back to normal. Schools are still closed in New York City but the bridges are open again. The temporary shelters are still operating for people who need them and are now at the point of turning away donations of clothing and food and water from other city residents.
In our own case, the lights came back after only 45 minutes and the wind howled all night, but in the morning it was over. We were lucky. Nature is a bitch, but apocalypse now? As they say down in Brooklyn, Fugheddaboutit.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.