September 1, 2011
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took no chances this time, for reasons as political as practical. Last winter, his administration was roundly ridiculed for doing too little and too late when a major blizzard swept through — streets unplowed, cars stranded in snowbanks, subways snarled.
That was the cold memory on the hot nights of last week, as citizens and city officials watched Hurricane Irene march toward the Atlantic coast. Irene was nothing like her name; hardly irenic, she portended to match the most damaging hurricanes of the past. The trajectory projected a direct hit on the city, the fulfillment of all those Gotham-gothic cinematic scenarios. Bloomberg's third-term poll numbers were lower than the air pressure in a hurricane's eye; to save himself, he had to do things right this time.
So in moves unprecedented, he ordered the entire metropolitan transit system shut down, and people living near the ocean, the rivers, and the sounds — some 280,000 of them — to evacuate. All events were canceled; Broadway would be dark on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the usual Mondays, anticipating the inundation of the Great White Way by the Great White Wave. Those outside the evacuation area were told to stay inside; those living above the tenth floor in buildings throughout the city were admonished to seek shelter with their neighbors below. Media meteorologists advised taping windows so if they broke, the glass would more likely fall into the street, not the room; if your bed is near a window and can't be moved, they cautioned, sleep with a sheet up over your head to protect yourself from shattering glass. Stock up on drinking water, flashlights and batteries, and canned foods; while the occurrence itself would be short, the effects might be very long.
Pre-hurricane Friday was beautiful — sunny, warm, and calm. Gardeners at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx came by to harvest their cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes. I asked them if they were ready. "It's just a hurricane," said a man from the Dominican Republic. "We get them all the time at home." One native New Yorker in his 70's just shrugged. "Forget about it," he huffed. "Nothing'll happen. I've been through lots of these. In the days before satellite pictures and all the media hype, we just used our common sense. When I was a boy, hurricanes didn't have names. Now they're like the personification of evil, some Greek goddess, Medusa or somebody."
Many others were taking the threat seriously. The local supermarkets were clogged with customers Friday and early Saturday, denuding the shelves of bottled water and batteries, carts piled high with provisions, including frozen foods — strange things to buy, I thought, in the face of a power outage.
The actual event was more of a non-event, at least to those on high ground, like around here. As the hurricane approached the city Saturday night, it was already deteriorating into a tropical storm. The rain came down in sheets, but the winds were much weaker than predicted, and there was no loss of power. When the eye of the storm passed overhead in the early afternoon on Sunday — indeed a direct hit — the sky cleared and a few of us neighbors drove around to survey the damage, which amounted to just a couple of downed small trees. We ended up in a little coffee shop on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy, the only establishment in the area brave enough to open. "I'm disappointed!" one person at the table said over his plate of silver-dollar pancakes. "I was hoping for some drama."
Actually, the comparatively worst was yet to come. As the remnants of the storm moved north, the winds came up the rear. By early Sunday evening the gusts were approaching frightening; the lights flickered momentarily, shingles flew off roofs, trees swayed mightily — they're built for wind — but everything seemed to hold. In the morning I went to the garden and found its huge plum tree toppled. It was old and unproductive, and I'd long thought of cutting it down. Mother Nature did it for me.
Many people, before and after the hurricane, were quick to criticize the mayor for taking measures they considered disproportionately severe. I didn't, and I don't. What the city undertook was an exercise in preparedness and prevention, and to me it was a beautiful thing to see. New York tried out its disaster plan in real time and brought most of its eight million people, imagine that, together in common defense. Not a single life was lost. Were the trains kept running and the warnings more lax, who knows what troubles we'd have seen?
With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the back of every New Yorker's head, this was a dry run, shall we say, for emergencies to come, both from nature and from man.
Plus, now everybody's got a story to tell.