The Cause of All the Commotion

This Saturday, the 2013 hurricane season will end—and with it, possibly, New York City’s final hurricane-less year.

Steve Ellis, Broken Snow Globe (Sandy 3012). Courtesy the artist and gallery nine5.

New York City’s new official hurricane map hangs on my living room wall in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I received it in the mail during the summer, its boast of “NEW 2013 EVACUATION ZONES” reminding me that a new hurricane season was just then getting underway. Zones 1 through 6 are marked in shades of red, orange, yellow, and green, their foreboding Rorschach blots covering much of the landscape. The map’s jagged assault on the eyes prophesies a future flood we can only escape with the map’s help. Maybe with new evacuation zones things would turn out differently.

Should we build sea gates like Stamford, Conn., and the Netherlands, a system that, according to an estimate by Jeroen Aerts of the University of Amsterdam, could cost $17 billion? There might not be enough time, let alone money from the state, in between hurricanes to realize such a project. Should we abandon the waterfront, parts of which have been rezoned over the last decade for the construction of luxury high rises? The new, unscathed Hunters Point Waterfront Park in a gentrified section of Long Island City in Queens shows that any city housing policy is unlikely to help the people who really need it. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who recently appointed the redeveloper of Times Square as the co-chairman of his transition team, may not have different priorities than Bloomberg. Only time will tell. But how much time do we have?

It’s been a year since Hurricane Sandy lashed the Northeast—and, it’s important to remember, Haiti and Cuba. It’s beginning to sink in that, after Irene in 2011 and Sandy in ’12, New Yorkers are not going to live through another hurricane in 2013. City Hall seemed to be operating under the assumption that we’d be able to relive the horrors and anxiety of 2012 and, to a lesser extent, 2011. A quick check of the National Hurricane Center’s website—a check I now make frequently—reveals there are “no tropical cyclones at this time” in the Atlantic. Hurricane season technically ends Nov. 30, but this late in the season we’re unlikely to see a full-blown hurricane on track for New York or anywhere else.

None of us seemed to believe that things were going to get too desperate. We were right, in the Heights; elsewhere, things were very different.

My experience of Sandy was typical, at first. I stayed at my then-girlfriend’s place in Morningside Heights. We’d taken the subway under the East River and uptown after reading online that the MTA was shutting everything down as it had during Irene. We made sure to buy groceries before we settled in. What did we eat as the storm shook the branches outside? Eggs, milk, yogurt, sandwiches from the grocery story on the corner, which we bought during the storm—mostly groceries that, we later realized, wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours after the lights went out, if they had gone out. At the Met supermarket on Amsterdam Avenue the Sunday evening before the storm hit, many other couples were buying the same things. None of us seemed to believe that things were going to get too desperate. We were right, in the Heights; elsewhere, in the Rockaways, in Staten Island and Coney Island, in Red Hook, and even in much of Manhattan below 39th Street—not to mention many places in the region outside of the city—things were very different. Sandy killed 49 people in the city alone; thousands were left homeless.

We forgot to fill the bathtub with water—something my father had urged, a lesson learned from the New York blackouts of ’65 and ’77—but it didn’t matter. We had electricity but not a TV, and friends outside of New York seemed to know more about what was going on than we did. I read the New York Times obsessively, of course, as I have pretty much since I learned how to read, but my parents seemed to know much more about what was going on from CNN or MSNBC than I did, even though they don’t live in New York anymore. I saw pictures on Facebook of my cousin’s flooded house in Bridgeport, and reflexively, mentally, recited the Catholic prayers I learned in school that I always seem to cling to in times of anxiety: the Act of Contrition, the Hail Mary, and the Our Father.

In some ways the information about what was going on was more available to people in California or Japan than it was to us in Morningside Heights. On Tuesday, when the rain stopped, we walked up and down Broadway, and my girlfriend interviewed people in Riverside Park for a newspaper. People were walking around like it was the Easter Parade. Everyone was smiling. I read grim updates from the waterfront on my phone in disbelief.

The one-day holiday from work turned into a week, enough time for me to finish reading John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. I felt stuck, and when the subway reopened—for free!—we walked over to the 116th Street station of the 1 train so that she could interview people downtown in the blackout area. In the station I inexplicably broke into a sprint and jumped, trying to fly over the turnstile on the one day that it was allowed. I remember looking back at her as my knee slammed into the metal. As I lay on the ground, a woman shouted at me from above: “You’ll end your life!” My girlfriend helped me limp home, and we decided not to try the ER. I couldn’t bend my knee for a couple of weeks, and the pain lingered for months, but I was OK with an icepack. The next day, Saturday, after she’d interviewed more strangely smiling Manhattanites in the pitch dark streets downtown, we were walking up Park Avenue as the lights came back on.

I eventually returned to Greenpoint a week after the storm hit. I shared a car from Long Island City with another Brooklyn exile. The days went by and the subway lines flickered back on one by one; group hitchhiking became routine until the G was running again. Once five of us strangers crammed into a car to cross the Pulaski Bridge from Long Island City, and the driver demanded twenty dollars from each of us. I got out in protest; we talked him down to $5. That driver was the only rude person that I encountered during those days.


The people that I know seemed to stop talking about the storm by the end of the year, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. “We made it through the hurricane,” as Kanye West raps on the post-storm remix to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” We’ll be here for the 2014 season. Since this could be the last hurricane-less year we’ll ever have on the East Coast, we now have time to think things through. For a few days—and in the truly afflicted areas, for months and years—New York, arguably the most important city in the world and certainly the cultural capital of the United States, was in tatters only days before a presidential election. Still, we don’t seem to have learned much. How are we not doing everything that we can to make sure things change?

In America hurricanes have often played a fleeting role in laying bare society’s problems.

In America hurricanes have often played a fleeting role in laying bare society’s problems: our entrenched class and racial disparities, our slowly crumbling infrastructure, our changing climate. When Kanye looked at an NBC camera in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina and said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” so many of the media’s obfuscations were laid bare. Bush later said that moment of honesty was the low point of his presidency—not, it should be noted, the thousands of unnecessary deaths in Iraq, or the missteps he made after Katrina itself. He must have recognized deep down that Kanye was right.

On the eve of the anniversary of the arrival of Sandy I left my TV on the Fox 5 local news after game five of the World Series ended. “Will life ever be the same?” the anchor intoned. I watched a report from Midland Beach in Staten Island, where a man explained that he couldn’t afford to rebuild his home with the relief money he’d received. No solution was proposed, and the program moved on to other news. In the concourse underneath Rockefeller Center, on the anniversary of the arrival of Sandy, I saw a bedraggled man muttering to himself: “Once again, Sandy. The world is a miraculous place.” I wondered if he’d had a home before the storm.

The poorest New Yorkers still live in the most vulnerable areas—“Zone 1” in the evacuation map’s parlance. Whether they live in Robert Moses’s housing projects in the Rockaways or in beachside bungalows, gentrification offers little hope that they can move to safer neighborhoods in their own city. Which reminds me of another timely anniversary: the Nov. 15, 2011 eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park.

After all, parts of Wall Street itself lie in Zone 1, and if the Street doesn’t remember where the flood came from, the vulnerable will.