NY Conversation September 2011

Welcome to New York, the only city in the world that complains when it doesn’t get hit by a hurricane.

This week’s much-hyped and much-publicised brush with Hurricane Irene has joined the Great Snowpocalypse of December 2010 and the Great Minor Earthquake of, um, last week, in NYC’s biblical triumvirate of recent unexpected natural incidents. And in a city where people will sternly warn you that putting your bag on the floor of a subway train will get you bedbugs, the prospect of a proper disaster predictably leads to a mass collective freak-out.

By a sorry quirk of fate, NY Conversation needs to go grocery shopping on Friday anyway, so we spend nearly an hour in line at Bowery Wholefoods watching an extended demonstration of the term “panic buying”. It appears that to survive a hurricane, you need a) cans of beans, b) corn chips and c) beer — all of which, it has to be said, happen to be on our shopping list anyway. We end up in line behind a curmudgeonly old Jersey geezer, who’s the first to raise the inevitable conspiracy theories — Americans love conspiracy theories — about whether this is actually all a way for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to win votes. Our new friend insists that in all his innumerable years, there’s never been a hurricane in New York, and that the whole thing must therefore be a media beat-up.

As he expounds on his ideas, a staff member brings around cookies for everyone as a kind of peace gesture (an offer that’s refused by the gentleman with the Bloomberg theory — “She’s not wearing gloves,” he confides to NY Conversation in a comedy stage whisper). Eventually, we manage to slip away from our new friend, get out the door with two bags of non-perishable goods, and head back home to batten down the proverbial hatches.

Saturday is a strange day — the subway’s closed, the streets are silent, and there’s a distinctly weird aspect to the weather. The rain starts early in the morning and doesn’t let up — NY Conversation spends the day watching movies on Netflix and exploring ways to make bad bottles of red wine taste good (the verdict: turning it into sangría). By the time we go to bed at about 2am, the wind’s strong enough to be giving the trees across the road a good old shake. The hurricane tracker on NYTimes.com tells us that the storm will hit at about 7am, and it’s at about this our that we wake up anyway — and so, opening the blinds, we prepare to gaze on a post-apocalyptic vista of desolation, and see…

Nothing. It’s actually quite a pleasant, sunny day. A post-breakfast walk through Morningside Park reveals a couple of downed trees, including one that appears to have hit a car (whose occupant was, happily, not in it at the time) — “God must love him,” nods a passerby sagely, prompting us to wonder just what sort of God demonstrates his love by dropping a tree on your car. There’s also some flooding due to blocked drains, and the wind’s still up, but beyond that, it’s peaceful — it’s almost unheard of to see the city this quiet, even on a Sunday morning. The general lack of people is certainly appreciated by the bedraggled squirrels who clearly got a dousing last night and are now out in search of their breakfast.

Our immediate reaction is one of relief, although we’ll be honest: there’s also an inescapable feeling that the whole affair has been thoroughly anti-climactic. And sure enough, once everyone’s finished emptying their bathtubs and pulling the tape off their windows, the chorus of complaining starts: “Bloomberg defends mandatory evacuations during Irene”, says CNN, while various op-eds start to wonder whether the subway closure and mandatory evacuations were an over-reaction.

But here’s the thing: the residents of, say, North Carolina (where the storm made landfall) or Vermont (where the power is still off, and where catastrophic floods cut off entire towns) would tell you that it’s definitely better safe than sorry. One of the quirks of NYC is that it feels like its own little country, entirely removed from the rest of the USA. At times, that’s nice — not many people here are excited about a Michelle Bachmann presidential campaign — but at others, it’s infuriating. All in all, Hurricane Irene killed 54 people and caused $7bn worth of damage; if the worst it did to you was lead you to over-invest in canned beans, then life ain’t all that bad.

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