By Friday, Hurricane Irene was all you could talk or think about. That morning for reasons purely coincidental I was shooting the breeze with two good buddies, both of whom are Jersey City Born & Bred and not young. Both agreed they had never heard this kind of talk, possible evacuation, about any storm before today. That morning Atlantic City and other Down The Shore communities had been ordered to evacuate and there was talk that by noon, Hoboken, Jersey City and areas of downtown Manhattan would do likewise.
The Day after Tomorrow was not only here, Irene was scheduled for the actual day after tomorrow!
What to think? Who to believe?
We live in an era of Weather Hysteria. It’s partly the fault of the 24 hour news cycle, all these networks and news sources competing with each other. You want coverage of why our nation’s healthcare system needs a public option, read the Nation or Salon (or Rolling Stone!), do not turn on the radio (I’m looking at you NPR!) or television.
But if you want coverage of an unfolding story – and no issue unfolds as often or with the same relevancy as the Weather – plug in and tune in and free yourself of reason and introspection.
Every time it snows, will it be a “snow-megadon”, temperature pops up above 70 degrees, the Heat Index is high, drink plenty of water or you will perish. Advisories, Alerts, Warnings, Watches – you hear one or more of these serious criteria items at least once a week, each with some distinct though inconclusive definition. Yes, taking proper precautions is prudent and important, but the fact remains – it’s just weather. The constant, pre-fabricated gravitas in the weather report has created a chicken little society, further supported by other pop culture fears.
Al Gore is right, Global Warming is real. Gore’s film was right-on fantastic, damn good documentary. Weather is not the same as when you and I were kids, that’s just the fact. A lot of Evangelical Protestants, particularly those prone to dominionist thinking (our present day Millerites) – the ones who make the Left Behind novels best sellers – watch the weather for end time signs. But whether these new weather events are pollution related or rapture harbingers or both (blue state meeting red state), it’s just weather! Weather is something to be endured, not be hysterical about. Beyond these current concerns of climate change and end times beliefs, weather is a natural concern for us all. We need to know.
Weather is nature manifested and deep (and not so deep) down we all know, nature wins out in the end. Like change, nature is master of us all. This normal and universal interest in whether your day will be rainy or sunny, warm or cold, has been exploited by the news media who long ago abandoned their obligation to inform the public and followed what the Reagan era declared a much higher aspiration: maximizing profits.
Hurricane Irene was serious but a boy who cried wolf syndrome now pervades. How often can we panic? We survived six inches of snow and a heat index that makes it feel like 100 with some mere complaining and we heard the same weather reports, foreboding, grave comments by meteorologists, Mayor Bloomberg, dire and serious, grimly standing at the podium responding with annoyance to any reporter daring to ask a question, the satellite maps show a large Red circle over our homes and cities. Mass causalities did not occur then and for the most part, the worst to happen were minor inconveniences and yet another understanding of the simple fact that the weather was different today than the day before and will be different the day after because unlike how we take our morning coffee or tea, weather changes every day. That’s why it is weather.
Why should we think Irene is any different?
So, that’s my gripe. Not that the precautions were unnecessarily called for but that the fear mongering about weather our news media use to sell the story and maintain ratings have become so intrinsic to our culture that when a real Katrina occurs, we do not know who to trust. We can either dismiss it or panic, as long as we don’t change the channel.
Unlike Climate Change or The Rapture, Katrina is a genuine weather fear unbound by abstraction. That national tragedy and debacle of what now seems like mythical proportions, now means that government officials are all part of the weather hysteria machine. No more “heck of a job, Brownie” moments for us. Democrats are in the executive branch so actual professionals and not political cronies hold FEMA positions. Of course where was the news media when Bush was gelding FEMA by treating it like it was a diplomatic post, i.e., another vestige for right wing patronage or when he cut the budget of the Levees, making them unable to withstand the gusts and downpour of Katrina. Shame on us for not being interested in issues of infrastructure, and to be unwilling to seek information that do not entertain. Impending doom symbolized by the red circle on the satellite map, expanding like the giant space amoeba in that Star Trek episode, and now that we know that FEMA and infrastructure have been proven to be lacking, our fears are justified. We dare not turn off CNN, or FOX or whatever.
Our leaders have been elected to lead and nothing is more demanding of leadership than an immediate, real-time, crisis. In their drive to appear authoritative in the midst of catastrophe, our leaders only reinforce the boy who cried wolf syndrome. What should appear as pragmatic and smart advisory caution gets absorbed into the fear mongering, which is repeated every time the weather report forecasts any sort of storm or less-than-perfect weather event.
Christi declared state of emergency, but didn’t he do that very same thing during another summer rain storm? Bloomberg musters up credible gravitas, yet we wonder if he is merely covering his ass for being in the Bahamas during the last Blizzard where streets in the poorer (and less caucasian) outer boroughs remained unplowed for days?
But in the morning when I was talking with Ricardo and Mustafa, they were only talking evacuations in Hoboken and Downtown. They had never heard anything like that in these parts for forty some odd years, nor had I in albeit, twenty.
In the swirl of the 24/7 weather hysteria that had now saturated the news – it didn’t help that we had a very minor earthquake earlier in the same week – it had become clear that a few notes in the usual symphonic onslaught were new, and attention worthy. I was thinking of going to the movies, I often do that on Friday Afternoons, especially during the Summer I have a flashlight, would that be enough? Well, I’m not that strong a non-conformist so I gave in.
I went to Super Discount, my preferred 99 cents store. I was on line for more than 20 minutes. Usually I’m in a line of one or two and one is always me. I got a candle, extra batteries and a small $10 radio. I have a radio in the closet that I never use, but I needed a new radio. I needed an emergency radio. If I didn’t get one I was going to be accused of being foolish, immature or unpatriotic, or some combination of all three.
Then on to C-Town, where you get limited selection, but low prices and no lines. At least they still had water, but again 20 minutes on lines. I could only imagine Shop Rite was worse. Lines at the 99 cents store and C-Town; as my daddy always warned, buy cheap, die cheap. We’re all in this together. So in addition to some usual foodstuffs, I bought cans of Dinty Moore Turkey Stew and Hormel Turkey Chili. I considered buying a can of sterno – a buddy of mine at the 99 cents was buying one – but I realized if I have to eat this stuff to survive, heating it over a can of sterno is not going to ease the pain, or the survivor’s guilt. It’s the Day After Tomorrow, not the Day After (not yet or again at least).
I was going to go to the movies, but watching Fright Night or Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was suddenly unappealing. How can you see horror when you had enough anxiety. I could not give in to apprehension, nor could I escape it, so I read Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, a long short in a collection I peck at when I’m unsure of what to read. I respect Conrad more than I like him. The story is about a captain of a steam ship in the Far east carrying Chinese workers back home, he takes his ship into a typhoon and him and the first mate make it through this late 19th century imperial British perfect storm. Fun reading, especially in the context, but I’m simply not a Conrad enthusiast.
Saturday was strange, Irene was on everybody’s mind, pictures of empty water aisles appeared on line. Advice proliferated: fill bath tub, fill up gallon size zip lock bags and freeze them in case electricity goes out, then you could put them in the refrigerator, keep perishable food fresh and have drinking water in a pinch. It was good advice. I didn’t read any sterno recommendations, so I didn’t go to the store.
Mandatory evacuations were issued. But I was informed, they are just issued so if you stay and cannot be rescued, the city is not liable for your safety. I’m staying put! My buddy in a flood zone fled to Bayonne. I wondered if our levies would hold then was informed, we have no levies.
It was so humid, the humidity growing with the hour. By four o’clock it was a steam bath. Tape was put on windows, plywood, sheets of plastic. Sand bags in corners of places, things tied down. How strong can wind be?
Fewer pedestrians out and about… ominous, sort of creepy… the air was like steam and the drizzle brought no relief. Rain then more rain then more, more… no one got a decent night’s sleep. Worry. The word Hurricane – or typhoon – is fraught with destruction. I talked with my buddy Danny, who survived Katrina, I told him it was category one. You could play lawn darts in a category one, he sneered. Katrina was a four. 8, 10 am… I wasn’t sure, the radio wasn’t sure… was the time it was predicted to make land fall.
I wanted to walk out in the eye of the hurricane, see the eye of Irene, stare into the eye and not blink. Rain was pounding. I was up early, by six AM it was just ferociously torrential. Never saw such rain. DVDs, NPR news, Facebook, New York Times. The Jersey City Independent said it would stay online throughout the weekend (usually they do not publish Saturday and Sunday). Here they had local updates and such. No weather fear mongering, just useful information, access it and decide what to do. By 10:30 it was clear, the rain had faded. Was this the eye? I wandered downstairs – the elevators had been turned off – saw one of my neighbors. She was not afraid to go outside. She was going to church, she said. It was downgraded to a tropical storm, and has moved away. It’s over.
Over? Does that mean no eye of the hurricane? Dang. I wanted to be in the middle of chaos and remain stoic! Oh well, have to wait for the next disaster to prove my strength of will.
Erie. Few people were out. Flooding on streets that I had never saw before, not widespread but startling. Part of Christopher Columbus was closed off. New lakes and rivers already giving birth to new generations of disease carrying mosquitoes. People were making jokes, since the damage was relatively minor compared to the potential devastation warned about on the News.
I saw some Sunflowers knocked down by Irene. Oh the humanity! We… will… rebuild. Nothing seemed open this early.
I couldn’t find anyplace for lunch. I was prepared for disaster and what might come after but I forgot to plan for lunch! I went home and heated the turkey chili in the microwave which I ate with fat free soybean chips. The state of comfort food after you have a heart attack is pretty dismal.
Later on, more people on the street. Everybody being neighborly, everybody glad to see each other. Jersey City is so cool that way: faces recognizable that you don’t really know or talk to regularly but there’s a wave or nod and then at times like this, you pause and rap, happy this familiar stranger made it through.
Was it as bad predicted, no but you hear other stories, a buddy of mine in Westchester without power and flooded, North Carolina’s outer banks, parts of Vermont. The storm here was not as bad, destruction came in patches and that destruction was devestating.
No one in J.C. could think of a worse storm here either. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as the fear mongering weather reports would have us believe, but it was as bad as we’ve seen a storm be, which is saying a lot. Later in the day, walking around again, I went to the River, exchange Place. The wind was incredible. Flags were twisting in the wind. I saw a branch get ripped off a tree. In with intense humidity, out with furious gusts. The update on the JCI was about which Jersey City bars that would be opened tonight, fun, usefull story.