I’ve never lived through truly extreme weather – I’m from Southern England. The most dramatic storm I remember was the 1987 gale that downed trees and caused a lot of damage in the southeast, after weather reports scoffed at any danger. It gave my eight-year-old self nightmares whenever the wind made tree branches scratch my bedroom window. Since living here, extreme weather has been more frequent, but it’s always worse somewhere outside New York. I watched Katrina footage like I watch scenes from war zones – without being able to wrap my head around it by reference to any memory of my own. The stories my midwestern friends tell about racing tornadoes in their car are as alien to me as the weird green color that they say the storm turns the sky. So I had no idea how to react to Irene over the last couple of days – was this overreaction? Or sensible precaution? We wouldn’t really need a flashlight and a bathtub full of water and canned foods, would we?
In the event, no, we wouldn’t. But it seems absurd to criticize the mayor and the city for an overreaction to an inherently unpredictable event, or even to mock those panicking bottled-water hoarders, because sitting and waiting for something to strike that might hurt you or not is panic-inducing in its very nature. Everybody was keyed up, but because it was a weekend, and because things could have been so much worse, the whole experience took on the feeling of a very tense carnival.
After last week’s earthquake, too, there was a similar sense of people needing to make fun of the danger, but at the same time the enforced community spirit that such mass panics can create is something people seem to yearn for. It is some kind of relief, some kind of respite, to stop having to worry about your own life for a moment and to worry instead about all of us, together. At one of Bloomberg’s press conferences a reporter asked if he was worried about looting. ‘This is New York,’ he said. ‘We don’t do that sort of thing here.’
Of course, after the UK riots that ‘here’ was especially pointed, and it stung a little. Nevertheless, I think that moment showed real leadership – that simple expression of faith in community and civic pride, no matter that those things can so easily be dismissed as a fantasy and a fiction. In contrast to all the divisive anger stemming from real failures of leadership at home, I found it comforting to have my faith reaffirmed. (El Bloombito certainly helped as well.)
Next time: back to food & booze, I promise! How do fish tacos and margaritas sound?