When I woke this morning, the radio blathering on about Hurricane Irene, but when I checked the NHC website, the ‘historic’ hurricane had weakened . . . considerably, really as expected. . . still a hurricane but just barely. When it leaves the North Caroline shores, if it remains a hurricane, it will be even weaker than it is now. More than likely, it will bluster along as a tropical storm, no more threatening than many I recall from my NY childhood. In all my years living in and near NYC, I remember only one serious hurricane and that was Hurricane Donna in 1960. There were other storms and edges of hurricanes that came and went, but Donna left an impression on me because it arrived the same day my grandmother flew in from Europe where she had been studying with the painter Kokoschka. The storm was a wild one, with winds powerful enough to send power lines sparking to the street and to wrest a huge limb from the eighty-foot high weeping willow grew near the stream at the edge of our swampy west garden. The falling limb, larger in diameter than a fat man's waist, made a huge noise as it hit the ground and scared me, mostly because our mother had gone to meet her mother at the airport, expecting us to stay quietly at home, diligently doing homework and beginning preparations for dinner. Ha, ha, you know how that goes, even on the best of days. It was, of course, very hard to concentrate with the wind howling through trees and rain beating on windows that began at floor level and traveled upward higher than my small arms could reach. I felt sure the storm would enter. Donna did wash over Long Island as a Category 2 storm, but my grandmother’s plane landed safely and the passengers all deplaned onto the tarmac – no moveable hallways in those days – and walked through the raging wind to the terminal. My grandmother later told me her umbrella turned inside out, but other than that, it was just a storm.
I was living in South Brooklyn when Hurricane Gloria approached NY with almost as much fanfare as is being offered Irene. No closing of subway systems or mandatory evacuations, but enough fear was generated to empty the city somewhat and streets quieted as folks left to stay with friends and relatives inland. We didn't leave; we stayed and waited for the storm. The skies deepened and greyed; there was some rain, not much, and it was hard to know when that hurricane – one that I call the Hurricane that Wasn’t – had arrived. As my husband walked through downtown Brooklyn, he saw a window blow out as a not-so-strong gust of wind flitted down the street. He puzzled over how that baby wind had forced the glass to break and decided that it must have been a sudden change in air pressure. He might have been right. Other than that, Gloria was a glorious storm in our part of town – just enough rain, not too much wind, and when the eye passed overhead, the clouds parted, revealing washed blue skies and brilliant sun.
In the years that intervened, we have become a society addicted to disaster. The eastern seaboard was declared a disaster zone before Irene made land-fall and as the storm weakened, media attention intensified, determined to see this storm as dangerous and deadly or at least potentially dangerous and deadly, as if by declaring the storm disastrous would make it so, prove the validity of all expensive precautions. When Irene reached Irene Cape Hatteras, sustained winds measured 59 mph with gusts to 84 mph, still a Category I storm but barely. Meanwhile, the NY subway is shuttered . . . why? As an experiment? See how the city functions without? In advance of the 9/11 anniversary? See if people will respond dutifully to commands? Or is this just a way to get those millions of consumers into stores? Cry wolf! Buy plywood, batteries, water, and enough food to last at least a month.
If there’s no emergency, create it! Emergencies are good for business!
Damage reported so far in North Carolina? A few downed tree limbs, a damaged roof, some stormy seas, yet still the media reports that Irene is beginning its “potentially catastrophic run up the east coast.” More likely a run in the silk stockings worn by the emperor who is strutting about in his fine new ermine cape. See him? Look at his fine new clothes! Looks more like his skivvies, you say? You just might be right.
By early afternoon EDT, forecasters suggest that Irene will “remain near hurricane strength” as she moves up the coast, and Mayor Bloomberg is saying that it's “unlikely” that subway service will be restored by Monday. Here's something to consider . . . if the subway doesn't run, no one goes to work, and the financial markets stay shuttered. If the financial markets remain closed, the volatility of the past week stops, and when the markets finally reopen . . . well, we'll see.