Hurricane Irene as seen from space. Image: NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies
Or, Some Thoughts on the New, Perpetual Man-Made Disaster Season
We had stocked up on canned food, backed away from the windows, tried to immerse ourselves in escapist movie marathons and potboiler novels. Irene was coming, and we were anxiously falling asleep listening to the rain rap on 80 year-old roofs.
Even the most thick-skinned New Yorkers were a little scared (admit it, seen-it-all bodega owner, you kept glancing at your glass door as you stayed open through the first hours of the still-ominous Saturday night; admit it, brazen 'Hurricane Party' DJ, you heard the wind whistle as you unloaded your gear at the back of the club -- it took guts). But it wasn't just Irene's fault we were nervous, nor CNN's, nor the mayor's, nor the meteorologists' nor their worst-case scenarios.
It's nobody's fault in particular that it's disaster season, storm or no storm. Our politics are apocalyptic enough, the news is apocalyptic enough -- between the debt ceiling standoff, the interminable recession, the eroding Euro Zone, and the chaos in the Middle East, few feet still find sturdy ground. Both left and right are talking end times. They always do, but this time they mean it. Barack Obama with his radical agenda is herding the nation away from its sacred traditions and right off a cliff. The Tea Party with its blind ideology will turn America into a religious corporatocracy that dooms unions and the poor. manm
But those disasters, oceans away or still incipient, concern governance and the matters of men. A real disaster needs to rise up out of the earth in order to really embody our primordial insecurities, to channel our basest fears. And yet, a strange thing is happening. Those two spheres are merging.
For over twenty years now scientists have warned that our factories and power plants are warming up the planet; we've listened to them for five or six. Floods, droughts, storms, they're all on the way. Climate change ticks by in monotone news broadcasts, Congressional testimonies, Al Gore saying this or that. Some of us are healthily concerned. Some of us are in a healthy state of denial. But it keeps ticking by nonetheless. It has created an undercurrent.
The notion is common, mythological: Man sins, the gods punish him. Man builds a city that's all about orgies, God levels it. Man pursues endless industrial expansion, cue the biblical storms. But we all recognize it's all a bit different this go-round.
Fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah
Rewind back to Saturday night in my Brooklyn apartment. I'm lying awake, waiting for Irene to do whatever it will do. It's 4 am. I'm skeptical, annoyed, anxious, unworried, then worried that I'm too unworried and haven't prepared enough. My back is stiff; I'm sleeping on a blowup mattress with my girlfriend because our bedroom is lined with two big windows that we've been warned could shatter. The rain's pelting the roof, the wind is tearing at trees. (I had not yet known that this was the very worst of it.) I can hear water leaking in through a skylight in the hallway. It drips, tree branches rustle and bend, rain thuds above.
I'm thinking, abstractly, what if?
What if a tree falls just so and smashes through our window? What if the roof caves where it leaked all last winter and floods our tiny apartment? What if the winds uproot a telephone pole and hurl it javelin-like through the side of the building? What if this happens again next year?
The thoughts flicker by, none lingering. I picture the image of the sprawling storm from the NASA satellite. Then I imagine next year's hurricane smothering the East Coast, and it's bigger. The year after, it's just colossal. It expands and swirls, briefly, until it covers the digital-looking version of the whole United States, then it's gone. This is our fault, I think. Then I fade in and see Meet the Parents wrapping up on my laptop screen. Will be our fault. I shut the computer off and fade out to sleep.
Photo: eguchishintaro via Flickr/CC BY
As harmless as Irene turned out to be in New York City, those moments were instructive. I was anticipating something that seemed inevitable. Some kind of disaster will hit--if not this one, something else. But I didn't feel a 'why me?' singled-outedness that's so often said to accompany incoming catastrophe. Instead, it felt appropriate.
That's the new sort of relationship between us and nature sinking in, even if it's still at best an inkling. Yet a pervasive inkling. We Americans aren't by and large convinced that our actions are bringing on nature's wrath, even if we should be. But everybody knows that some really smart people think that's exactly what's happening. Just as the non-religious might appeal to God in times of crisis, the non-scientific might assume some ownership for our disaster-prone environment: record floods, record droughts, rampant fires, unlikely hurricanes. We're not sure how climate change fits in, or whether or not we buy it, but it's indisputably in the mix. It's a fixture of our cultural fabric, whether you scoff at or fear it.
So that unrequited fear isn't anyone's fault; it's all of our fault. Much like the other man-made disasters we're watching unfold around the world, hurricanes and floods have become events we somehow have a hand in, in ways we may not all readily understand. We've accepted that the natural system responds to our actions, is a province wherein we now hold sway. So we laugh off the close call, we call Irene a joke, we complain about the inconvenience. It's cathartic. But the joke is a coping mechanism: we see other states struggle with record floods, we see millions without power, and above all we're relieved.
We're relieved because we know it's still disaster season, and for now we're unscathed.