Now that Sandy has been designated a “superstorm” (and who decided that, and why?) it seems that in the last four days, Northeasterners have cycled through five or more stages of grief, even though “severe cabin fever” or “fury at Con Edison” might not register on the classic Kubler-Ross model.
In the ‘burbs, some of those affected started talking to their neighbors, borrowing tools, sharing food, and going to bed early -- positively reliving “Our Town” values. Some city residents who lost power used the time in a similarly early-20th-century way, playing board games, reading by candlelight and concocting Rube Goldberg-like cooking apparati. Post-upset, are we more or less likely to want to blanket ourselves again in technology?
I should point out that the losses so far have been heartbreaking and devastating, and millions are still without power. There is more suffering to come, no doubt, and I don’t mean to minimize it by joking.
But stories like how a downtown Thai restaurant managed to operate via automobile battery power (and extension cords out the window to the car parked at the curb) remind us of how remarkably resilient and ingenious we are.
Once Sandy began packing a punch Monday night, it was all the more frustrating because it was so sudden: We had already endured much nothingness, waiting all day in the “bracing for Sandy” mode. To the naked eye, it was raining, lightly. So the violent winds, surges, sudden explosions and power outages that followed by nightfall seemed rabidly apocalyptic. I updated my status with: “Will the world end with a posting on Facebook?” I got lots of clever responses, including: “No, it will end with some good-looking young reporter doing a live remote and bloviating on the obvious.”
Indeed, the wall-to-wall coverage, interrupted only by annoying, repetitive political commercials, was hard to take -- especially before anything had happened. I had watched a local CBS reporter scouring Red Hook for someone to interview. She finally found a resident idiot in a fleece hoodie wandering around, and asked him how he was preparing for the storm. “Just picking stuff off the floor,” he responded. That was helpful.
Then Sandy got really scary. For my money, there is nothing more terrifying than the thought of rivers of sea water and sewage pouring into -- and blocking -- dark city tunnels. That’s the stuff of your basic disaster film, which in the case of Sandy, turned into a war movie and then something straight out of a sci-fi drama, with nature reclaiming itself. All that was missing was an alien invasion.
The similarities to well-known images from futuristic thrillers like Spielberg’s “A.I.” and “The Day After Tomorrow” were also unsettling. Both films feature visuals of flooded New York landmarks, bobbing like the anthropological finds of ancient civilizations. When parts of the boardwalk and fixtures of the now-ironically named FunTown Pier in Seaside, N.J. ended up swept out to sea, including the upside-down iconic StarJet roller coaster, the graphics seemed to be art-directed by Spielberg himself for maximum poignance.
At the same time, the current high-concept, dystopian NBC show “Revolution” seems to have nailed one possible post-Sandy scenario. It’s set in the future, when all the power sources using electricity have mysteriously shut down. The pilot showed the carcass of a car being used as a vegetable planter; the citizens have returned to a pre-industrial hunting-gathering life and are hardy, self-sufficient, agrarian citizens. It sounds idyllic for those who dream of living off the grid and off the land -- except for the roving bands of militia. (Given the severity of the reported gas shortages in New Jersey, might we expect to see roving bands of dads in khakis, working up to tattered Mad Max leather, holding up gas stations?)
Image-wise, floods are powerful, and contradictory: they suggest global warming, in all of its modern, greedy, rapaciousness, and at the same time, conjure up the story of Noah’s Ark and the ancient, anti-science Bible.
The best summation of Sandy so far comes from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said yesterday at a press conference: “We have old infrastructures and old systems, but yet seem to get a 100-year flood every two years.”
A weather system like Sandy is punishing, regardless, whether you believe in retribution or Al Gore.
In a famous poem, Robert Frost questioned whether the world would end in fire or ice. In the case of Sandy, we were done in by a combination of water, wind, and trees. But perhaps what’s most upsetting about a flood is that it wipes away any mark we have made on the earth. We want to think that we can salvage our experiences somehow -- that they mean something, and that with all the advances in technology, that they will live on. We can certainly strengthen the power grid, and update the infrastructure, and it will help. But in the end, the sad truth is that any illusion we have of control is just that, an illusion. ”Sandy, I’m breaking up with you,” one of my clever Facebook friends said. If only it were that easy to quit her.