In the days leading up to last year’s Hurricane Irene, media coverage was relentless and shrill: Irene, we were told, had the potential to be the storm of the century; it could flood Manhattan and disrupt millions of lives. But the increasingly hysterical reports from small puddles in Battery Park made it painfully clear there might be nothing to report after all. When the storm passed without doing any serious damage to major population centers, most of the villagers concluded that, after all, there was no wolf, and the next time the boy cried it, they would not listen.
The media coverage leading up to Hurricane Sandy had a markedly different tone: if anything, it was understated. The most alarming thing about it was that it never sounded like hype. There was no need for vamping, because this time there was a real story. Nevertheless, most people seemed to react like the villagers in the old tale: “Sure, sure, we’ve heard this before. Another Irene, is it?” Serious storm preparations, at least among people I talked to in New York, were minimal and late. People who were frantically taping up their windows before Irene ignored Sandy until it occurred to them, shortly before the subways closed, to go pick up beer and candles, just in case. Thousands disregarded mandatory evacuation orders.
And then the storm hit. The sea covered Atlantic City. During Irene, an eleven-foot storm surge had been forecast for New York City; the actual surge turned out to be closer to four feet. During Sandy, an eleven-foot surge was again forecast; this time the waters rose more than thirteen feet, inundating lower Manhattan.
In an age of twenty-four-hour news cycles, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we are used to knowing exactly what’s happening around the globe in a matter of seconds. Even the old-media giants get information quickly, but Twitter and Facebook users scoop them on a regular basis, having no responsibility to check facts before reporting. It was on Facebook that I heard about the White House press conference that would announce Osama bin Laden’s death—almost the second it was called.
So it was all the more stunning—and worrisome—how difficult it was to get any news about what was going on in lower Manhattan on the night of October 29. Sites like Instacane.com compiled smart-phone photos of flooded streets, but conflicting reports or simple silence persisted across most media for almost two hours after the deadly storm surge hit. No one was saying what was happening. No one knew what was happening, exactly. It was impossible to put a reporter anywhere near one of those streets, let alone get camera equipment functioning in a hurricane. The storm even interfered with indoor news production. Local television station NY1 lost power. The staff of the New York Daily News were trapped on their floor because the lobby of their building was flooded.
The New York Times finally issued a report around midnight, confirming what smart-phone users’ pictures and tweets had suggested. The storm surge was devastating. Cars were floating down the streets and piling up in corners like so much debris. Water was pouring into tunnels and homes.
Still, information and assessments of the damage would be scarce until morning. In the worst-hit areas, no one had the electricity or internet access to tell the rest of us what was happening, and even cell-phone service was spotty. Finally, an AP report conceded: “The full extent of the storm’s damage across the region was unclear, and unlikely to be known until daybreak.” A BBC report concurred: “The full extent of the damage caused by Sandy may not be known until daybreak.”
That phrase, “until daybreak,” had a solemn resonance. In New York City, which is a monumental testament to man’s power to construct an environment, it’s easy to get the illusion that nature has been tamed and we no longer live at the mercy of sun and moon and tides. It only takes one great natural disaster to show that this is not the case. This city is still the one of which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “New York is no protection from the violence of Nature. It is a city of open sky. The storms overflow its streets, which are so wide and long to cross when it rains.” After Sandy, with the streets dangerously flooded and the electrical grid down, even modern mass communication had to wait until the sun rose and literally shed light on the destruction.