What the hurricane hype reveals about NYC

City Hall’s overreaction to Irene suggests New York City is losing its reputation for toughness and swagger.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics USA

Thankfully, Hurricane Irene was not as bad as some had feared. Did the experience tell us anything about life in New York and the US today? I think so – here are some observations:

— The emergence of Irene was something to take seriously. It was not fully clear how strong the hurricane would be by the time it reached the US mainland. The authorities were right to prepare and to be on alert.

— The question raised by Irene was not whether to respond, but how best to respond. The judgment comes in developing a proportionate response. The problem was that politicians such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey governor Chris Christie were overly cautious. First of all, it was known that the hurricane had been downgraded to Category 1 and could become a tropical storm. The East Coast had seen stronger hurricanes before. And yet, the steps introduced were unprecedented. For the first time, there were mass evacuations ordered: about 400,000 in New York City and a million in New Jersey. Furthermore, the New York subway system was shut down, a day in advance – again, a first.

— The subway suspension highlighted a related problem with the authorities’ response: they sought to close down society. In other natural disasters and crises in the past, officials saw their task to be the exact opposite of that – that is, to keep normal life running as much as possible. But over the past few days, the main message to those not ordered to evacuate entirely was: stay indoors. Some New Yorkers said that at least Bloomberg acted in response to Irene, unlike in December, when he failed to get the streets cleared for days after a snowstorm. In fact, his instinct was the same in both instances: both times he told people to stay at home and he did not feel responsible for getting city life moving again.

— Why the timid response? Some said politicians did not want to face a situation like Hurricane Katrina, but there’s more to it than that. Despite my criticisms, I recognise that officials were in a difficult spot. Lives were at stake. Saying that politicians overreacted to Irene can sound like Monday morning quarterbacking – easy to do after the fact, knowing that it wasn’t that bad. But the problem was that politicians in this case took the path of least resistance rather than taking the lead. There is a general sense in society of heightened vulnerability and risk-aversion, summed up in the phrase ‘better safe than sorry’. This sentiment came to the fore in response to Irene, and politicians gave into it rather than challenging it.

— Indeed, in the aftermath of Irene, many people seem very pleased with the response. You hear the phrase ‘better safe than sorry’ endlessly. What seems to be missing is any sense that this safety-first orientation is problematic. Mass evacuations and the suspension of transportation systems are huge disruptions, with a cost in money and inconvenience. But even more than the financial cost, there was the blow to self-respect: no longer are we defining ourselves as people who will not let troubles stop us; instead, we will cower and hide until it all goes away. Raised in New York, I have always thought of New Yorkers as tough and confident people, but the experience of Irene is now making me question that. ‘Better safe than sorry’ is not what made New York great.

Irene has come and gone. The damage from flooding and winds will be dealt with over the weeks and months ahead. But the lasting damage is not physical. It is the erosion of our sense of who we are. The widespread view that ‘it was good we over-prepared’ for Irene indicates that we’ve become soft. New York has lost its swagger.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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