When Irene passed by New York City last summer with far less than the anticipated impact (though she would continue on in a path that would wreak havoc upstate and beyond, to the tune of more than $15 billion), New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. Moments later, we were already complaining that Irene had been overhyped, that it was a letdown, that this was just a way for the bodegas and groceries to cash in, or for Mayor Bloomberg to save face following the snowpocalypse, and anyway, who cares, we all have "hurricane fatigue." (Oh, poor us.) People got angry about that, calling New Yorkers self-absorbed and entitled and geographically limited. There are other places beyond New York City, after all, other places that did not fare so well and needed help. That was, and often is, true.
Now, a little bit over a year later, that hurricane churned stew of feelings is upon us again, and this time the storm seems far more serious—just look at the comparative not-even-close satellite images of Irene vs. Sandy; turn on the Weather Channel; look at photos of flooding in Red Hook and downtown Manhattan; listen to the wind blowing outside your window, hours before the storm has even arrived. Listen to the politicians talking seriously: Don't panic, but DO NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY. The superstitious might wonder if perhaps Sandy were some form of cosmic payback for all the snarking and making fun and lack of respect we showed with Irene, despite that prior storm's damage to many beyond Manhattan. Out of sight, out of mind, is the way we often supercilious humans tend to think. Once the threat of that terrifying thing-that-might-happen was over, we forgot about it and moved on, not a care in the world minus, for some, a vague sense of disappointment that the promised excitement wasn't delivered, even as others were worrying as Irene began to impact them.
It's not just New Yorkers who think this way. Most if not all of us are primarily pretty self-absorbed, immediately concerned about ourselves and the small-to-mid-sized ecosystems of our friends and families and ways of life in which we live. Many of us are largely in control of those environments, even as those environments are just environments and inherently uncontrollable. We manage to make it seem like we've conquered them, living in the small boxes of our urban homes adjacent to strangers with whom we have formed mutually mostly peaceful right-next-door living arrangements. On subways, more tiny boxes, we commute to our varied destinations, very different people all coexisting together, because we have to. We expect things to go a certain way, be a certain way, because this is the social construct in which we generally live. (That's why we're so angry when a flight gets cancelled for weather. Weather? Shouldn't we be beyond such third-world problems, now?)
Massive storms change things, though. The subway is shut down. We are all far more locally bound than usual—to our streets, if not our homes. The socio-economic disparity always lurking becomes more evident than ever. The rich buy kale at Whole Foods, or, possibly, leave for safer climates altogether; those who live in public housing—in New York City frequently in the areas more prone to flooding—are either evacuated or refuse to evacuate to temporary centers. Some people can afford to prepare the "right way," buying batteries, water, food for days, generators, whatever they might need; others, perhaps, cannot. Sometimes, also, it's just the luck of the draw of where you live and whether you have friends on higher ground. But those with money always seem to have more options.
In any case, the breaking down of those established norms of city life—the walls of our apartments, or the faux walls we set up in public scenarios, like the subway—is something we're not used to. The shutting down of the systems we rely on, that's rare, too, and we're not used to being told something—a storm—is life-threatening. This isn't Florida, right? So even while the tabloids scream that Sandy is a "monster" and everything is "shut," as the city braces for said monster—"the worst is yet to come"—people are still going to work, tethering their dogs outside to wait in the not-rain-quite-yet as they pick up lattes and artisanal donuts from their favorite coffeeshop, which happens to be, yes, open. Bodegas are open, too, or a lot of them are. People are walking down the streets altogether more cavalierly than you might have expected given the dire predictions; other people haven't evacuated from their Zone A homes where mandatory evacuation orders have been issued. We're going on sort of as if life is normal, and yet it isn't, at all. Is there any news but storm news? Barely. Those of us on this side of the computer are, in addition to making precautions and keeping tabs on the storm, trying to find angles upon which to write, things we can shed light upon, value we can add, opinions we can share. But those of us who write about the storm at least have the structure of that outlet adding some sanity or a sense of "regular" to what is otherwise a completely strange and irregular, trying day.
How do you behave when you have hours, even days, to prepare for a storm? Once you've bought the recommended gallons of water, filling your bathtub and pots with extra, just in case; stocked the cabinets with more food than they've ever contained (nonperishable, of course); purchased first aid items; duct-taped your windows (which, apparently, you're not really even supposed to do); considered what would happen if a tree branch blew through the window; pulled down the duct tape; downloaded all the episodes of Homeland to your hard drive; considered what books you might read if the power goes out; charged your phones and laptops; wondered how to work a radio, anyway, and what stations you would listen to; and discussed emergency contingency plans with your boss and coworkers and whoever happens to be staying in your bunker with you, what do you do? You wait. Waiting is a talent. Waiting is not something many of us are very good at. Yet with Sandy we have already waited since the middle of last week, when the news of her "Frankenstorm" or "Snor'easterncane" nature began to issue forth from the meteorologists and media organizations and blogs that be. Some of us were funny then, or made fun, about full moons and werewolves and hurricane boyfriends and different names for the storm and how to feel about everything, even as we tried to be sensitive that this was a real thing.
Writing about something as a far-off possibly joke-worthy entity, something that might not happen, something unimaginable, is different than writing about it when wind is howling through your duct-taped/not-duct-taped window. It's starting to get real. At the same time, the realer it gets, the more likely some of us are to let out those feelings (and the boredom of the interminable waiting—the full impact of this storm isn't supposed to hit us until later tonight, after all)— by making jokes. Once you've done everything else, watched the news cycle through again and again, read every article you can, can you create a meme, can you laugh at a weatherperson standing out in the rain, are you allowed to laugh?
Well, maybe, sometimes. As Jeff Bercovici writes today at Forbes, perhaps we should refrain from snark—particularly at the suffering of others—for one more day, because if anything else, we want to be on the good side of the cosmos. "We New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as people who pull together in a time of crisis. Only afterwards do we resume the schadenfreude. Get it right, New York," he explains. So, yes, probably we should avoid mocking the folks who stood in line on Sunday at Whole Foods to stock up on kale and almond milk (duh, guys, it's all about Wonder Bread and Velveeta), and feeling schadenfreude over the people wealthier than us who might be getting flooded with the none-too-sweet-smelling waters of the Gowanus when it overflows into their million-dollar abodes. Maybe we shouldn't mock an unsophisticated The Secret-esque tweet from Lindsay Lohan. We're all in this together, after all. Or, we should be. (Fine, laugh at the Lohan tweet. But take care of each other! And, you know, thinking positive is hardly the worst thing you can do right now.)
At the same time, if you can't laugh a little in the face of danger, if you can't find something to amuse you, at least a little bit, as you wait and wait and wait without knowing, as you try to find angles into this storm coverage while keeping an eye on your cable connection and wondering if the power is going to go out and whether it's too early to eat all the wasabi peas, maybe Sandy has already won. You have to let some of the tension out somehow, right? But save the big chuckles for when we're all—fingers crossed—safe, O.K.? Then we can all laugh together.