Irene: The Man-Made Disaster

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I am a victim of Hurricane Irene.

My friend and I were visiting New York when Irene “struck” early today — Sunday, August 28. We had plane reservations to leave the city on Saturday, August 27. Delta Airlines canceled our reservations on Friday afternoon. It, like all the other airlines, abandoned traffic to New York more than 24 hours before any hurricane could possibly have caused trouble at the airports. Because of these cancellations, travel throughout the nation was convulsed.

None of this was necessary, or wise, or profitable to anyone. It was the result of a panic induced by government and media, and willingly indulged by the kind of corporations that have acquired the worst characteristics of both — arbitrary power and a zest for misinformation. When our reservations were zeroed out, we were emailed, almost a day after the fact, “Your flight has been cancelled” (no apology, no explanation); then we were told that “we have rebooked you on another flight” — two days later. Notice the transition between the passive mood, which people in power reserve for the bad things they do, and the active mood, which they choose for the good things they don’t do. Our flight wasn’t rebooked by the airline; it was rebooked by us, after we pestered the airline and they eventually returned our call, and after we were unable to rebook it on the airline’s website, which wasn’t working. The woman who finally assisted us acted as if it was an amazing idea that we should be reimbursed for the downgrade of our tickets from first class to coach.

But let me report a few highlights of this ridiculous exercise in misinformation and authoritarianism, by which all America was damaged by a minor storm.

On Wednesday, ABC reported that the hurricane, then reputedly a category 3, or maybe 2, “could be category 4 by Thursday.” Other media, including the Weather Channel, suggested that it would be. When the hurricane came ashore in North Carolina on Saturday, it was barely a category 1, something that the media geniuses never believed could happen to their darling, “the hurricane of a lifetime,” although normal people easily guessed it. By Saturday evening, Irene was visibly disintegrating, had lost its eye, and was about to become a mere tropical storm, and not an especially strong one. Yet at that time, the mayor of New York was strongly advising all people to stay at home between 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday, had closed all mass transit at noon on Saturday, had sent his goons out to advise people living in 30-story buildings that they ought to evacuate, because the park next door might flood, and was telling workers to plan on mass transit still being shut down during their Monday morning commute. He seemed to enjoy himself, decreeing fates like that.

Businesses were closing everywhere in Manhattan, because of the mass transit shutdown, but my friend and I found a restaurant, “Da Marino,” that promised to be open on Saturday evening, and on Sunday evening if possible. To deal with the transit problem, the management had rented rooms for their employees in a hotel next door. So on Saturday night we enjoyed a good meal and listened while people accurately identified Bloomberg as the man who was causing the mess. But most merchants had shut down on Saturday afternoon, or failed to open that day at all. All Starbucks stores shut down. Pastry shops that cater to the local hotel business shut down, even though they had a captive mob of customers. Madame Tussaud’s shut down. Even churches canceled their Sunday services. Leaving Da Marino after an excellent dinner, served to customers reported to be more numerous than at any time in the restaurant’s history, my friend and I looked down Broadway from 49th Street to Times Square. The lights were on, but there was no crowd, no life, no business. A few people drifted across the street, in posses of two or three. Official vehicles could be seen in the distance, idling and flashing their lights. A faint drizzle of rain came down. That was the Great White Way on Saturday evening, August 27.

And why? Because the official class decreed that there should be a disaster.

Back in our hotel, we turned on the disaster reports on TV. Local news was enthusiastic about a picture of Grand Central Station standing empty except for cops who were there to fend normal people off. “No reason why you should go there anyway,” the news anchor said. A young newsperson, standing on location amid a few drips of water, predicted that soon, very soon, the neighborhood in which he stood would be hopelessly flooded. Anchorpeople advertised the fact that 4,000 people were now without electricity in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, not stating how many of the millions who live in those areas are without energy at any normal time. The electric company, prompted by the mayor, threatened to cut off energy “preemptively” to large areas of New York City, allegedly to protect its equipment against flooding. And to make matters worse, yet another of Bloomberg’s constant news conferences was threatened.

My friend and I fell asleep. When we awoke at 10 on Sunday morning, the rain had gone; the sun was shining; and people were walking the streets, sans umbrellas, hunting for places to eat. Places to enjoy. Places to honor with their business. Places that had survived the onslaught of paternalism.

Soon we will hear how many billions of dollars Hurricane Irene cost the nation. But remember: the hurricane itself was responsible for virtually none of those losses. This was a manmade disaster.




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Comments

Visitor

I can understand your frustration. However, given that weather prediction isn't exact the government and service providers did their best.

If Delta had flown you as originally scheduled and an accident had occurred to your flight due to hurricane Irene you might not have been here to write this, or you would be singing a different tune about how incompetent Delta and the government had been to not heed the hurricane warning.

It seems to me that your article only makes sense in hindsight.

Wayland Hunter

Let’s be on the same page with regard to facts.

There was no possibility that the leading edge of Irene could arrive in New York before 5 a.m. on Sunday. This is not a guess or a mystery: hurricanes don’t move at hundreds of miles an hour. But the airlines were led to cancel all flights as of 12:01 a.m. on Saturday. SATURDAY.

Twelve hours later, all mass transit in the city of New York was ordered to cease by the mayor of New York. At that time, there was no possibility whatever of hurricane damage. Indeed, there was no possibility of hurricane damage to any mass transit for 17 hours after that. And there was no possibility of damage to the vast majority of New York’s mass transit at any time. I repeat: no POSSIBILITY. The worst that could possibly be anticipated was minor flooding on the peripheries of the city. And because of that, the mayor of New York wanted to close the subways even during the Monday commute, which was over 24 hours after the hurricane ended. This man actually advised all New York residents to stay indoors from eight hours before the hurricane until 12 hours after it was over. Picture people huddling in their homes, hoping to be spared from destruction — by a storm that by that time would be hundreds of miles away.

Readers can continue to make ad hominem remarks about me, my occupation, my selfishness, my arrogance, my probable reactions to things that could not have taken place, and so on. That only shows the weakness of their arguments (or their lack of arguments) about plain facts.

Here are three more facts, which these friends may want to consider for the future, if they can stop being so upset that somebody actually criticized the government’s attempts to protect them: (1) When you shut down transportation for an enormous metropolitan area, you harm millions of people, not only there but around the country, and you jeopardize the lives of the very people whom you purportedly want to flee from the danger zone. This is a certainty. (2) When you do that, you cause billions of dollars worth of damage — a lot more damage than Irene ever caused by itself. (3) When you do that, you arrogate power to yourself in a way that everyone should fear.

The next time a “disaster” threatens your town, do you want to see your revered public officials and corporate leaders shutting everyone’s life down JUST IN CASE? For those of you who live in rural areas, do you want to see the township supervisors closing all the roads, days in advance of a storm? For those of you who live in cities, do you want to see the mayor imposing curfews in advance of every major meteorological event? The Midwest has plenty of storms — so how about a moratorium on air travel across the central 1500 miles of the country, whenever a particularly strong front comes through? After all, some plane could take off somewhere, and bang! run right into a tornado. Yes, it COULD HAPPEN.

There may, as some of my readers have pointed out, be BAD EFFECTS from STORMS. I myself was almost drowned by a flash flood in Arizona. I was battered by destructive hail in Indiana. I was nearly annihilated by a tornado in Michigan. What government could have done to aid or succor me, I do not know. But in the instance of Irene’s entrance into New York, there was nothing like this. And there was no “could happen” or “just in case.” The establishment’s measures were plainly, obviously, ridiculously responsive to events that could never have happened.

Visitor

You sound like a ivy tower university professor. You've never had a real job, but you know how to run an airline, trains, restaurants, and TV channels. You're also a weather man.

I'm sure Delta Airlines could make you CEO, maybe you could even replace Obama. Bloomberg also want you to be in charge of disaster coordination.

Sounds like you had a nice vacation.

Rodney C.

Several years ago a hurricane came into our region. I volunteered to help park buses that were employed as standby in the event an evacuation was performed. I don't know if school buses were already claimed for other needs (my hunch was they were not), but the government had leased motor coaches from the tour industry. We must have parked a hundred of them, and I heard there were other staging sites as well. They stood standby for about a day, and then went home. Evacuation was not necessary.

I've also seen those emergency house trailers by the hundreds. They were moved around after Katrina for many months. Each time they were moved some vendor was paid a lot of money.

I also heard that vendors receive many hundreds of dollars, perhaps more than $1500, to "tarp" a home that gets cleared of roofing shingles by a storm. All paid for by the Gov.

A friend of mine's husband worked cleanup after Katrina. She gave me first hand info. that before any cleanup crew could begin working, there had to be THREE independent "observers", documenting pay quantities. This was to assure that should fraud occur it would at least have to be a conspiracy among the three independent observers. The friend told me that the observers were quite well compensated.

After Katrina I heard a story that "pet evacuations" were going to become an official separate program in the government's emergency response.

Matty Ice

I live in the northern part of South Jersey-- where we got virtually *nothing.* But you wouldn't know that from the news broadcasts on TV, who seemed determined to highten the level of "ordeal." The most striking part was that EVERY public official interviewed stressed that the readon we made it out so unscathed was because most everybody did what they were told to do. No, nothing much happened because... Nothing much happened. Still, gov't folk aren't ones to waste a good tragedy/emergency/chance to show their prowess, so it was used as another reason to try & exert controll; and reinforce the justification for it.

Jon Harrison

Panic? Where was the panic? Hurricanes are inherently unpredictable. Officialdom has to err on the side of caution, in case the worst occurs. Why the airlines shut down so early I don't know, but the other precautions were inevitable. We should be thankful that the storm was less powerful than feared. Ranting about the inconveniences caused by emergency preparedness sounds -- no, is -- crankish.

Wayland Hunter

“The other precautions were inevitable”?

Well, take this one for example. The mayor of New York shut down mass transit at noon on Saturday. By that time, the hurricane had come on shore in North Carolina, had shown that it was much weaker than the alarmists had predicted, and was disintegrating into a tropical storm. Under these circumstances, the worst thing that even the mayor anticipated was flooding around the aquatic peripheries of the city. In Manhattan, this meant that part of a park at the extreme southern tip of the island might be flooded. And by this time (noon, Saturday), the known arrival time of the hurricane was 5 a.m. on Sunday. If, at 11:59 Saturday night, the mayor had cut off subway service for the extreme southern tip of Manhattan, the action would be understandable. But there was no reason whatever for subway service to be halted anywhere else on the island, and especially not 17 hours before the tropical storm was expected. This was a naked display of force, nothing more; and it cost the city and its people megabucks in damages.

Want more? Consider the mayor’s televised announcement, at about 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, that “the time for evacuation has passed.” He was clearly pissed off when he said that. He had told thousands of people in low-lying areas that they should evacuate, but few of them had; they had much better sense than to do such a foolish thing. But now, eight hours before the storm hit, he decreed that their plight was hopeless; they must stay in their endangered homes, because he was not going to allow buses or subways to evacuate them. Isn’t that strange?

There are two alternatives. Either he thought these people were in danger, or he didn’t. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t have taken any of the steps he did. If he did think they were endangered, why wasn’t he sending out rescue workers to take the endangered people to the subways and buses, and get them out of danger, instead of stopping all bus and subway service?

What did the people of New York think of all this? I’ll tell you. Walking around Manhattan, I saw thousands upon thousands of windows. A very few were boarded up; virtually none. Maybe 1% had tape across them — something that the mayor roundly declared would not help. The other 99% showed that the owners expected a little rainwater, nothing more. Those were the smart people, the people who followed the news and understood what was happening, the people who did not listen to government.

After this fiasco, Mayor Bloomberg intoned the usual excuse: “If only one life was saved. . .” But tell me — how many lives do you suppose were lost because subways, buses, and airplanes were immobilized? How many people who needed to get to the hospital couldn’t get there? How many caregivers couldn’t arrive before their patients expired alone? How many people who had crucial, life-changing appointments saw them go by the board? How many heart transplants were delayed too long at the airport? How many people whose hearts weren’t able to sustain a 30-block trip to some required place of meeting fell in the street and were pronounced dead? You don’t believe it? Then why do you think we have buses, planes, and subways? We are talking of human life, not of politicians’ safety.

MKA

I could not agree with you more JH on the "If it just saves one life it was worth it" mentality. Society is continuously weighing the pro's and con's of certain activities. If we restricted automobile traveling to only destinations that were considered absolutely necessary we could save tens of thousands of lives on our highways. In my experience I find there are two things you should watch out for in politics. First is the "if it saved a life it was worth it" comment and "it is for the children". In the first case a politician has done something you disagree with and cannot justify it. In the later case they are going to do something you disagree with and cannot justify it.

Jon Harrison

The fact remains that this was a large, powerful, and unpredictable storm, and officialdom must operate on a worst case scenario basis. After Katrina, why would you expect anything else? The fact that NYC escaped could not have been foreseen. The same storm hit my area 200 miles to the north, and while my village, like NYC, escaped, all around us there is devastation. A man and his son, both city workers in the town of Rutland, were manning the water plant when they were swept to their deaths by a wall of water. Towns are cut off, bridges and roads destroyed. If anything, officialdom here underestimated the danger the storm presented.

You were not a "victim" of Irene. You were inconvenienced. Frankly, I found the original piece rather pathetic. It featured the whining of that brand of libertarian who is forever at odds with any and all authority, and the hopelessly impractical outlook of the ivory tower academic -- long on ideas, but utterly out of touch with the practicalities of the real world.

Visitor

So your (Jon Harrison's) position is that because after Katrina, in which government agents 1) shot people who wanted to evacuate via the "wrong" route and 2) forcibly prevented private companies from entering to give aid, the only reasonable government reaction to a possible hurricane is to 1) forcibly evacuate the city and 2) shut down public transportation many hours before the storm could possibly hit? You're right, there's nothing in between.

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