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The Citizen

In context: Superstorm Sandy plows up the east coast

By Zach Crowley

Sandy came ashore at around 8 p.m. on Oct. 29.

Like some absurd mash-up of Bieber and Neptune, she announced her arrival in advance with lashing winds, pounding surf, YouTube videos and breathless beached newscasters.  School was canceled and, in between the kicks and laughs of my child, I had time to think.

I found myself pondering the strange feeling of security granted me by our modern American life, and a sharp contrast with the overblown complaints of the electorate that will come to fruition in just a few days.

The morning of Sandy-fall my wife and I revisited our decision not to lie in stores of drinking water.  Was that wise?  In the late afternoon I heard at last the heavy crack of a branch I had long awaited.  I jumped to the window, and saw nothing of consequence.

When I left the living room for the kitchen and left my wife and son at the drawing table, I calculated how quickly I could (with imaginary superhuman strength) force my way past the wreckage should one of the backyard trees crash through our roof.

As the day wore on and we kept full power, I found myself regretting that I had not joined some volunteer or civic group or profession that works on days like this to help keep people safe.

How glorious it might be to exert strength and mind in a selfless task? Certainly less tedious than a full day spent inside with a sniffly two year old. But I was also content to sit in front of the weather anchors and snack on humus while my son kicked at his trains.

We made a fire because we had bought the firewood, but our heart was not in the task.  A part of us hoped of course that the storm would just pass us by.  Another part of us – nurtured no doubt by one of the behavioral psych mind tricks I have read about at the Kennedy School – wished ardently that our trip to Home Depot had not been in vain.

Shiny flashlights waited unused on our ‘safety ledge’.  Crackers and snack bars sat just out of our toddler’s grasp.  What if a tree fell on some house nearby?  Not to hurt anyone, but some minor damage, perhaps, enough to require some neighborhood rescue.  How swiftly I would run through the door, a chance for heroism – but then I realized, would I know it had even happened?  The possibility of drama was intoxicating, just as I knew the actual event, if it occurred, would no doubt be less enjoyable. (It never did.)

Sandy came and left broken tree limbs and stranded passengers behind her.  Millions lost power. Boats tore from their moorings. Waves washed over seawalls and into homes.  At least 50 people died. One sailor who worked on the HMS Bounty is still missing, another was found dead. People were injured.  Many people spent a horrible night wrestling with the impacts of the storm. This was not just another silly televised event.

But that night, as I fascinated about a falling tree limb, I wrestled with how I hated to be perverse about a somber event; wishing for entertainment from a natural disaster even as I forced myself to be serious and somber and respectful of the plight of less fortunate others.

But Sandy drove me to a study of contrasts.  So much of modern mainstream American life is about an assurance of safety and security.  Bountiful food upon the store shelves; clean water and hospitals at our command; police and firefighters and civic order the expectation,  not the exception.

But what about those Americans who struggle in inner-city slums or rural poverty, who do not have ready assurance of health, of wealth, of community?  Every day for them is lived in a situation less safe, less comfortable, less consistent than ours. Or, what about those in developing countries who lack modern infrastructure and amenities? We have seen the devastation that follows when a big storm chances on those shores.

The news reports of Sandy will no doubt touch on the damage caused by the storm. Emergency management crews will dutifully catalogue the dollar figures; pour over incident reports, ensure our essential infrastructure is working safely and healthfully.

Nameless state, local and federal crews will organize, manage and clean up the mess. The coast guard will patrol our waters and chase down drifting boats, bring aboard floundering ship captains.  Rescue workers will rush supplies and means of safety to those on the coast who are trapped by the over-reaching surf.

Private energy workers will steadily restore power, home by home.  These are the heroes of the day.  In the end, a storm that could have caused so much damage of greater consequence will have been reduced to some manageable thing, a challenge met by the steady cogs of American civil life.

And still, despite our absurdly-fortunate lot in life, despite our efficiency of public order; come the results of Nov. 6, millions of Americans will voice emotional complaint about our government and society; will demand more; will expect to pay less; and will ignore the bigger picture.

The next time a massive storm comes around, and they are in its path, will they crow lustily for austere budgets, or will they seek aid from their government, from their fellow men and women?  Perhaps they will do both.  After all, this is America, where anything is possible.