Now you know I have survived Irene, the worst hurricane to hit the American East Coast in decades. In fact, all New Yorkers did – there were no fatalities in this city during the test from Mother Nature.
But for me, this is not only a question of physical survival but also a mental one, from an over alerting nagging mayor, non-stop disturbing news coverage, unnerving empty supermarket shelves, and the hopeless cultural gap in emergency preparation within my own family.
I didn’t take Irene seriously until Thursday evening when I attended New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s press briefing, the third about the hurricane that day. He was talking about evacuating vulnerable people in low-lying areas from the following morning and shutting down the entire mass transit system by noon Saturday.
This sounded big. But Friday was my day off and it was a deceptively picturesque day, so I decided to be deceived. I spent the whole day sunbathing at the rooftop swimming pool on our building and went to dinner with my husband at night.
All the local restaurants were cramped with people who had come out to enjoy their last supper. I was in a high mood until 10 pm when we were back home, and he asked me: “Where is the water and food I asked you to buy today?” “What water and food?” was my response.
As punishment, he forced me to get up at 8 am the next morning to go to the supermarket with him for the last minute shopping rush, only to find many people ahead of us.
When we came back, my parents were also up and preparing breakfast in the kitchen. “Did they raise prices?” my mom asked when she saw our stuffed shopping bags. But the answer was no.
“You guys don’t have to go to the supermarket,” my mom said as she opened a cabinet where a dozen water bottles lined up like proud soldiers, filled with boiled water. Then she opened the fridge in which was a bag of newly steamed buns mysteriously waiting.
“During the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China (1959-61), I helped my mother take care of my younger brothers and sisters. We collected leaves and elm seeds and mixed them with corn flour for food. Not a single kid starved in my family,” she said.
My husband, born in the UK in the 1960s, had nothing to match thus experience. Still, he was not fully convinced: “There could be power outages and water shutdowns for a week or even longer. These may not be enough,” he said.
“It won’t be that bad. The government won’t let it happen,” my dad remarked. “Sometimes, the government cannot help you at all,” my husband said using his long shelved Putonghua. My parents laughed. “Your Chinese is getting better,” they said.
My husband had to take the subway before it was shut down at noon to get to the hotel his company had rented so he could get to work on Sunday. I walked him to the train station. It started drizzling. We kissed good bye. I was suddenly captured by enormous sadness, realizing anything could happen to us if the hurricane was really going to be as big and dangerous as predicted. Now the rain was pouring down like there was no tomorrow.
There were barely any cars on the normally busy road that my apartment overlooks. By 7 pm, I felt the urge to move the clutter on our balcony into the apartment and shift the computer from the window desk to a protected area. At 9 pm, my husband called: “You may want to consider sleeping in the closet tonight so if the wind smashes the windows it won’t hurt you.”
It was still quiet outside, but I started to feel a lot of uneasiness in my stomach. Could I really die tonight, killed by a piece of flying glass or blown away by the wind?
But when I awoke at 9:30 am on Sunday, the rain had stopped, the wind had died down, and the worst was over. I was still alive, and even a little disappointed that the storm hadn’t been that dramatic, like a child saddened by the lack of snow at Christmas.
At the mayor’s press conference that day, only one reporter questioned whether he had overreacted. The mayor shrugged it off. Overreacting wins sympathy in a city that felt an earthquake last week and soon will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
For my nightmare ridden night, maybe I only have myself to blame. After all, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
The author is a New York-based journalist. email@example.com