Reflections on a storm

Today, I watched a video taken by a drone cruising over Collaroy, in Sydney’s coastal north. The sand was barely visible; the beaches obliterated for the duration of this storm as the waters took their weary revenge on the metal and asphalt structures from which they had been exiled. It was the future attacking the past. The present, with all its hope for transforming our destiny, lay submerged.

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I was reminded of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, which, like its title, is not just a story, but a window of time, during which different epochs peered at each other. This passage is set during the passage of Hurricane Sandy through New York City.

Again we did the things one does: filled every suitable container we could find with water, unplugged various appliances, located some batteries for the radio and flashlights, drew the bath. Then we got into bed and projected Back to the Future onto the wall; it could be our tradition for once-in-a-generation weather, I’d suggested to Alex, the way some families watch the same movie every Christmas, except we weren’t a family. Branches scraped against the windows, casting their shadows in the 1980s, the 1950s; a couple of plastic trash cans were blown down the street, and rain hit the skylight hard enough that it sounded like hail. By the time the storm made landfall, Marty was teaching Chuck Berry how to play rock and roll in the past, which meant that, when he got back to the future, white people would have invented, not appropriated, that musical form; I spent a few minutes describing this ideological mechanism to Alex before I realized she was asleep. I drifted off too, and when I woke, I walked to the window; it was still raining hard, but the yellow of the streetlamps revealed a mundane scene; a few large branches had fallen, but no trees. We never lost power. Another historic storm had failed to arrive, as though we lived outside of history or were falling out of time.

Except it had arrived, just not for us. Subway and traffic tunnels in lower Manhattan had filled with water, drowning who knows how many rats; I couldn’t help imagining their screams. Power and water were knocked out below Thirty-ninth Street and in Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways, much of Staten Island. Hospitals were being evacuated after backup generators failed; newborn babies and patients recovering from heart surgery were carried gingerly down flights of stairs and placed in ambulances that rushed them uptown, where the storm had never happened. Houses up and down the coast had been obliterated, flooded, soon a neighborhood in Queens would burn. Emergency workers were fishing out the bodies of those who had drowned during the surge; who knew how many of the homeless had perished? Scores of Chelsea galleries had been inundated and soon the insurers would be welcoming the newly totaled art into their vast warehouses. Alena’s work wasn’t on a ground floor, I remembered; besides, she strategically damaged her paintings in advance; they were storm-proof.

We arrived at the office nearly an hour early, having overestimated how long the journey from Brooklyn would take. We watched—there was no position in the waiting room from which you could avoid watching—the coverage of the storm we kept failing to experience. They spliced Doppler images of the swirling tentacular mass with footage of it reaching landfall, of houses being swept away, of emergency rescues of the elderly. Then the president was talking about the damage, projecting, as they say, leadership; the elections were rapidly approaching. For the first time, national politicians were speaking openly, if obliquely, about extreme weather’s relation to climate change, about the need to storm-proof our cities. Then the governor of New Jersey was surveying damage from a helicopter. I reminded Alex that in 2010 Stephen Hawking claimed the survival of the species depended on moon colonization. She reminded me the Mayan calendar indicated the world would end this coming December 22. She found a New Yorker on the table among the parenting magazines; “I can’t get away from this thing,” she said, moving her jaw around, probably unconsciously, as if it were sore. I thought of Calvin claiming his had thinned from radiation. At least one of the Indian Point reactors had been taken off-line as a result of the storm.

I also failed to experience the storm. Not just in the sense that I never passed through the worst-affected areas. I never fully assimilated it; to my urban experience, it was neither divine, nor theatrical, it was neither political nor aesthetic, neither stifling nor cathartic, neither fast nor slow. It was nowhere, then it was everywhere, then it was nowhere again. It was everywhere and nowhere at once. The only perspective I got on it was from the eyes of a drone watching from above. It had in fact arrived, whether I experienced it or not.

In the future, when the waters rise and stay risen, where will we go? Will we take a holiday to Paris, walk along the Seine, appreciate the art? Drown it out with the lights and sounds of Broadway? Drink beer by the fireside in southern Germany? Or fly to the moon? The floods will follow us wherever we go. Like a scar. Like a vestigial organ. Perhaps, if we have turned enough horizons and enough futures to waste, we too will be destroyed by then. We will be storm-proof.

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