I’ve lived in New York City (Manhattan) through 9/11, through blizzards, one major blackout, innumerable other storms and kerfuffles, but I’ve never seen anything like what I saw today. A line of people snaking down the block outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
What the heck is going on here?
As was the point of my post yesterday, the truly unprecedented thing which New Yorkers are having to deal with is the system-wide shutdown of all public transportation, which was announced yesterday by the mayor and governor and which began at 12 noon today. It will presumably last at least until Monday morning.
The knock-on effects of this are massive. I thought the stores were crazy yesterday afternoon, but today Mrs. C. tried to get a modest few items at a local supermarket and witnessed madness and stripped shelves on a far more frightening scale. The issue, in my view, is not so much that people were running out to get things because there’s some rain and wind coming, but that they were running out to get things because—with employees unable to get to and fro work, due to the transport shutdown—they know the stores will be closing, and will remain closed until Monday morning.
This may not sound like such a catastrophe, to people who live outside of Manhattan (and I’ve seen in National Geographic that there are literally hundreds of such people). However, people live here in an entirely different way from what is the norm elsewhere. We—or at least we who are the hoi polloi of Manhattan—live in small apartments. So small that we can go ga-ga over spaces that people in the rest of the country would consider tight-fitting as a playroom for their toddler. As a consequence, refrigerators are generally small, and cupboard space is minimal. Most people simply do not “stock up” on anything. And why would you? One of the great joys of life in this city is the fact that all kinds of things are available literally down the block. And if you look at a four-block radius around the residence of the average Manhattanite, there is very little you cannot obtain relatively instantly, whether groceries of both an average and eclectic nature, prepared food from a vast range of ethnic origins, drugs (prescription and otherwise), alcohol, overpriced housewares, balloons and other party goods, cigars, bagels, smoked salmon and delicous chopped liver. What else do you need? Most people live from day to day, and indeed from meal to meal, getting what they need merely minutes before they are to consume it.
My point is that those people who I saw this morning lining up outside the Dunkin’ Donuts were not merely looking for an optional caffeine stimulant or carbohydrate boost. They were desperately trying to feed themselves. When 8 or 9 o’clock has come this evening, and there is nowhere to go to get dinner, they will not know what to do. And then there is all day tomorrow (Sunday) to worry about, when the alleged Hurricane Irene will actually be hitting!
I’m having fun with this story, but there’s a serious angle too, to the public transit shutdown. It applies to those in the areas under “mandatory evacuation.” Many, if not most of the people in those areas have chosen not to leave. This is understandable given human nature; they have no memory of weather so severe in the New York City area that it washes away buildings and kills people. Many of them do not own cars. This means they had until noon today to digest the situation and make up their minds whether to leave, and where to go. At noon today, it wasn’t hardly raining in New York. If they changed their minds after noon today, they were out of luck.
This is not even to get into the issue of the infirm and elderly who would have had trouble even using public transportation before noon today. As in this local news story:
Complicating the mass evacuation of the primary zone — where about 250,000 people live — was the MTA’s shutdown of the transit system at noon. That leaves many carless New Yorkers without ways to get out, if they wait until the last minute.
“How can I get out of Coney Island? What am I going to do? Run with this walker?” said 82-year-old Abe Feinstein.
Feinstein has lived since the early 1960s on the eighth floor of a building that overlooks the Coney Island boardwalk.
The problem in Mayor “School Bus” Nagin’s New Orleans was that people who didn’t have the physical or mental wherewithal to evacuate themselves ended up in a big mess. If this storm is what Mayor Bloomberg has been warning New Yorkers it could be, then questions will be raised after the fact about why more aggressive assistance was not lent. Instead of the police driving around with loudspeakers merely telling people to leave, how about lining up buses in vulnerable neighborhoods? It will also be wondered why the entire public transportation system was shut down so very early—long before the arrival of the storm—so leaving New Yorkers in the virtually unprecedented situation of trying to get around in the absence of trains and buses.
For now, however, it’s time to hope and pray for the best.
(All photos taken by Yours Truly in Manhattan around 3 p.m. today.)
Addendum: I should note that the city has set up “Evacuation Centers” where ambulatory people could go to obtain transport to shelters. Few have apparently utilized these.