What Hurricane Sandy taught us about the Urban Apocalypse – Part 1

(Spencer Platt – Getty Images)

It was unsettling how things changed. From the safety of social feeds, we watched as photoshopped spoofs and Michael Bay rip-offs paled before the quiet aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Smouldering burns scarred into whiteboard neighbourhoods. A suburban block turned to some vast waste dump. A seafront bar dragged across a bay, a boat perched on railroad tracks. More than the Boxing Day Tsunami, this felt uncomfortably close to home.

We may be incredulous of the naive expectations of the massive storm; or the religious leader who blamed Sandy on New York State’s acceptance of gay marriage. Yet, what lay in front of us was a solid lesson in where the future may lead for many cities across the globe. Past the cut, here’s the first of a two part blog on what Hurricane Sandy taught us about surviving the urban apocalypse.

(Chris Tackett at Tree Hugger)

You’re not important enough.

Post- and Apocalyptic Fiction make fertile staging ground for authors exploring preconceptions of government, big business, and their perceived attitudes towards their wayward charges. During Hurricane Sandy, we had a taste of one scenario. While New York City workers rushed to restore electricity, heat and water to Manhattan, parts of  The Rockaways and Sheepshead Bay were still without power a week and a half later. Staten Island found its reputation as the forgotten borough prescient it waited days for Red Cross relief. Vast differences in the availability of medicines and food across the city intensified problems, such that, on visiting one borough, Mayor Michael Bloomberg found himself assailed by furious residents.

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(via www.CapitalNewYork.com)

For their part, city and state leaders were just as outraged, New York governor Andrew Cuomo launching scathing attacks on utilities companies for their slow response to power and water shortages. Only one incident springs to mind where a government employee deliberately abused his position during the clean-up – diverting workers to clear a fallen tree from his garden – and was promptly fired. However, the experience of NYC does show that unless you are living in an economically significant part of the city, it may be a while before you get help – which, in any potentially apocalyptic scenario, leads to another problem. Exactly how long do you wait to find out how bad the situation is?

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You will be saved by what kills you.

We all get a kick from knocking our consumer-led land of privilege – look at the Dawn of the Dead’s infamous mall zombie scene, for instance. But while we scoff at the Snookies and Twinkie sponsorships of this world, bear in mind the apocalypse is likely to boast as many ad breaks as your day to day. In post-Sandy NYC, you couldn’t move without tripping over a telethon, fundraiser or a big name benefit concert – and, granted, it was good to see Trey Anastasio from Phish helping out of his own account.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh1eDSLKomU&w=400&h=300]

However, when it came to the free shit, it was the big brands to the rescue. Amongst donations, Home Depot supplied free rakes, shovels and gloves, and Google reportedly gave iPads to help relief efforts. Elsewhere, the office of the governor secured the “generous” contributions of Walmart and Pepsico, who sent several truckloads of Mountain Dew, Doritos and, um, board games to stranded New Yorkers. An interesting development in the wake of the city’s much publicized block on supersize sodas launched in September, not to mention the 2008 trans-fat ban – but perhaps it’s a moot concern. Much as you might wonder about the nutritional value of this generous offer (or indeed, the usefulness of iPads in areas without electricity), are you really going to turn down free crisps when your local supermarket’s been empty for ten days?

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(via Walmart corp)


You are not prepared.

I know what you’re thinking. You won’t need those free film snacks, right? You’re going to have all your provisions prepared, a backup generator full of juice, and enough artillery to defend your fortress from the hordes. Yet even the best laid plans went to Maldivian waste when Hurricane Sandy hit. Cynics among us will be unsurprised to learn about the aforementioned issues with public utilities, delays in help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (or FEMA – the federal government agency responsible for coordinating responses to large scale disasters), or the design flaw in NYU hospital that meant first one, then the second backup generator went down – because both pumps were located in the basement.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsKcGyuUg5I&w=400&h=225]

(via Climate Desk)

Maybe some of us in cosy old Blighty titter at the Manhattanites who figured Sandy would be just like 2011’s Hurricane Irene, and hunkered down with frozen supplies and DVDs – only to discover that these things require working electrics. With appliances melting out, not all of these poor souls found solace in books alone, leading to the phenomenon of the Sandy Seven – the extra pounds put on by those stuck in the central city neighbourhoods with nothing to do but eat. You may scoff (they did) – certainly compared to their more unfortunate neighbours, they were in hogs heaven. Lack of refrigeration has more serious consequences than melted ice cream for diabetics and transplant patients. However, food can be an easy emotional crutch for us in times of crisis. Got enough supplies for six months? Sure about that?

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Getting screwed over.

And the utilities issues didn’t end there. It’s debatable whether, in a truly apocalyptic event, much of the old empire would be left standing – but let’s postulate a scenario where either the bare minimum of government has survived, along with a handful of larger multi-/national companies. Already that sounds like utopia compared to the Roads of the apocalyptic canon. Don’t let the free nachos lull you into a false sense of security. It all comes down to a little phrase: “Act of God”. Simply put, if the company can’t realistically plan for a natural disaster, they won’t take responsibility for any service downtime as a result. In the case of cable companies serving the Eastern Seaboard of America, pressure from the noticeably unwashed masses won out, and after initial reluctance, Time Warner automatically refunded lost credit, while most other companies restored credit when applied for. Unfortunately, despite free bus services, the Metro Transit Authority wasn’t of the same mind on travelcards. Even financial security wasn’t guaranteed. Many with Hurricane insurance found themselves unable to claim, since Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall in the US.

Of course, all this is assuming folks from the authorities are who they say they are. From the Rockaways and more distant neighbourhoods, stories were rife of supposed company workers visiting homes and walking away with half the contents. On the scale of a larger disaster, it’d probably just be you, your bow and arrow, and your free crisps.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p37MP_8c3Po&w=400&h=225]

In short, the apocalypse stinks.

Delayed response times, limited supplies, the emotional fallout, getting screwed over by every company around… The massive queues  for overpriced gas… Maybe you can cope with all that, but frankly, the apocalypse stinks. Once you’ve got used to your own pungent scent after a few days without hot water, there’s the rest of the world to get used to, starting with your neighbours. With utilities down, many who refused to evacuate improvised their own toilet arrangements – or simply used the hallways.

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(via NYC’s Metro Transit Authority)

If you’re thinking you can find some fresh air outside, forget that too. New York after Sandy certainly smelled of damp, if you were lucky. Naturally, refuse collection was put on hold while city workers concentrated on getting things up and running. Sewage flooded the subways, while the polluted Gowanus canal, already an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, flooded Brooklyn, and plastic suited workers with utilities trucks pumping the streets became a common sight.

And while some areas experienced severe food shortages, others found that a surplus brought its own nose-bothering problems. As one local put it…

If you think Chinatown normally has an unpleasant odor, imagine what it smells like 24 hours following no refrigeration.

[The Gothamist]

There’s just no getting away from it – the apocalypse smells really, really bad.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/52396868]


In Part 2 of What Sandy taught us about the Urban Apocalypse, we’ll look at the upside of petty theft, how hipsters decorate their fall of the empire digs, and why The End isn’t always The End.

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