What Hurricane Sandy taught us about the Urban Apocalypse – Part 2

(Mark Segar – Reuters)

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.

In Part One of What Hurricane Sandy taught us about the urban apocalypse, we looked at Corporate Sponsorship, Disaster Parasites, and the not-so sweet smell of the apocalypse.

Past the cut, in Part Two, we’ll be looking at the comfort of petty theft, how hipsters decorate their fallout digs, and why it’s not over til it’s over…

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The Emerald City lies right across the street – and you terrify them…

As already noted, one of the most intriguing features of post-Sandy’s New York was the variation in recovery of different parts of the city. Not just between Manhattan and the “forgotten boroughs“. Not just within boroughs themselves – witness the relatively unscathed area of Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Williamsburg, versus the devastation in Coney Island and Gowanus – but even within individual neighbourhoods. Residents of Sheepshead Bay found electricity was available to sporadic pockets of houses in some streets, but not to others. You’d imagine this would be a sign of hope – but rather than open their homes up to their neighbours, many hid in their castles, frightened of being looted simply because they had working utilities.

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Looking at the weapons some citizens carried after dark, perhaps it was the smart move…

Hipsters will always be Hipsters.

As the world collapses around you, it’s good to know some things don’t change. Amongst all the devastation, city dwellers were not only resourceful, but wonderfully generous. Churches could be relied on as a focal point for donated supplies, while those in tight knit neighbourhoods banded together to share phone charging, internet and food supplies – and even their own homes. For those with signal, there were constantly updated fuel maps of the city, and twitter feeds and youtube kept residents updated on food truck locations. Animal rescue workers worked to help pets trapped or lost after the hurricane. And there was still time for relaxation, as those frustrated by the cancellation of the Halloween Parade made their own celebrations.

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Even petty theft had a comforting predictability about it. Amongst stories of thieves stealing from retirement homes and pharmacies, one photographer captured a pair of hipsters looting fallen, yet operational, stadium lights from McCarren Park. Meanwhile, four teens were arrested for breaking into a Dairy Barn in Syosset, Long Island to grab beer, cigarettes and supplies for a party – and then breaking in again when those ran out.

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(via Occupy Wall Street‘s Occupy Sandy campaign)

This is not the apocalypse. THIS is.

So you’ve had your fireworks – the towering inferno, some massive Richter level earthquake, your alien invasion. You may think the worst of it is over, and all that’s left is learning to live in your brave new world. Yet Sandy showed that the apocalypse isn’t necessarily the disaster itself, but what follows.

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a savage Nor’Easter – a Winter storm – swept down the Eastern Seaboard, bringing with it gusts of up to 60 mph, and snow from Delaware to Maine. Parts of the Rockaways and Staten Island were encouraged to evacuate for a 2-4 foot storm surge – not as high as the hurricane waves, and certainly not usually enough to force residents to higher ground, but for the damage already caused by Sandy. On-going relief efforts for the Hurricane were hampered by the snow and wind, which brought fresh problems of its own, knocking down trees and causing yet more power outages, as the storm took down lines faster than repair crews could keep up. It’s one thing to be living in a shell of your suburban dreams, but when it’s in the midst of a Winter storm, it’s hard to find comfort – beyond the near guarantee the looters are suffering just as much as you are.

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(Press conference – 8th November 2012. Via NYC.Gov.)


The Apocalypse travels softly and carries salt.

So you’ve survived the “apocalypse”, the post-apocalypse. The real End Times may not come for decades down the line. In the wake of Sandy and Irene, many New Yorkers have begun to accept that drowned subways and spreading sewage are just something they’ll have to put up with as global warming increases. However, the real danger from flooding on the east coast came from the insidious damage it did beneath the city. Salt water is corrosive to the steel pipes used to carry utilities, and while the steel-reinforced concrete of building foundations is less vulnerable, rises in the sea level can have similar effects. Multiply this damage year on year, and you’ve got a city rotting at its foundations.

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This problem may seem remote in the UK, at least at hurricane level. Yet many major cities around the world are built in the same locales – low lying flood plains, major port cities – with the same problems of rising sea levels (though admittedly New York’s sea level rise is above the global average), and the same complication: A problem buried deep underground. Solutions are available, ranging from EMP and ultrasound pulses, and maintenance tunnels for ageing infrastructure, to large scale engineering projects. Pitched battles rage between environmentalists in favour of building wetlands and oysterbeds, versus other scientists who favour large flood barriers across New York. Many suburbs, such as devastated Midland Beach and Breezy Point, may have to be abandoned entirely. Whichever solution is implemented – or whether they choose to use both soft and hard engineering solutions, as in the Netherlands – the face of cities may look very different in the future.

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(Public Forum on Climate Change, Sandy and the Future of New York City, New York University – 5th Dec 2012)

But this may not happen in time. New York’s flood defence program, for example, currently assumes a 2.6m flood once a century – but the recent New York City panel on Climate change guestimates that, with storm pattern changes, they could occur every 3-20 years. Even the latest FEMA flood maps of New York, produced after the frankenstorm, do not incorporate data on sea level rise. Following Sandy, New York politicians are beginning to wake up to these problems, but across the world, the fact remains: If changes aren’t made, the great cities of civilisation may, literally, just collapse into the sea.


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(via ABC News)

There is no man in the mountain.

In the old tale, when the city falls, our heroine heads for hills to meet with an old sage, who gives her wisdom of the simpler days, and the skills she requires to survive these troubled times. Whether you plan on being the heroine, or the sage, let me disabuse you of this – there is no man in the mountain. Even outside the city limits, a one metre rise in sea level at the coast can lead to similar rises of salt in ground water within 2 kilometres of the coast.  And assuming you survived the city, you’re not out of the seaweed yet.

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(TVJ’s Prime Time News, Jamaica – 25th October 2012)

The NYC-centric reporting on Sandy belied the true scale of the disaster. This wasn’t just a hurricane, it was a superstorm. Sandy affected 24 states in the US alone (indeed, Atlanta took more than its fair share) and reached as far north as Canada. In fact, windspeeds peaked between Jamaica and Cuba, making landfall at Santiago de Cuba at 110 mph (175 km/h), compared to the 90 mph (150 km/h) winds that hit the north eastern US. In all, 253 people died in seven countries as a result of Sandy – a relatively small percentage for the area covered, certainly. But don’t go looking for salvation and wisdom beyond the rat race. You may get little more than “run”.


Click here for Part 1 of What Sandy taught us about the Urban Apocalypse, where we looked at Coporate Sponsorship, Disaster Parasites, and the smell of the apocalypse.

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