After the storm

Image of Gillian Tett

When I was a child growing up in England, one of my favourite books was Little House on the Prairie, the iconic tale of a 19th-century American settler family. This was not just because the story contained powerful human drama – equally mesmerising was that the settlers were constantly battling the elements, as snow storms, hurricanes and floods swept across that giant landscape.

This week, as I hunkered down in New York with my two girls amid hurricane Sandy, I had an uncanny sense of déjà vu. Most of the time New York likes to present itself as one of the most sophisticated places on the planet. Almost anything can be bought or experienced on a computer. This is the city which produced the phrase “Masters of the Universe”, where everyone likes to be in control.

And yet, for a few short days, as hurricane Sandy hit New York, that pioneer-on-the-prairie mentality returned. People rushed to the stores to stock up on food, hunting for meals that could be eaten if the ovens stopped working. We solemnly filled our bathtubs, in case the water supply failed, collected flashlights and prepared for power cuts. This provided a real cultural jolt for my daughters, who have grown up in a cyber age where everything is magically ordered online via Ocado or FreshDirect: for the first time in their lives they saw shop shelves stripped bare of all bread, candles and torches. So we bought Halloween glow sticks and birthday cake candles, to beat the darkness if the lights failed, and talked about “grandma who lived through the second world war”.

In some senses, of course, this was horrible to live with. Quite apart from the vast financial cost and deaths, Sandy has brought disruption on a startling scale. Houses are flooded, power has failed and transport completely upended. And yet, as I talked to my American friends amid the storm, I sensed another emotion bubbling too: in a world where we control our surroundings with a few clicks of a mouse, it was humbling – and educational – to come face to face with the raw elements again, to be reminded that there are some things in life which simply cannot be mastered or predicted with ease. Being exposed to nature also seemed to reawaken some of the most attractive features of American society: a sense of kindness, mutual concern coupled with a defiant, dogged optimism and belief in the ability to recreate and rebuild.

Of course, there were also some profound differences from that Little House on the Prairie era. Back in the 19th century, those early pioneer communities were completely cut off from the outside world when storms swept in. Over the past few days, however, anybody on the east coast of America with a charged phone, iPad or laptop was continuously bombarded with texts, tweets and emails. That did not apply to everyone: half of New York was tossed into an unfamiliar blackout state. But if you were on the “connected” side of that great divide you could track the path of the hurricane, get reports on whether New York’s bridges and tunnels were open, and even monitor the progress of celebrities, via their constant tweets.

Whether this made anybody any better at actually judging the true dangers remains an open question. In the aftermath of the storm, there was some debate about whether the New York government had under- or overreacted: it shut down the transit system too early and closed too many government buildings relative to the dangers … or so the arguments go. And, indeed, from a wider perspective, the treatment of “risk” was striking. Much of the time, the American government – and people – downplay everyday dangers in relation to car accidents, financial disasters and so on. In hurricane Sandy, a sense of extreme risk-aversion ruled.

This partly reflects the asymmetrical political imperative: nobody is going to demand any resignations if the government overreacts, but heads will roll if it underprepares. The popular media probably fuelled the sense of hysteria too, seeking drama in an effort to keep viewers hooked (indeed the television coverage was so lurid that many New Yorkers preferred to receive their news via Twitter, since it seemed more factual and sober in tone).

But then there is that issue of control. Back in the 19th century, the prairie settlers never forgot that they were at the mercy of the elements. These days, however, it is something of a novel experience to embrace extreme elemental uncertainty; it upends the normal tools we use to assess risk. It is even more novel for any politician to admit that there are numerous issues that no government – or spin-doctor – can actually control.

Hurricane Sandy has driven that lesson home, with a vengeance. And coming on the eve of the 2012 election, where politicians are promising the moon, the timing is oddly appropriate; and ironic indeed.

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