Saturday, November 03, 2012

because disasters are apolitical but choices aren't

One of the things Joe and I were discussing (because we are SO ERUDITE--in between making a series of fart noises, both faked and authentic, and then blaming them on the dog) is the impact that Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath is going to have on the election. It's difficult to calculate, I think.

First, the regions hit hardest by the storm (that is to say: the Northeast) are traditionally firmly Democratic, and logistically, it may be difficult for people to turn out and vote come Tuesday. But will this actually make any difference in the electoral college, or will it just impact the popular vote?

Secondly, people inside and out of the affected regions may respond differently based on their perception of storm readiness, reaction and aftermath. I think that overall the reaction has been largely positive (at least compared to the level of preparedness for Katrina, "heckuva job Brownie" and all), but it's clearly a difficult time for everyone impacted. Will that change anything come election day? Again, difficult to say.

Campaigning for both parties has obviously been put somewhat on the back burner, or at least a burner off to the side--for the president firstly because he's busy, you know, leading the country during a crisis; and somewhat for the Romney camp as well, to (rightly) avoid politicizing and tragedy and, perhaps more importantly, avoiding the opportunity to say anything completely offensive of tone-deaf to those suffering losses. What did these two campaigns have planned for the final two weeks of the campaign? Would that have made a difference either way?

And on and on and on. Like I said, the political effects are incalculable, and though I think the post-mortems at the end of next week will pick apart this and that trying to frame whatever the outcome ends up being in the light of inevitability, but that's all Monday morning quarterbacking to me. Regardless of whichever presidential candidate wins the election, the effect of an unprecedented natural disaster of this scale is as unexpected as it is difficult to predict.

But there's one thing I do know that everyone can take away from the stories of Hurricane Sandy, and which is: you are not immune. Terrible things happen, and they can happen to any one of us. The single mom in Staten Island and the hedge fund manager in Tribeca. The elderly couple in New Jersey and the CEO in the Hamptons. Terrible things can happen, and they can happen quickly, unexpectedly, without prejudice. And all of us, whether we think we will or not, will occasionally be grateful for some help.

I think back to my own reaction to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the days and weeks that followed that particular storm. I was shocked and horrified and of course I pledged my support and dollars to help the survivors, but still, even though it happened in my own country, it all still felt a little removed for me. I admit that fully. The words and the situation: Lake Pontchartrain? Levees? Superdome? It seemed so foreign from the everyday life of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker that my empathy, and my ability to relate, while present, still felt a little bit distant.

But this? Oh, this.

I walked here, on my way back from a late night out in med school after finals, from restaurant to dive bar to seedy club, trying to find my way back to the subway station to take me home.

Over the course of high school I got off at this subway station hundreds and hundreds of times.  We'd take the 6 train one stop down and switch here to catch the express, or maybe venture above ground to get something to eat, or browse through the new CDs at HMV (remember when we used to do that?), or just walk around and people watch.  Do you know how vast, and how deep those tunnels are?  Do you know how much water it must take to fill them up?  I don't.  I can't even imagine.

The cutoff for power outages on Manhattan was at 25th street and south.  I used to live on 25th Street and Second Avenue, on the 19th floor of our building.  Most likely we would not have had power.  Now, with three kids, in the chill of November, it's difficult to imagine how we would have handled it, though I can say for sure we would not have done it with the grace of those in New York the even more seriously affected outlying communities.  Probably I would have just cried.  Well, cried and eaten all the ice cream, like we did after that big power outage in 2003.  (IT WAS GOING TO MELT ANYWAY YOU GUYS.)

We lived just a few blocks away from NYU Medical Center (it is, in fact, the hospital at which I was born), which of course was evacuated after the storm when the power went out and the backup generators failed.  I can't even imagine what it must have been like for those staff working that night.  I read accounts of patients, fresh CABG post-ops and others, being walked down 10 flights of stairs or more to evacuate after the elevators failed, NICU babies being carried out one by one, nurses and housestaff and techs and everyone forming lines up the stairs passing buckets of fuel up the fire escape to the emergency generators after the fuel tanks in the basement of the hospital became overwhelmed with water.  I think: what if I had been in the OR at that time with a patient when all the power went out?  What would I have done?  I see myself reaching for the ambu-bag, sending someone to run for more IV induction meds, and holding up the flashlight we keep in the bottom drawer of our anesthesia cart so that the surgeon could see enough to sew faster.  I can kind of imagine it.  But also, of course, I totally can't.  Not really.

In the final days before the election it's hard to conceive of people who are still undecided about who to vote for, but I know they must be out there because the news and the polls say its true.  And I ask these people to think not just about jobs or the economy or foreign policy (though these are, of course, also crucially important issues) but to also think about the role of government in the face of crisis.  In the face of bad things happening, indiscriminately and free of political bias.  And think not just of how the candidates are reacting now, but of what they've said in the past.  About the role of government.  About "dependency" and "entitlements."  About the size of government and how some might propose both a smaller government with a diminished role and ability in providing help to its citizens in deep trouble, but also concurrently one that paradoxically insists of legislating and restricting our personal lives.  Think about these things.  And then go vote.

It's easy to accuse and tell people what they should have done or what you would have done when bad things don't tend to happen to you, but Hurricane Sandy reminds us in the most explosive and shocking way possible: bad things can happen to us all.  And everyone needs help sometimes, and sometimes the help we need is bigger than that which individuals or private institutions are able to provide.  And it's a credit to our civilization when we as people, and yes indeed as a government, are able to help those least among us.  Because next time, it could be you, too.  And where do you want to be living, and under what kind of leadership, do you want the next time something does?

My family are all OK, thankfully.  Much love to my friends in New York and the surrounding areas devastated by the storm--I'm with you in spirit if not in person.  If you need help, just ask.  And if you're looking for ways to help, two good starts are here and here.


  1. Anonymous4:42 PM

    glad your family is safe.

  2. Very powerful & well-written post, Michelle.
    I hope people deeply consider these issues before voting. Fingers crossed for Tuesday.
    Best wishes to your family and friends in northeast!

  3. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  4. well said.

    also, for the animal lovers:

  5. Anonymous5:21 PM

    This is the most beautiful post I have read pertaining to this horrible disaster. If it doesn't give people pause and make them consider choices I have no idea what would. Thank you Michelle!

  6. Anonymous5:34 PM

    That's actually the 86th street subway stop in Brooklyn, off the R train. The upper east side was virtually untouched by the storm.

    1. Ah! You know, I was thinking it looked a little different than the 86th Street station on the 6, but thought maybe it was just the end of the platform. Thanks for the correct attribution!

    2. Anonymous6:06 PM

      Doesn't really matter it's still a real picture of a real disaster of a real subway station in N.Y.

  7. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Such a lovely post! It's been a roller coaster up here! What we have been dealing with in West Chester doesn't even compare to Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey. I'm a med student and have been getting reports from some friends in the area.

    A few of my friends are in med school at NYU. All of their classrooms are flooded. Hofstra's cadaver lab was flooded. I'm at New York Medical College and thankfully all of our facilities are fine. We ended up cramming 5 days of classes into 3 the week before finals. Several of us commuters are studying for first block finals with no power, heat, or hot water. I waited in line for gas for 2 hours yesterday to make sure I can get to school for exams this week. Still, so grateful to have been somewhere safe.

  8. So nicely written. I'm out here on the West Coast, and have been knocking on doors for days, urging folks to get out and vote (or mail it in, as we do in my state). My heart goes out to affected folks, and I'm grateful we currently have federal level help available and am crossing my fingers we keep it that way.

  9. You're a goddess, Michelle! Very well articulated.

  10. medrecgal7:47 PM

    Another fantastically written post. I was just relieved to hear that my cousin who lives on Staten Island was actually back upstate visiting his mother when all of this was going on, particularly when I heard that it had been completely flooded out. Glad to know everyone's OK on your end, too.

  11. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Beautiful, thoughtful, and well considered writing. Thank you.

  12. Yes. Love how you kept it respectful and almost subtle, yet your point was crystal clear. If only everyone saw what looks so obvious to some of us. How are we teaching our children to treat others? How are we demonstrating tolerance, compassion, true values?
    When Katrina hit we got a lot of refugees coming to our hospitals for care but we also absorbed residents from Tulane into our program so they could graduate. Now we live on the east coast, I hope we can do something to help those in NY/NJ.

    1. Anonymous3:32 PM

      Exactly. What are we teaching our kids about helping those who aren't fortunate and discriminating against people based on age, gender, race, sexual orientation and socio economic status? It's unreasonable for individuals, states or the private sector to adequately plan and protect people in times of complete catastrophe. If that isn't the role of the federal government I don't know what is.

      My sister lives in Brooklyn and (thankfully) is fine but is hopefully going home for the first time since the storm hit tonight.

  13. Thanks for this well-written post Michelle, and thanks for sharing those pictures. Disasters are really scary.

  14. Anonymous3:21 PM

    Powerful pictures...and powerful words! Thanks for giving ALL of us something to think about. And for those who talk about doing something to help - please do more than just talk; jump in and do it!!!

  15. Michelle, I had a medical school interview today and a girl from Wellesley was there interviewing too. Of course, I asked her if she had heard of you, and we bonded over shared enjoyment of your book :)

    Glad your family is safe!

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