Sandy and Katrina
Electricity bled back into my parents’ neighborhood on Long Island on Friday. My uncle and his family down on the Jersey Shore came back online later this weekend. My aunt, near Princeton, NJ, still has the generator going. It powers the heat, but not the hot-water heater, so they still can’t take proper showers at her place. On Wednesday they went and rescued my grandmother from her assisted-care facility down the road, where hundreds of seniors wrapped themselves in blankets against the encroaching cold. Things are not perfect, but at least they’re together.
Hurricane Sandy carved a new landscape across the New York metropolitan area, the place where I grew up and where virtually all of my family still lives. My hometown of Garden City, NY took a hard hit; heavy winds felled many of the tall trees that canopy the village and a house in my old neighborhood straight-up exploded, with nothing left but a pile of sticks and bricks.
As I survey the damage from afar it is impossible for me not to think about Katrina, that nasty bitch that six years ago blasted through New Orleans, the only other place, besides Greensboro, where I have lived for any significant amount of time.
I’ve heard lots of comparisons between Sandy and Katrina these last few days. It’s only natural — New Yorkers are competitive and New Orleanians prideful of their ability to endure suffering.
I’m not willing to pick a “winner,” but I do notice some significant differences between the two disasters.
For one, Katrina was a much more powerful storm — a Category 5 as it hovered over the Gulf of Mexico with winds up to 150 miles an hour, though it weakened as it made landfall, as hurricanes do. Sandy was a Cat 1, with winds measuring about 100 mph, though it was indeed massive, more than 1,100 miles wide at its peak.
But Sandy landed on the most densely populated region in the country. More than 22 million live in the New York metro area. There are no open spaces, no pockets of uninhabited land. By simple geographic fact it affected more people than Katrina. The city itself is an archipelago, connected by a series of bridges and tunnels ill equipped to handle the major influx of seawater. When a 13-foot storm surge overtook the Battery in Lower Manhattan, it took out all manner of egress from the city. Above ground, water rose as high as three feet in Lower Manhattan. And on the shores of New Jersey and Long Island, the beach washed far into the land.
New Orleans, a city under sea level, was built to endure periodic flooding of the Mississippi River, with homes built off the ground and a system of levees and pumps designed to control the influx — a system that failed during Katrina, which made it a man-made disaster as much as a natural one. Most of New Orleans stayed underwater for four days while many of its structures turned to mush; the city was uninhabitable, with power and water outages that lasted weeks; its half-million residents made other plans. It took months for people to return in significant numbers, and the city’s population is still down — about 360,000 live in that metro area now. And much of the city has yet to regain is former luster — whole neighborhoods still await recovery, and if you know where to look you can still find houses bearing the trademark, spray-painted X — shorthand devised by the national guard after the storm, demarking the date, the types of contamination and, in the bottom quadrant, the number of corpses found within.
The body count, too, varies greatly. Katrina’s death toll stands at 1,833, which does not count the suicides and related deaths that happened in the months and years afterward. Sandy has taken 110 lives so far, significant to be sure, especially for those with loved ones on the line.
My own people endure, as they did in the days and months following Katrina. New York, a vibrant and important city, tough as the skin on a day-old bagel, arises even now. They stand in lines for gas, for food and water, to cross the rivers for work in Manhattan. Electricity has returned to most of New York, and rebuilding efforts move ahead on the New Jersey coastline — another major difference is that FEMA seems more competent this time around, though it remains to be seen if insurance companies will make good on their promises as people seek the reimbursements that will restore their lives.
Here in Greensboro, Sandy is more of an abstraction than cold, hard fact. I see the pictures online, make regular calls to my parents and friends, ruminate on what will emerge in the aftermath.
And because disaster has struck two of the three places I’ve lived, I can’t help but question the safety and security I’ve come to know in North Carolina. I wonder if it’s all an illusion.