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August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene: For New York City, The Storm That Wasn’t

In Times Square as the storm began for New York.

With fear and apprehension of approaching Hurricane Irene, Mayor Bloomberg took the unprecedented step of ordering mandatory evacuation for more than 300,000 people living in low-lying areas of New York City. This had never happened before, not for draft or race riots, not for great fires, not for 9/11. And he preemptively shut down the entire public transit system of subways, buses, and commuter trains, a system that usually runs 24-hours a day. The city that never sleeps ground to a complete halt for two whole days. All this, for what turned out to be a mild summer tropical storm. Other areas up and down the East Coast suffered real damage. But in New York, except for some minor flooding and downed trees, “even a bottle that was on the street the night before didn’t fall over and break,” said one Brooklynite.

Along the East River under the Manhattan Bridge, afterward.

This bicycling couple, like many New Yorkers, enjoyed a relaxing and quiet Sunday rather than suffer catastrophe. Both the media, which was so instrumental in hyping up danger in advance, and government officials now offer the reassuring platitudes of “better safe than sorry” and “lessons learned after Katrina”. But while no one would deny that preparedness is critical, especially after the mayor’s poor showing last winter coping with a blizzard of snow, the exceptional precautions that were taken for Irene now seem like paranoid over-reaction with real consequences:

In our current American culture of helicopter parents, children on leashes, and hot-button litigation, this obsession with safety comes with an unspoken dark side. People given repeated warnings of disasters that fail to materialize inevitably become complacent and cynical about political ass-covering the next time. The poor and working class are inconvenienced much more than the wealthier who don’t need public transit and were able to drive anywhere in private cars. The dangers of evacuating the elderly and infirm may risk their lives more than riding out the storm. And most of all, the emotional toll of stress, lost income, and panic may lead directly to incidents like the man in North Carolina’s Onslow County who died of a heart attack as he put plywood over his windows in preparation for the hurricane.

A Lower East Side apartment building doorman who found himself stuck at his post for the whole weekend said, “I completely understand getting ready to shut down the subway if it’s necessary. But I didn’t think they would really do it for this. New York is losing what makes us special!”

–Alan Chin


About the Photographer


  • Rita Kabalan

    sooo well said. Thank you! 

  • Melly

    Exactly!! I’ve been attempting to express my identical opinion since yesterday. You did a much better job. Very well done.

  • inkasylum

    Of course, what would people be saying if NYC had under-prepared and the hurricane had roared in as a full Cat 1 or possibly even a Cat 2? When it comes to hurricanes, which are incredibly unpredictable, the smartest way to act is always to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Anything less from a government is irresponsible.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a fine line between being prepared and encouraging panic. Bloomberg did everything right up until the moment he shut down the entire transit system preemptively and issued mandatory evacuation orders. A more measured response could have ordered only those living on the ground floor and basements to leave, and configured transit to be ready to go offline, close vulnerable above-ground subway lines, etc. What’s wrong with that kind of flexibility in the response?

      Instead, what’s going to happen next time now? This creates a seesaw cycle of complacency and over-reaction, without practical nuance. I covered Katrina, and have fully seen what happens with complacency. Preparing for the worst means preparation, not acting as if it were already upon us. What would people be saying if senior citizens had died in a needless evacuation, what are people saying about losing a lot of real income in a fragile economy, saying about how that loss disproportionally impacts people without cars, etc.?

  • Stan B.

    Don’t say that too loud in Vermont…

  • Enoch Root

    Shorter Alan Chin: “What’s the big deal? Hurricanes are no match for Manhattan!”

    Not all hurricanes are Katrina. Some are Ivan or Alicia. Having grown up the Gulf Coast, I expect to hear evacuation notices; they only makes sense, because these storms sometimes stop and turn around and come back and kick your ass.Also, that top photo gives me Bladerunner flashbacks.

  • David

    I respect your opinion, but you’re completely incorrect in thinking that it’s better to be unprepared just in case the storm isn’t as bad as forecast. Unlike previous storms, Irene hitting NYC hard was the probable outcome, not the exception. We were on the lucky side of the odds. With previous large storms of the last few years, the odds were that they WEREN’T going to hit the city. We did the right thing, even if it did inconvenience us, leave us with too much bottled water, and make us look a little wimpy.
    Storms are unpredictable. You’ve written an ignorant, amateur opinion piece above that doesn’t take into account what might have happened had weather conditions been tweaked one way or the other. You also seem to have not boned up on hydrology or the MTA. It takes 8 hours to shut down the subway system, not minutes. And why do you think it’s O.K. to strand people on the upper floors of public housing in case of flooding? Did you not watch the news when Katrina passed? It was a lot more than water that killed the people of New Orleans. And in any case, the flooding could have been much worse, again, with a tweak one way or the other to conditions as it hit North Carolina.
    I’m a little surprised–I’m usually refreshed by the BAG News Notes features, but this at the level of every ignoramus in Brooklyn (my borough) whining about the subway closing.

    • Anonymous

       I covered Katrina and New Orleans for the last 6 years, so I must respectfully tell you that I know what I’m talking about. NYC is not in a bowl below sea level, nor do we have the same kinds of levees that can break. Even significant flooding from a massive storm surge in NYC would drain out again fairly quickly with the tide. Damage would be bad, but nobody would be stranded on upper floors for longer than a few hours. In New Orleans this is called vertical evacuation. Even skyscrapers will have trouble in a category 4, 5 and some will take a hit from an unlucky 3. A 1 or 2 which was the worse case scenario here, our tall buildings can take. Imposing mandatory evacuation on 300,000+ people here was arguably more risky than just evacuating those on lower levels.

      In terms of the subway system, it’s not all or nothing. Vulnerable lines could be shut ahead of time, while others continue. And if some of those encounter steadily worsening conditions, you stop the trains in situ and get the people to shelter. Could we lose a few lives in this process? Sure. But again, that’s a risk this city has historically taken in times of crisis, measured against the livelihoods of millions of people.

      I am also fully aware that the ’safest’ thing to do is exactly what we just did. But as a society, safest is not always wisest, contrary to the culture of caution and fear mongering we now live in. We must measure the greatest good for the greatest number of people vs. the moral, emotional, financial, and political impacts. In New Orleans, geographic realities and weather patterns demand one set of criteria. NYC demands another. Why can we not appreciate nuance and complexity in response to crisis, rather than fleeing for the hills at the first sign of danger? This was not the NYC that I grew up in.

  • Global Citizen

    The world is often breathtaking and often harsh, it is an individual responsibilty to care for one another and your community, not your govt. Regarding the hype, I find the American media and population to be defunct, self-centered and obtuse on so many levels; too bought to talk straight and too myopic to see past themselves.

  • Global Citizen

    The world is often breathtaking and often harsh, it is an individual responsibilty to care for one another and your community, not your govt. Regarding the hype, I find the American media and population to be defunct, self-centered and obtuse on so many levels; too bought to talk straight and too myopic to see past themselves.

  • Rikkireich

    As 5 million people sit on the eastern seaboard tonight with no power and raging, swollen rivers around them and destroyed homes and memories I consider myself very fortunate to be sitting in NYC in the dark with my roof still on. My entire neighborhood has huge downed trees and will not have power for days. I love New York and even though Bloomie’s measures have been “overkill” with a bit of political machinations thrown in….I do believe his intentions were to prepare for the worst and protect New Yorkers. Or shall we say “The New New Yorkers” who are all from elsewhere?
    And if you look around you will realize that “the storm that wasn’t” is doing the most damage in it’s aftermath….which at the moment remains an unknown. It ain’t over it the fat lady sings.

  • Antrim

    Nice images Alan, antrim

  • inkasylum

    NYC Transit isn’t something that you can be ready to shut down at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, it requires making a call hours before you can be certain you’re making the right call. The same goes for evacuation. Decisions need to be made at a time when an approaching hurricane can become either more or less dangerous. Preparing for the “more dangerous” option is the right call when dealing with a rare threat.

    You call it an overreaction but the forecasts predicted a substantial probability of a full Cat 1 and that’s what the city planned for. That’s not overreaction, that’s prudent precaution. Overreaction would be planning for a threat that had a slim to zero chance of occurring. That’s not what happened.

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