It was the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. It killed the electricity in Jamaica, left 200,000 Haitians homeless, and destroyed more than 15,000 buildings in Cuba before angling in on the eastern United States. As it approached, it was uniquely supercharged by cold air from Canada, becoming a composite storm of awful power. It wasn’t even a direct hit on New York City—it was a sideswipe, as the storm struck the Atlantic City coast. But its unusual path, and the full moon, created a freakishly strong ocean surge that smashed through New York Harbor.
New York City, which prides itself on being able to handle its burning summers and snowy winters, is nevertheless unequipped for this kind of weather. Enough of its infrastructure is below the waterline that, if the pumps ever stop, the subways begin to flood on an ordinary day. This was no kind of ordinary day. The Battery submerged, the subways filled, and very soon people in Lower Manhattan could look out from high apartment windows and see cars floating down Wall Street, while their own basements and underground parking lots flooded. New York is a very complicated machine, and its mega-engineering wasn’t forged for days like these. It’s not every day you get to see a machine like that break, with its attendant eye-stinging flashes of blue light from its exploding transformers.
Staten Island, considered a major flood and erosion risk since the 1990s, didn’t have a chance. As of early November, half the media-reported New York deaths are Staten Islanders. But people on the ground are saying that the full story is not being told. We may never know how many people died on Staten Island. Hundreds, possibly thousands, are homeless, and, as I write this, stories are circulating about many being ejected from refugee camps even as a serious snowstorm heads in. It will be the work of months to assemble the true story of even New York’s hurricane losses, let alone those of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the other affected states.
I was particularly struck by people taking photos of the waterlines on the walls of their apartments. That, and another aspect of the machine breaking: Despite the local and federal aid services in play, what I saw most was people volunteering in their thousands to help each other. The unspoken assumption that the political machine wasn’t going to pump basements.
A team of researchers from Penn State have recently released work showing how they can compare rainfall records on stalagmites in Belize to Mayan political history. They found, in fact, that severe weather events contributed directly to the breakage of the Mayan political machine, and even the collapse of its greatest cities. Which would seem obvious, perhaps, but here we are. Looking at the marks left by rain on stone and mapping them to the end of cities.
I can imagine, in fact, walking through an Old New York, looking at the dark, greedy smears left by floodwaters at high tide on the fronts of brownstones and banks and divining from them the dates when Manhattan died by inches. Wondering which of these eroded tidal lines was the one where people realized that climate change wasn’t a joke or a trick, but the new future, a thousand miles wide and coming for them at a hundred miles an hour.
Every single one of the green, bloated bodies washed up on America’s shore was loved by someone, and cheated out of years by a broken machine.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew
Previously — My Last Column About the American Election (Really)