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Op-Ed

Goodnight, Irene: A hurricane diary

In New York, you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew.

August 30, 2011|By John Kenney

Friday evening. The hurricane starts in China for me. I am there for work and I return home to not-in-the-evacuation-zone Brooklyn, my wife Lissa greeting me smiling the smile of someone happy to see her husband after seven days alone with a toddler. Lulu, who is 2 1/2, celebrates my homecoming by peeing on my luggage and saying "Oopsie." Talk of the coming hurricane seems like the only news.

Saturday, 6 a.m. Lulu and I go to Starbucks. It's closed. A sign on the door says, "Blame the weather not us." I blame them.

The 24-hour bagel place is open. We get breakfast and hang for a while. Later, we try the grocery stores. Some are closed. Others have huge lines. Lots of empty spaces on the shelves. No chicken. No milk. No bottled water. There seems to be a run on frozen peas.

At CVS there are no batteries, no flashlights. We manage to acquire a Styrofoam cooler, granola bars and a pink washcloth with Elmo on it.

Saturday, late afternoon. My wife and I secure our small roof deck, turning over the table, closing the umbrella, bringing in the smaller plants. It's overcast, humid. The subway stopped running at noon, a bizarre and unnatural thing in New York. I'm reminded of the sign my firefighter brother saw on Sept. 11 as he and his Massachusetts FEMA team were arriving to look for survivors at the World Trade Center. "New York City closed."

I live a goodly portion of my life in a state of non-present-ness, a state of "I wish something other than what's actually happening was happening." What my former therapist called "acting like a 12-year-old."

Conversely, I often act expecting the worst. I doubled my life insurance policy before leaving for China. Now I check the apartment, move my daughter's crib away from the window, fill the tub in case our water is shut off. I take out candles, matches, check flashlight batteries. We venture out again, find a place to buy bottled water and dry snacks. My daughter and I go to the store for wine.

We wait.

Saturday evening. After Lulu is down we eat pasta and watch "Sommersby" with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, a kind of disaster in its own right. Some 18 minutes in we switch to the local news, though my wife quickly tires and goes to bed. I remain riveted by the earnest, handsome reporters and anchors, switching between the network affiliates and New York 1.

Later, more wine. Lots of tandem anchors bantering with gravitas, going live to their reporters in the field, all of whom are dressed in rain gear and being pounded by wind and rain. It's as if they were briefed before going on the air to pre-make the still unknowable catastrophic. The script is written. They are actors playing a role.

A female reporter named Christa stands on a beach in Long Branch, N.J., and interviews a surfer who for some reason feels the need to surf at night.

Channel change. A male reporter standing in front of 150-foot-long yachts at a boatyard in Greenwich, Conn., talks as if he's in front of a low-lying orphanage. "Now, not everyone's got a boat, but … "

Channel change: "You feel the intensity ratcheting up. As you can see, it's raining … "

The weatherman on CBS is blond and serious. You can tell how serious because his sleeves are rolled up. As he talks in clench-jawed tones, the color chart on the screen behind him changes from red (you are going to die) to a pale orange (you will get rained on). He is visibly flummoxed by this. He, like his colleagues, seems desperate to make this news, not merely report an unfolding story. " I think we're all agreed that it's coming here! This is going to be our storm."

I want to laugh, but I'm a natural worrier. I have a daughter. Which means I imagine horrible things on a regular basis. Windows exploding. Flooding. No power or water or food. Hordes of people forcing my door down. I kill several with my hands, with a fire poker. Others hold me down.

I gulp wine. My colon tightens. My eyes burn but I can't sleep because my internal clock is set to Beijing, where it's 10 a.m. tomorrow.

The channels show people who've been evacuated to shelters. Families, children, the elderly. They show the volunteers. My eyes fill with tears at their selflessness, their goodness.

ABC New York's Sam Champion (his real name) refers to the "cone of uncertainty." What does this mean?

I should be in bed. At times like this I look for good news, something to hang my hopes on. Instead I find: Earthquakes on the East Coast. Jobless numbers up. Dow down. And then the power outage numbers come up.

A reporter in Spring Lake, N.J. He's wearing a baseball cap. "When the wind hits your face, it hurts."

That's because you're outside in a hurricane, Mister Dangerously Low Board Scores. He says, "There's a curfew for the Jersey Shore." I wonder if it's possible to enact this year-round.

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