It’s a disaster. I am in small-town Massachusetts, listening to tropical storm Irene chattering on the loft windows, there’s no milk for tea, and it’s my fault. For the last 48 hours frantically excited radio and television anchors have spared no effort in producing high-level panic on an interminable loop. Even the generally measured tones of National Public Radio turned breathless with dystopian anticipation. By the time we turned up at the supermarket the evening before Irene made landfall, all milk, food, water, batteries and toilet paper had vanished. The bottled water shelves gleamed with an eerie emptiness: no post-apocalyptic looting could have been more thorough.
After arriving on the eastern seaboard Hurricane Irene ran its course as a tropical storm, having already lost its dangerous «eyewall«, as meteorologists showed. But the manufactured hysteria that had preceded its arrival and continued well after Irene had clearly diminished in force drew out some less admirable aspects of American life.
Where sensible rationing was called for, unbridled runs on supermarkets resulted in unnecessarily vast quantities of food and water being hoarded in individual basements, much of it undoubtedly destined for the rubbish bins as skies clear. Even as it cast about desperately for dramatic disaster footage, the broadcast media covered the storm with manic single-mindedness, revelling in the rhetoric of siege and assault. A «big threat to the US» would «viciously» make its way up the coast, «menacing», «taking aim», and «pounding» the nation.
Singularly uninterested in weather misery elsewhere, the American media’s wilful parochialism reinforces the state of exception that is the default political setting in this country. A few days before the 10th anniversary of September 11, America was again uniquely under siege and would fight the assault through a combination of bunker mentality and indomitable will.
Cyclones and storms routinely devastate low-lying areas and kill many in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines. We hear little of these until the body count rises, and they certainly never merit the raindrop-by-raindrop international media coverage accorded to Irene’s American jaunt.
By the time Irene arrived stateside, the storm had already done its worst in the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the American colony of Puerto Rico. But you’d be forgiven for thinking the hurricane had the United States uniquely in its sights, one of the many forces in the world apparently ranged against the American way of life.
Along with other eastern regions, a state of emergency was declared in New York City, initiating sensible measures such as evacuating homes at flood risk. Shutting down the entire subway system was a more questionable decision, given the city disaster management office’s own hurricane instructions: «Evacuate immediately: use public transportation if possible.» Echoing Katrina’s mistakes, the Rikers Island prison population, including children, would not be evacuated and Mayor Bloomberg’s evacuation plans provide no instructions to people without access to either private or public transportation.
Preparedness with a sense of proportion is always good. It would have saved thousands of lives and homes in New Orleans in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. But the ratcheted-up rhetoric around Irene, termed a «historic hurricane» by President Obama, spoke less of the state’s duty to protect than of inflated pre-election grandstanding complete with cowboy-style gubernatorial warnings to people «to stay the hell off the beach».
This is not to participate in the blame game that has already begun as media pundits denounce and politicians defend their actions. Some superficial queries about «over-reaction» are now being posed. But the real question is what political role such manufactured hysteria plays at a time when ordinary Americans are far more vulnerable to the damage being inflicted on them by their economic and political elites than to individual weather events. (Changing climate patterns are a different matter).
Put simply, millions more homes will have been lost to bank repossessions than have been damaged by Irene. The storm caused some flooding, but much greater degradation has been inflicted on the US coastline by last year’s BP oil spill. A few days without electricity is challenging, but the blow to clean energy prospects posed by the state department’s recent approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Texas coast is more worrying.
A real state of preparedness for natural catastrophes anywhere is only possible for a general population protected by fair access to decent housing, good universal healthcare and robust environmental regulations. Preparing for the worst means addressing both what causes or aggravates natural disasters – like climate change and poverty – and how the damage they inflict can be minimised by a strong social infrastructure. Like Britain, the US is headed further in the opposite direction. Piling up sandbags and stocking up on masking tape will not then save anyone from disasters to follow.
By Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.