On a high-note [Essay]

Memoirs of a trip to New York in the summer of Hurricane Irene.

September 2011

There are few things that elicit as deep a primal a sense of exhilaration in a man than noticing the woman beside you shuddering.

There are fewer things still that elicit the deep sense of disappointment that comes with the realisation that the shuddering isn’t of your doing.

Of course this disappointment starts to ebb somewhat, turning to confusion as you realise that everything in the 4th floor Brooklyn apartment that you are in is also shuddering.

“Could this be a thundering train in the tube?” 

You hope. You dismiss that thought when the full gravity of reality hits: this was an Earthquake!

The first thing you do is…


You’re still wondering how long it all could or should take. You hear the rattling of bottles inside the fridge mere meters away. You remember once hearing that in the event of an earthquake everyone should take cover in a doorway.

You quickly realise that the math of 3 people in the front doorway doesn’t add up.

But what is the alternative; rushing down the stairs and gathering in the streets? Isn’t that more dangerous? And isn’t that just a sign of panic?

Why aren’t your two New Yorker friends getting off the couch or getting out of the bathroom or saying anything even? Is this normal? Well, it is the United States; don’t such things happen here; a Lot? 

OMG, have you travelled all the way to New York to get into an Earthquake?  

Meanwhile your confusion has quickly turned first to fear then to frustration and finally ire. Well, actually, finally relief. Before you know it the quake that seemed to be going on forever is over. 

“Is that it?” 

Your incredulity is matched by the nonchalance of one of your companions, who like you still hasn’t gotten off the couch, and the ignorance of the other, who has emerged from the water closet unaware that there had been any tremors at all.

The inevitable jibes about the Earth not having moved for her arise.

And yet somehow all the conversation for the next two days is dominated by talk of “the quake”.

Apparently you weren’t the only one who thought of going outside, across the city, experienced fire marshals had shepherded people down numerous flights of stairs and into the streets especially downtown where the skyscrapers live.

Apparently The Quake is a more frightening experience the higher up you are.

Apparently the The Quake was much more alarming around the epicentre in Virginia several hundred miles away.

Apparently The Quake was quite a big deal.

Apparently huge after-shocks were expected. Everyone is warned to stay off the subways. What a good day to be a cab driver.

Thankfully no after-shocks pronounce their arrival. By the day’s end your reflection on these shocks is simply: “Is that it?” 

Paradoxically it isn’t. Soon word of an accompanying Hurricane gets to you. It would seem that The Quake and its nascent after-shocks were the quiet before the storm. She is named Irene.

There is very quickly a storm of media warnings of what she will do to New York. She is expected to be the first Hurricane to hit the City in 60 years.

In anticipation of Irene’s arrival, evacuation notices are everywhere. It’s time for you to leave as well. No sense in wondering “OMG, have you travelled all the way to New York to get into a Hurricane”? 

It is on your way out of town, in the gridlock of near-panicked commuters that the full weight of this fear pandemic hits you.

Over the radio the Governor is outlining the areas in danger and tips for surviving Irene: “pack enough fresh water for 5 days; pack a flashlight in case of power failure; whatever you do, do NOT go to Atlantic city folks!” 

You cannot help but marvel at the scale of disaster management infrastructure that is being rolled out. Nonetheless you’re at the airport, one of the lucky few that will get a flight before all the airports are shut and all travel in and out of the world’s busiest city is suspended.

You board with just hours to go before Irene’s arrival. And emerge at the next airport to learn that Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm while you were over the Atlantic somewhere.

Your frantic calls to the locals upon landing are met with a phlegmatic: “I slept through it”

A now familiar refrain creeps into your subconscious 

“Is that it?”

When you finally make it home to SA friends are quick to brief you on all the fun you’ve missed like chaotic marches and racist name calling. You smile, knowing that it will be a while before the you feel any of the sense of underwhelming you felt abroad. If you were me, you’d be glad to be home.

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