Quiet Storm: Why Some New Yorkers Don't Know a Hurricane is Coming

In New York, where hurricanes are once-in-a-lifetime events, safety depends on access to information.

Before I even got out of bed today, my Blackberry was buzzing with news of Hurricane Irene. My mother-in-law was texting me the latest updates, was shoving angry alerts in my inbox, my Twitter feed was riddled with uneasy storm predictions. As soon as I opened Google Reader, I was inundated with up-to-the-minute information about just how much havoc Irene might wreak on the East Coast. I'm a typical blasé New Yorker, but by 11 a.m., I figured I should go to the drugstore for a few flashlights and gallons of water.

As I walked into the elevator, the old woman who lives across the hall stepped in, too. I made small talk. "You all stocked up for the big storm?" I asked. She blinked. "Storm?" she asked. She had no clue what I was talking about.

I'm not the only one who's noticed this trend. One of my friends tweeted this exchange: "Italian au pair on the floor above: 'It's going to rain this weekend, right? I'm going to go to museums.' Me: 'No. You're not.'" Another follower responded that he spoke to someone who was heading to the Jersey Shore. "It seems like the rain's passed," he said.

I started to realize that in a place like New York, where hurricanes happen approximately never, your safety depends on your access to information. People in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida know to keep their ears to the ground, but how do you get the word out in a place where the last serious hurricane happened in 1938? I live in a pretty low-income building in a low-income area, and I'm willing to bet that many of my neighbors don't have Internet access. If they choose not to turn on the news that day, they might be shit out of luck when their power goes off. Granted, my neighborhood is not in one of the zones in danger of serious flooding. But working-class communities like Coney Island and much of Staten Island are already starting to evacuate their hospitals and nursing homes, and could face flooding of 15 to 20 feet.

We learned from Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti that natural disasters are not class-blind. And although New York is probably not in grave danger this weekend, the lesson is important even on a small scale. So if you're on the East Coast, don't just make sure to buy canned food and candles—make sure you spread the word, too.

New Yorkers stock up on supplies at Costco before Hurricane Irene

satellite image via NOAA; photo courtesy of Anna Holmes