Stephen Foley: I was hoping for worse from Irene


To gauge the seriousness with which New Yorkers took the threat from Hurricane Irene, you need only look in the fridge.

This is, as you know, the city that never sleeps, which means you can normally be sure of getting a burger or a burrito at any time of the day or night. So it was rather unusual to be in the supermarket with a basket of food, assembling the building blocks for a few days of proper meals, with a crowd of similarly-startled Manhattanites, and with the city visibly shutting down around us. There is nothing like closing the subway system to paralyse the city, forcing restaurants and shops to shut their doors. Swaths of the city were deserted; we are social animals, New Yorkers. We are not meant to stay indoors. It was eerie out there.

Our fridge, typically containing little more than beer and wine and perhaps a block of cheese, is now teeming - and frankly, it is a little disappointing to find we won't need to hunker here for days after all.

The weather-beaten folks of the southern United States, living under the threat of hurricanes for five or six months every year, have watched us all with disgust, I would bet. Certainly, a lot of my friends decided that the best preparation for a big storm is to buy a case of wine and a week's worth of crisps and dips. You couldn't buy a torch for love nor money by the end of Friday, as we all discovered at the same moment that we were woefully unprepared for the power outages the authorities were telling us would be a near-certainty when Irene arrived.

Suddenly, it seemed we had chosen the wrong moment to move into a 12th floor corner apartment in the Financial District. The nice big windows seemed more of a curse, as the mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared on television yet again to order residents to bring in all their outdoor furniture and construction site managers to tie down building materials. The good folks of the apartment opposite had lain down their outdoor heater and tucked their chairs under the patio table, but to my mind, and from my window, it was like looking out on a battery of Scud missiles.

More worrying, because it was more likely, was the threat of having the power cut. A storm surge in the East River or the Hudson could easily flood important electricity cables, and ConEd, the utility company, appeared trigger happy to shut off power as a precaution. The prospect of losing access to Facebook and Twitter is simply too horrifying to imagine, but it turns out that there are important things you can do to mitigate the awfulness. Saturday night, I got a jigsaw down from the shelf, and we discussed a hypothetical game of Monopoly. Darrell ground some coffee beans, deciding that stale coffee is preferable to his being completely uncaffeinated in the morning. I vouched for that judgment.

And then we filled the bath. In many Manhattan high-rises, the water supply relies on being pumped to the upper floors, so with the power down, we might need that bathful for drinking, washing and flushing.

After that, it was just a matter of retiring and waiting. The mayor, our daddy substitute for the past few days, had repeatedly urged us to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We certainly prepared for the worst - but I was hoping for something a little worse than the best. Too many cynics had predicted Irene would peter out or wander off to sea, leaving us with "drizzlepocalypse" or "Hurrilame Irene". I am not a veteran of the 2003 blackout, which cut power to the city, but my New Yorker friends speak so fondly of the camaraderie of that event, that I wanted a moment of my own. I'm still smarting from discovering we were in Zone C, just two blocks but a full two notches of danger away from the Zone A evacuation area of Lower Manhattan. "What zone are you?" was the first question anyone asked during Friday night's pre-apocalypse drinks, and I remain rather jealous of those who had the excuse to decamp for a fun sleepover with friends.

I'm happy the windows are intact, I'll grant you that, but it is with some sadness that I must now go and drain the bath. And put the dinner on.