Floyd's New York debut is a flop

PANIC! Terror! Destruction! Rain! New York feared the worst as Hurricane Floyd hit town last week, a southern visitor to a city which regards the rest of the world as little more than a suburb of the world's greatest metropolis. There was a wailing and a gnashing of perfectly capped teeth. Yet Floyd, for all its advance billing, disappointed New Yorkers - the cardinal sin in a place where to be boring is worse than anything else.

The fact that a large chunk of the south-east of the United States of America was devastated was of rather less interest to the planet's most self-obsessed city.

For New York, this was an unaccustomed drama. It is used to a touch of snow and heat waves, and it throws pouty sulks for both. But hurricanes are just a little bit, well, southern for New York. And so the city wound itself into a fury. Why, Conde Nast had sent its staff home at noon - before lunch! It must be serious. In the event, the storm had run out of energy by the time it reached New York (we all feel like that sometimes, especially after a long flight) and merely dropped a foot or so of rain.

It was Fashion Week, and the city's finest were on their way to the Bill Blass show in a tent in Bryant Park. But they kept their chins up (many have had their faces lifted so often they had little choice). The New York Times extolled their bravery in breathless prose.

"They had slogged through driving rain (or, in the case of his "ladies", been chauffeur-driven), praying that the show would go on. It did," the paper said, as though describing the siege of Sarajevo. But never mind. "The Blass spring 2000 show made everyone forget about the pounding rain on the tent's roof, and the occasional leaks." Thank God someone kept their nerve, eh? The New York Post made a very half-hearted effort to make it sound like Apocalypse Now, but could only manage the dismal "Oh! Water Mess!" on its front page.

"Feral Floyd wrought some of its worst havoc in the suburbs - especially Westchester - snapping tree limbs like twigs, tying up commuter trains and blocking roads." it said in a piece with the somewhat wittier headline "City Beginning Floydian Analysis." Feral? Havoc? The general tone was of a rather pointless defiance.

While New York was doing its "come and get me if you think you're hard enough" act, of course, Floyd (not a very New York name) had spent himself in North Carolina, which has suffered its largest ever natural disaster. The fact that the New Haven line was running erratically and that some tree branches had come down in Westchester was probably of little concern beyond the boundaries of New York. In the Bahamas - a large part of which has been levelled, and where an entire village was swept out to sea - they may take little consolation from the news that Mr Blass is defying the elements to do interesting things with asymmetric ruffles and organza. The hurricane also did serious damage in New Jersey, but then most Manhattanites would probably take some pleasure in that.

The truth is, New York is getting soft. For decades, its self-mythologising residents could see their daily life as a fight for survival, but now it is a rather decorous, well-ordered place. Ten years ago, residents were concerned about the spread of armour-piercing bullets; a poll last year showed that noise was now the greatest concern.

Anna Wintour, the British editor of Vogue, put it very discreetly and carefully to USA Today. "I'm certainly not going to put my life in danger," she said. "But I'm English. This is only a little rain."

New York can probably expect more in the way of tropical nuisance in the coming years. Hurricanes rarely make their way this far north, but Floyd, the recent outbreak of mosquito-borne St Louis encephalitis, and an outbreak of e.coli infection have an apparent common root: climatic change. Hurricanologists predict that the country is in for a phase of larger storms, and there will probably be other intruders with vulgar Midwestern names.

Warm winters and the summer drought may also have encouraged the spread of mosquitoes, and the e. coli seems to have spread from a well that was only used because of the drought. Of course, St Louis encephalitis is far more common in other parts of the US: that's why they call it after St Louis, not Murray Hill or Sutton Place. It was only when they started to spray Central Park with pesticides that anyone with a 212 area code noticed the disease existed at all, because that is the nature of New York.

But then, if global warming continues, in 10 years' time New Yorkers may even learn a touch of Southern courtesy.

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