David Usborne: Our Man In New York

A postcard from this complacent city on the edge


I have witnessed more disasters sfirst-hand, both natural and man-made, in America than most. I have seen the damage left behind by tornadoes in rural Kansas, the devastation wrought by hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida and, worst of all, I was there when the first of the Twin Towers buckled and sank into the ground.

You would think these experiences would make me heed the authorities' repeated exhortations to us to prepare for whatever fresh calamity might strike next. Sadly, however, I am one of those people who prefers to cross bridges only when they get to them.

But let's consider bridges for a moment. A study just published by the New York chapter of the Red Cross found more than half the people living in Manhattan thinking that in the event of an emergency they would rely on cars and taxis to get out. That, say the experts, would be their first mistake. Every bridge and every tunnel leading from the island would be clogged solid with fleeing masses.

It is not that I don't imagine that anything else can happen here. I wish I could be so certain. The sound of helicopters one recent morning instantly alerted me to something being amiss outside as did the pall of black smoke I spied rising to the east. As it turned out, it was only a warehouse fire across the river in Brooklyn. I say only - it was, in fact, the biggest fire in the city since 9/11.

Gotham's vulnerabilities are actually manifold. What scares city officials more than anything is the release of a dirty bio-weapon, spreading disease and death as fast as the wind happens to be blowing. At least as catastrophic would be a nuclear device going off or, alternatively, an attack at Indian Point, a nuclear power plant that sits just 25 miles north of the city on a bend in the Hudson river.

We are even told to prepare for hurricanes. It's rare, but they have been known to travel this far up the eastern seaboard. The really big one struck in 1821, pushing up sea levels around New York City 13 feet and inundating every neighbourhood south of Canal Street. A 185mph storm they called the Long Island Express hit in 1938 causing havoc across the region. They reckon we can expect to suffer a major hurricane once every 75 years. So it's true that we are almost due another.

It's tempting to scoff at these predictions of Armageddon. Scaring us is what the media, especially television, does best. I almost forgot the nifty graphics in Al Gore's new eco-film showing the sea swallowing large chunks of this island when the ice caps melt. At least that process would be gradual.

But it is odd, after everything that happened here, that so many of us remain so dozy, even complacent. Because I am not alone. The Red Cross study found that just over half the city's residents claim to be ready in the event of a serious disaster, which might also be another of those summer blackouts. But cross-examination found that most of them were telling fibs - they weren't ready at all.

First, we need to stock our kitchens with supplies to last everyone in the household for three days. That means a fresh gallon of water for each person each day, iodine tablets to disinfect water if any is still coming out of the taps, lots of canned food and other items like spare cell phone batteries and torches. Cell phones may not work, so we are also advised to agree on two rendezvous points outside the city.

Then there is the dog. Mass transit here recently announced plans to lift its ban on pets on the buses and in the subway if a state of emergency is declared. This seemed uncharacteristically compassionate and sensible to me. As officials in New Orleans can attest it is hard to persuade people to evacuate if they are told to leave their pooches behind. But now the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is having a fit, saying that pets would have to stay behind to fend for themselves. He hasn't met our pug. A hunter he is not.

A quick glance around our kitchen would confirm that we are typical New Yorkers, who rely most of the time on ordering dinners in and rarely having anything in the fridge beyond fermenting red wine. Clearly, this must change. My task today is to buy lots of baked beans and tinned tuna as well as plastic containers of fresh water and maybe - nerves will be ragged - cigarettes.

And in case we do ever find ourselves at panic stations, we should be investing in a case or two of premium canned puppy chow too.

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