Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Posted on: 04:45 PM IST Nov 01, 2012 IST
The megastorm Sandy, demoted from the position of hurricane, has been ravaging the East Coast of the US for the last three days. As of today, the death toll is 59, across the US and Canada (a point of comparison: deaths from the 2004 tsunami in India were a staggering 6400). 8.2 million households have been without power. The 108 year-old New York subway has been flooded. The NYU Hospital had to be evacuated because of a power outage. Nurses carried out newborns from the ICU, manually operating the ventilators. The New York Stock Exchange is closed. 18,100 flights were cancelled as the runways of both JFK and La Guardia were flooded, but JFK reopened today. 80 homes were gutted by a fire caused by an electric short circuit. A battered crane hangs over W57th Street-it was being used to build a luxury skyscraper. The famous seaboard of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been partially destroyed. One reporter writes that in the coastal communities of New Jersey boats are "picked up and slung around like rag dolls." The initial estimate of property loss is 20 billion US dollars.
However, it could have been worse. Much worse. Remember Katrina, the hurricane that devastated Louisiana and its largest city, the beautiful New Orleans, in 2005? It is true that Katrina was a proper Category 3 hurricane (Sandy is Category 1); its winds blew 120 miles an hour (Sandy's winds blew 90 miles per hour). Only its diameter, 400 miles, was less than that of Sandy. Sandy's diameter was more than double: 940 miles. Nevertheless, the loss of life in Katrina was huge, approximately 1833. While Obama cancelled his campaigning for the third day in a row, stating that "the election will take care of itself ...right now our number one priority is...saving lives," George W. Bush wouldn't even cancel his vacation and return to Washington DC when Katrina struck. His administration came under widespread attack because he neglected to act swiftly and decisively. The reason, most Americans thought, was that Louisiana was a state predominantly inhabited by low-income blacks. While Bush cut the budget for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in 2002 and laid off 500 workers, in the past five years Obama has increased its budget by 2.5 billion. The storm has cut across party lines. Some of the warmest praise for the Democrat President has come from Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey: "It's been very good working with the President," Christie declared, "It's been wonderful." Excellent evacuation efforts over 640 km have minimized the loss of life as have superlative efforts on the part of the NYPD, the Red Cross, city and state officials and ordinary Good Samaritan citizens.
Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, gave a marvellous speech at the Press Conference on Tuesday. His words did not have the pompousness of an address; his statement was informal; it was informative; it was down-to-earth. Bloomberg did not minimize any of the difficulties New Yorkers faced, either in the present or the future. He even came down to the nitty-gritty of sharing emergency numbers, urging people to call 911 only for the most acute emergency. He admitted that restoring the rapid transport system and the power grid were the biggest hurdles he faced. He had signed an order, he said, that allowed people to share taxis. He ended his statement with these words: "We will get through the days ahead by doing what we always do in tough times-by standing together, shoulder to shoulder, ready to help a neighbour, comfort a stranger and get the city we love back on its feet." What a pleasant contrast to the prevarication, misinformation and misjudged and inflated rhetoric of our political leaders at times of crisis.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the reaction to Sandy has been that even though it comes just about ten days before the US Presidential election, something that happens only once every four years, the business of America, as the media coverage demonstrates, is entirely about the storm. Politics takes a backseat to Nature's wrath. Would our political parties have behaved with such compassion and restraint if floods or cyclones had hit just before a national election? I think not.