In the end, as I think about it, the thing about a hurricane is not what you can anticipate, but what you can't: what makes a hurricane disastrous are things you either couldn't figure out in advance, or knew about, but couldn't prevent.
If you can figure out, for instance, that a hurricane hitting New York City and its coastal surroundings would be an enormous human disaster, you can move a lot of people out of the way. You can't move a lot of houses out of the way, but depending on how bad the storm is, that might not matter.
People will, no doubt, debate a lot of silliness about whether all the evacuations were necessary, whether public transportation should have been halted, if it all seems, in retrospect, like overkill. Have at it, I suppose. It seems to me, though, that, what will remain, after all the shouting dies down, is the reality that we dealt pretty well with things we could anticipate.
The problem with Hurricane Irene, are things we couldn't.
it seems obvious, now, that a 500-mile wide tropical storm is still a big mess after it hits the coast... but no one, really, quite predicted what a disaster the storm would be once it traveled north of the New York coast. This is a storm that, most likely, will be recalled - as these storms are - most by the places that were most devastated worst. Upstate New York, Vermont, a great deal of Connecticut... Irene is probably destined to be their memory, more than for those of us who waited, with varying anxiety, for a deluge that didn't quite deliver.
It could have been worse, it could have strengthened the way some forecasts predicted... but this doesn't have to be a story of What Might Have Been. The good thing, the amazing thing is that, for what it actually was, people took it seriously. And some serious people showed their seriousness.
As much as Michael Bloomberg gets a terrible reputation for his imperiousness and his occasional high-handedness (none more than his own faith that he, alone, is best suited to be Mayor), he does have a Chief Executive knack for making a plan. His decisions to evacuate low lying areas, to shut down the nation's largest public transportation system, were big choices and he owned them and clearly, they worked. Similarly, Chris Christie bluntly laid out a plan to evacuate New Jersey's shore points and said so in a clear, forthright way: take this seriously. Don't wait for the storm, don't be an idiot, and don't waste the time of people whose job it is to respond to disasters. Bev Perdue in North Carolina came off similarly forceful, practical, and determined.
It's easy to say "non one wanted to be the next Katrina", but it's more than that; the question, ultimately, is whether one thinks its alarmist or simply prudent to prepare for the worst. All over the East coast were officials who hedged that choice, who lagged on forcing evacuations, who seemed to follow the lead of others, rather than take it. On Long Island, the sense of just how bad things might get seemed to unravel in a fog. Connecticut officials seemed very concerned, but not quite ahead of the possibilities.
Sure, as Sunday unfolded, it was easy to feel kind of had; yes, it rained wherer we were for just about 24 straight hours... but we had no real flooding, no downed trees on our street, no power outage of any kind. The search for batteries and flashlights, the sight of a grocery stores cleaned out of bread and bottled water (how... prison), it all felt a little absurd. Sunday afternoon, we went out for a newspaper.
But one reality of Irene, I think, is how oddly capricious the results were: just blocks from places which had little more tha a long rainstorm were places full of downed trees, flooding, massive power outages. My little Westchester town came through mostly intact. The town where my Starbucks is saw massive flooding. The towns next to it are littered with tree debris. It was still hard, this afternoon, to find a passable road from that town to my hometown. Our commuter rail - the one that everyone questioned stopping - is probably going to need a week to resume full, normal service. Had trains tried to run through the storm, I guarantee you the mess would be longer to recover from, and worse.
So New York City came through less scathed; and the Jersey shore dodged some of the worst of ocean surges and less rain. Even Long Island took less direct damage than anyone expected. Even so, what probably matters most is preparation. And seriousness.
And what can be anticipated.
For me, what really pushed me to prepare for this storm was my Mother's memory of the Hurricane of 1938, called the Long Island Express, the one storm from history where a hurricane traveled up the East Coast, never hitting land until it crossed Long Island and slammed into the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts. My mom's childhood hometown in New Jersey took a glancing blow, one she never forgot. About six months ago, she found this PBS special about the hurricane. The stories in it have stuck with me ever since.
Yesterday, by the end of the day, the clouds rolled on. The winds whipped by, and even the tail end of the hurricane, the tropical storm, pretty much blew away without incident here at home. Much as we anticipated. It wasn't that bad. This time. And maybe, if we keep taking them seriously, and we prepare for the worst, we can at least know how to meet the disasters we can anticipate.