Battened Down

From Zone A in New York City, Lindsay Crouse on her preparations for Hurricane Irene.

Photo by Emily Hughes

New York just had a hurricane. It was a really big deal. The entire public transit system got shut down, and 370,000 residents — those who got the bad news on Friday that they lived in Zone A, the estuary-like precinct at greatest risk to be obliterated by a storm-surge — got evacuated, upon threat of misdemeanor charges for noncompliance. My cozy “garden-level” apartment, which I had never considered to be coastal at all — such things always seeming rather subjective — was both subterranean and a fifty-meter stone’s throw from the Zone A line of demarcation, alongside the Hudson River.

This led to a fair amount of hasty deliberation. I quickly drew upon my strong Rhode Island heritage, which derives heavy doses of identity from extreme weather events, such that it approaches them with equal amounts of trepidation and anticipation to a degree that some might consider unhealthy. There are pictures in my family photo albums of my father demonstrating the strength of gale force winds by standing me up at age one when I was just learning to walk along Providence’s waterfront during Hurricane Gloria, only to let me blow down — an experience we’re both certain I learned valuable lessons from (though we may differ on exactly which lessons they were).

During Hurricane Bob, a decade later, when we’d moved to the southern part of the state, he took me and two of my younger brothers outside just prior to the eye of the storm, to ensure that we would have what he considered to be the full character-building experience. “This is a hurricane, kids,” he informed us. As the rain drove down on us like nails and we protested his judgment — no one else appeared to be outside martyring themselves in the name of character, after all — his eyes lit up as he admonished: while lambs take shelter from the storm, eagles confront such adversity head on — and wouldn’t we rather be eagles? We conceded that we did. Life lessons of all kinds can be learned in a hurricane.

Hurricane Irene was my first hurricane as a grown up, and I was ready to prove that, even if less ambitious than a true eagle, I was ready to incorporate my lessons into generally autonomous adult life. But I wasn’t sure what to do.

Luckily, in addition to the lessons from a hardscrabble Rhode Island childhood, a guy I’d dated recently with a fair amount of spare time considered himself to be something of a survivalist. He once spent an entire day assembling a strategic compilation of mundane multi-purpose objects into an Altoids tin, such as a needle and some fishing line. When I’d asked him about this, not at all successfully concealing my incredulity, he just eyed me with a mix of patience and what I worried was not a little condescension. “Someday, you’ll be glad you know these skills,” he told me. “You can never be too prepared.” With this in mind, I purchased my own Altoids tin, and chose the ginger flavor. My moment to survive had come, and I knew it was up to me to save myself.

It didn’t help that all of New York was off kilter reacting to the news that a storm was impending. Whereas Rhode Island defines itself by these events, New York largely considers itself weather-resistant. A hurricane here of any category, in any context, is essentially Apocalypse Now.

The West 400 Block Association, a generally hyper-alert community and associated newsletter, of which I am a member by virtue of living in the west 400s, was going berserk. At noon on Friday, days before the storm’s predicted arrival date, every door in West Chelsea had been papered with a largely inscrutable photocopied map of the neighborhood, magic marker tracing a zig-zagged grid into various precincts, seemingly at random. This was accompanied by a very direct notice to leave. By 4 p.m. the next day, we’d received multiple emails with an abundance of bold print and corresponding bullet points urging us to be “vigilant and prepared” — all of which made it unclear how alarmist to become, but added to the hysteria.

But logic did prevail. “Is it a concern that you’re in the basement?” a friend had inquired at the outset. “Yes, it is a concern,” I affirmed. But short of piling my belongings on top of each other to avoid the storm surge that threatened to punish me for living in a basement, there was little to do but hope for the best.

First things being first things, I decided I needed to fuel myself immediately in order to make subsequent rational decisions, and made my way to the only place I ever go in times like this: Tipsy Parson, which also happened to be the only establishment of its kind at the moment — its kind being the kind that was open, and served food. The New York Lemming Effect was in full force. Despite the cloying humidity, outside all passersby were fashionably zipped into Patagonia parkas, trudging down Ninth Avenue with determined expressions, their brows furrowed in uniform. I’d put on my Run for Haiti t-shirt, a nod to the need for disaster-preparedness, and joined them.

New York had been busy through the night. Restaurants were boarded, windows taped, despite the city’s admonitions not to conduct such preventative activities, on pain of self-injury. In the face of resource limitations, there was remarkable improvisation. As soon as it became clear that Manhattan faced a striking broad-based undersupply of sandbags, small business owners took their paper recycling and piled the garbage bags up outside their glass doors. How one chooses to react in the face of a natural disaster is a seriously personal matter. Throughout the city, the air was thick with a mix of cavalier levity and uncertain foreboding.

It was all of 10 a.m. I sidled my way to the bar, scribbled “Hurricane” down on a slip of paper and stared at it, trying to compile a to-do list. I changed the header to “Surviving the Hurricane,” to emphasize the magnitude of the task at hand. Out of the corner of my eye, Zone A loomed, ominously. I eyed Tipsy Parson’s ample liquor counter, zeroing in on something called Chartreuse, a suspicious green. Green like the sky was turning. Prudently, I turned away — there were more pressing matters at hand than could be handled if I devolved into unchecked alcohol abuse at 10 a.m.

At Tipsy Parson, conversation about the impending storm mingled with a critical analysis of The Notebook, which a waiter with stylish bleached hair had watched the evening prior. Hurricane conversation largely revolved around prevailing terminology: for example, “cat” versus “category” — the shorthand led some to conflate the qualifying term with the pet. Otherwise it was largely an “I’m in B” or “I’m in A” exchange, which would peter out shortly after it began. Never before had street blocks been so interesting — but only to a point.

After brunch, it was time to buckle down and prepare for the future. The same responsible friend had advised me that I needed food, cash, a flashlight and batteries, water, and wine. I did a hasty inventory of my kitchen; the only thing I seemed to have ample supplies of was the wine element. Otherwise, I was looking at a head of broccoli and some mustard.

Rhode Island heritage and associated hurricane pedigree notwithstanding, her advice left me conflicted. All I generally eat at home are Luna and Clif bars — they are largely shelf-stable and would likely remain that way to see me through the storm, which would last no more than a day. Something about this logic seemed dangerously corner-cutting, however — much like my entire approach to the situation so far, an approach I was eager to redress. I decided to go out and look for a couple more reinforcement flavors, to balance out my prospective diet.

Photo by Emily Hughes

In Rhode Island, we also were strong believers in milk and bread, for hurricanes, blizzards, and whatever aberration fell in between — regardless of whether our pantries contained those items at other parts of the year. In New York we’d been warned that the water could be shut off — a horrifying prospect. I decided to bike to Whole Foods, where, if not milk and bread exactly, I could at least proactively fortify myself with some mango lassi and foccacia.

Hopping on my TrailMaster in my red and yellow rain boots made a lot of sense until I did it and it didn’t. It was a sweaty, slippery, two-minute ride to the grocery store, which I promptly discovered was closed. Reality began to close in; Trader Joe’s was off-limits as well. I tentatively headed over to the local generic grocery, which I normally eschew on grounds of it being both overpriced and disgusting. A line stretched to the back of the frozen foods isle with all number of hapless New Yorkers who, like me, were too busy to deal with the weather until it arrived. Their hurricane selections made me pause for thought: One righteously clutched three cartons of Keebler elf cookies and some PBRs. Another inexplicably only had a package of Oscar Mayer salami. They had all been waiting for at least a half hour. I decided to cut my losses — the window of opportunity for diversified energy bar selections had clearly closed, and there was no one to blame but myself.

I went through the rest of my improvised checklist. Several years ago, my father, inexplicably, gave me a rechargeable flashlight for Christmas. This was notable at the time both for its obscurity and lack of context. Dutifully, however, I had retained it, packed away in my too-overflowing Tupperware bin of things I keep for a proverbial rainy day. That flashlight’s day had come.

Outside, the rain had begun. Never before had I seen New Yorkers regard rainfall with such solemnity. People stopped in their tracks, moved toward awnings, and looked up to the sky, scratching their heads — and then turned down toward their phones in texting/tweeting fury.

Noon appeared to be the pre-appointed hour of transition toward Hurricane Alert. As prescribed, the city ground to a halt at the chosen hour. Subway trains abandoned their routes. Taxi drivers parked on cross streets and abandoned their vehicles.

I arrived home — totally empty-handed — and tried to figure out what to do. I almost never spend any conscious time in my apartment, so the feeling was both exhilarating and foreign. Growing up I would play board games at times like this. In a nod toward the twenty first century, I whipped out my iPhone and settled in for a rousing game of Words with Friends. The friend in question however played strong defense and I soon grew frustrated. Kudio was not a word. Nor was Ponzah.

Outside the winds grew heavier, and I took Mayor Bloomberg’s advice to “batten down” and wait out the storm to heart. I piled my shoes atop my desk, and rolled up my rug, balancing it on top of my laundry basket. I took out the flashlight. And I sat down. The winds rolled in. I may not have been prepared, at all. But I would survive.

Photos by Emily Hughes

Lindsay Crouse has spent her entire life living somewhere along Amtrak’s northeast corridor (first Kingston RI, then a brief stint in Boston for college, and now New York City). Her day job in global health keeps her out of the city more than she’s in it. Email her.