Hurricane brings out humanity in harried New Yorkers

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A New York City taxi is stranded in deep water on Manhattan’s West Side as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city on Sunday in New York. Although downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, Irene’s torrential rain couple with high winds and tides worked in concert to flood parts of the city. (Peter Morgan/AP Photo)

Editor's Note: Amber Genuske is a former Texan Life and Arts editor who recently moved to Brooklyn, New York for an internship. Here's her account of Hurricane Irene.

Though her presence was brief and her might overestimated, Irene’s predicted power was enough for New Yorkers to recognize the humanity of the other 8 million people they share the city with.

It is amusing and slightly disheartening that it takes a natural disaster for residents to identify their mortality, and in turn, the mortality of those around them. When New Yorkers are forced to slow down for one damn minute and focus on preparing hurricane “go” bags full of basic survival gear, they take off the blinders that guide their daily lives, and become actual humans again.

On Friday and Saturday, people purchasing nonperishable food items, bottled water and batteries packed grocery stores. As people stood in lines for up to 30 minutes, they removed their usual public-space bubbles and cross-checked their items with others, offering advice on the most secure place in an apartment, and always saying “be safe” before they parted ways.

Around 8 p.m. on Saturday before the storm started to really pick up, I walked to my neighborhood bodega, Smith’s Grocery, to get one last round of supplies before dedicating myself to a three-person hurricane party of pasta, cookies and Irene cocktails in my apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

I don’t know how many times I’ve bought a six pack or a snack from that corner-store bodega. As most convenience-store conversations go, the cashier and I never extended past an exchange of requests for items and cash. This night though, the cashier said his boss required the store to be open all night despite being located in an evacuation zone.

Because the cashier was going to have to brave the storm alone, it made me take an extra moment to ensure he was going to be OK. The “wall of water” catchphrase in the media and the look of pure distress in his eyes made me recognize the frailty of a street-level bodega in a hurricane, and it made me recognize the frailty of the cashier.

Back at my apartment, my roommate, my friend and I tracked the storm’s progress through various news outlets as we listened to the wind pick up and the rain grow stronger outside my living room window on the third floor of a four-story brownstone.

When the death toll reached eight, the storm became real. Our Irene cocktails that swirled in our martini glasses started to taste bitter at the thought that we would be weathering a storm that had already taken lives.

I began to question my choice of sustenance which consisted of animal crackers, nuts and hummus and various soda bottles, bowls and pots filled with tap water. I doubted the longevity of the lemon-scented candle that we began burning hours before it got dark because we liked the smell.

Thankfully, my sub-par preparation worked in my favor when Irene turned out to be a glorified rain storm with wind gusts up to 65 mph. Really, it was more of a disappointment to not be able to use the candle for its intended purpose or to rely on a tub filled with water to flush my toilet. More importantly, though Irene made me question my sub-par preparation, it didn’t make me regret it. Now, I have animal crackers and cashews to last me two weeks.

Sunday afternoon when the storm had passed, I walked around my neighborhood to observe the destruction but was instead met with streets filled with fallen branches, the occasional busted tree and people with similar hopes of post-hurricane-carnage.

I made it a point to go check on my corner bodega cashier. The man at the counter was not the same who held down the fort for Smith’s Grocery and was confused when I asked how his fellow employee’s night was. Though, when he assured me that the other cashier was okay and I turned to leave, he said thank you for checking and I could see the sincerity in his eyes.

Some dedicated bodega employees stood their ground, other people overcompensated with fully-stocked go bags, though, most, like me, prepared just the basics and sipped on a version of an Irene cocktail as the hurricane degraded into a rain storm. But, at least for this weekend, Irene came to town and whipped New Yorkers into a state of altruism. As temporary as that state may be, I can only hope that in place of those ensuring “be safes” will be a heightened sense of the humanity of this city.

Printed on Monday, August 29, 2011 as: Threat of hurricane brings out humanity in New York citizens.