What I learned from Irene (the hurricane, not the person)

Living in NYC we are not accustomed to too many natural disasters. With the exception of the occasional blizzard or thunderstorm, we are most familiar with crowds, traffic, vermin, and trash (lots of it). So, when this week we are assaulted with not one, but two natural disasters, we were obviously at a loss on how to cope.

Things started off with a bang (literally) on Thursday with a rare earthquake. I’m a Californian, so I didn’t blink an eye at the small jolt that rocked Manhattan. Then, soon after, came reports that a hurricane pummeling islands off our coast was projected to blow our way. “We don’t have these problems in our big city”, we found ourselves mumbling under our breath. Now, there’s rumor that hurricanes can hit our area, but in reality it is a rarity. The last full blown papa hurricane (not downgraded to a tropical storm) was in 1938. The storm killed 10 people and caused millions of dollars in damages. Keep in mind that in the 19th century there weren’t any satellite pictures or overzealous T.V. news reporters to warn the unsuspecting population. So, as our storm threat grew, so did our modern day media frenzy. The press was having a field day. Fears fanned, I watched my friends hunker down- hoarding bottled water, canned food, and in typical NY fashion, booze. As the evacuation warnings turned into evacuation orders they found themselves glued to the news. The mayor was on T.V., and speaking Spanish for that matter. This was serious. Muy grave.

In the spirit of defiance, some New Yorkers took the laissez-faire approach to emergency preparedness. Scoffing off the predictions, sure that the local dive bar, nail salon, and diner would stay open during Armageddon. They carried on life as usual, almost until the end. Only did it truly sink in when they discovered the subway had been shut down and the corner store shelves were bare. They appeared impervious to the anxiety, but deep down were crossing their fingers and toes that they’d be all right.

My one and only experience with a hurricane was one summer trip to Mexico. A category 5 hurricane had it out for me and a few of my friends on our vacay to Playa del Carmen. When the broadcast that a hurricane was advancing, the calm cool, we’ve-been-here-before Mexicans found pleasure in scaring us gringos with hurricane horror. As I chuckled them off, inside my panic was growing, much like the hurricane itself. My first instinct was to get out. I mean, it’s one thing to experience an act of God and live to tell about it, but another thing to meet it while on foreign soil (especially someplace you can’t even drink the water!). Unwelcome thoughts turned me into the neurotic one of our bunch- traveling to the internet cafe twice a day to track it’s progress, calling home every chance I could get, and contemplating changing my flight to come home early. My housemates were more blase about the whole thing, and thought my reaction was ludicrous. I eventually swallowed it down and tried to deny the inevitable, but fate, as it’s prone to do, caught up with us. When it was certain that the hurricane was rolling in we began to bicker and plan a panicky escape.

I made it home, just by the hair on my chinny chin chin, but vowed to do things differently if there was ever a next time. Hurricanes like so many things in life, are beyond the reach of our control. It’s futile to obsess about the unknown, when the next day can bring a sunny sky, destruction, devastation, or flooding rain. On the b-side, feigning ignorance may lead to momentary bliss, but it could also leave you wishing you’d purchased that raft at the supermarket when you had the chance. Living means being sentient to the moment that surrounds you. It is possible to have your eyes wide open without being hypnotized by fear. If balance is key, how else can I be both prepared and yet detached, form obstacles and outcomes in my daily life?

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.” The Dalai Lama