It’s just after 10.30 a.m. US Eastern time on the morning of Tuesday, August 23, 2011. The pilot has switched on seat belt lights and announced we will be landing shortly at JFK Airport in New York City (NYC). I am close to the end of my journey, which started some twenty hours before at Nairobi with a short lay over at Heathrow, London. Flying into NYC always makes my body queasy, as I recall the afternoon of September 10, 2001 when I landed at the same airport, jetlagged, checked into my hotel in mid-town Manhattan, slept through the night, and woke up to the greatest terror the world has ever experienced – 9/11. I am not lost to the fact that in a few days, it will be the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and by such great coincidence I will be in the city. It’s a stark reminder of the evil that rules the world and can strike anywhere at any time. We touch down safely on this extremely humid day and I am off to immigration, as I look forward to enjoying NYC, as I always do, and this time in the company of my daughter who has become a proud New Yorker. It’s her birthday coming weekend and my two sons will be traveling to NYC from other states for a birthday party we have planned for her.
Finally at my daughter’s apartment, we are chatting excitedly as I unpack when I get this funny feeling like my head is going round and I assume it’s the jetlag and humidity after the cold Nairobi weather. My daughter asks whether I felt an earthquake. Earthquake? Are you joking? And, yes, there has been an earthquake.
Most of the East Coast, including NYC, has been hit by a 5.9 magnitude tremor and all news channels have the breaking news. People are evacuating from buildings and eyewitness reports have accounts of terrified people running to the security of the streets and open fields – difficult to find among the skyscrapers of NYC. Reality hits, I have arrived to an earthquake in NYC. What is it about me and bad things happening in the US when I am there? Believe you me; not only did I experience 9/11, I was also in the country during Katrina in 2005! Anyway we survive the earthquake – clearly hyped by the media.
With the earthquake behind us, it’s now time to savour NYC – Broadway, theatres, shopping, great food… But by Wednesday, news is coming in that a hurricane by the girly name Irene is headed our way. I take it for another media hype, but by Thursday things are appearing serious. The weathermen are predicting a direct hit in North Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut and NYC. The media is warning of Armageddon. Anxious local and federal officials go into high gear preparedness. And I can tell you after 9/11 and Katrina, this country is prepared for disaster.
The president issues a statement: “Follow advice and evacuate if your area is on mandatory evacuation zone.” Massive coastal evacuations are ordered. Sixty five million people on the storm’s path are told to prepare for the worst. Scaring doomsday messages are all over the media. “The winds will topple trees, windows will be shattered, construction sites and outdoor furniture will become f lying missiles, power will go off in most areas, there will be massive f looding as rivers will break their banks, water could rise up to 14ft high…” My daughter’s apartment is four blocks from a river!
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not want to be caught f lat-footed like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin during Katrina. He orders closure of the entire subway – the first time in its history. Most of the transport system in the East Coast is paralysed. Airports are shut. Trains have stopped. NYC is a ghost town – and I am in the middle of it!
We cancel my daughter’s birthday party and so my sons will not travel; actually can’t travel. We decide to evacuate from the apartment to a hotel in mid-town Manhattan, away from the water. We remove all furniture and fittings away from the windows and store them in the inner rooms. We pack our passports, cash, credit cards and other important documents in our hand luggage and off we go to the hotel.
Apart from a few tourists strolling the streets, the mass of humanity, which depicts NYC streets on a normal day, is not there. It’s a complete shutdown. We have been told Irene will hit NYC Saturday night/Sunday morning. It has already hit North Carolina with devastating destruction. By early evening, rains start coming down. We take shelter in our hotel room watching TV and sharing a bottle of wine.
We doze off. I wake up with a startle and check the time. It’s close to four in the morning. I peep through the window, careful not to be hit by a f lying object. I notice there is a bit of rain and wind, and surprise, surprise, there is a man walking down the street!
I put on the news. Some overzealous reporters are still at it – suddenly fallen tree branches have become monumental and some little f lowing water made to look like a huge river. What an anti-climax? As it turned out, hurricane Irene was a near miss: damaging and disruptive, but not devastating, a far cry from what happened in the Gulf Coast when hurricane Katrina hit, killing more than 1800 people across the region.
Irene never became the monster it was predicted to be. Though it followed the ominous path up the East Coast, it never intensified as much as predicted and had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it reached NYC – good news though an anticlimax after all the preparedness. We return to the apartment on Monday afternoon and start the backbreaking work of putting things back. Ouch… my back still hurts. Thanks Irene.