Photo: Paul Lurrie/Shutterstock

Hurricane Sandy and the Unspoken Attraction of Disaster

New York City News
by Madeline Gressel Nov 1, 2012
MatadorU student Madeline Gressel on owning the narrative.

WHEN THE TWIN TOWERS COLLAPSED, my father was sitting on his bed in the Conrad Hotel, Hong Kong, watching the news in horror.

I was safe and cozy in my morning art class, during my very first week of high school at my new school on the Upper East Side. My sister was standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of her own high school’s library — four short blocks from the World Trade Center — watching in shock as the towers erupted before her.

It was hours of agony before my father could reach any of us to make sure we were okay, and by the end of the ordeal, he’d decided to give up his job in Hong Kong and move back home. Despite a cultivated distaste for the United States, he couldn’t stand the idea of being away from his children during another terrorist attack.

As an early devotee of fiction and history (and their often neglected love-child, historical fiction), I responded to the crisis differently than some of my peers. If my sleep was disturbed, it was in a state of momentous excitement. I was seized, perhaps a bit cold-bloodedly, not by fear or anxiety, but by a thrilling sense of possibility and immediacy. This was my chance to be a part of history in the largest sense, to be a part of something that mattered, something that — because of my birth and childhood in downtown Manhattan — I could claim as a seminal moment in the narrative of my life.

I was disappointed. While my sister headed to Saint Vincent’s Hospital to make sandwiches for aid workers and firemen, my mother decided I was too young and sent me home. Anyway, there were hardly enough wounded survivors to necessitate real aid work across the city. The casualties were dead. I was not called upon to be the nurse of my fantasies. Still, I had been there. And no one could take that away from me, even as I drifted back to the more pressing matters of ninth grade in a new school.

Now, as New York City is sloshed by a record-breaking 13ft wall of water, it is I sitting comfortably in a café in Hong Kong watching the light October rain outside. My father is in his 29th-floor apartment watching it pour; my mother is in my childhood home on the bank of the swollen Hudson River, presumably cuddling with my terror-stricken, thunder-phobic beagle, Oliver. My friends post photos on Facebook of candlelit dinners, submerged cars, and the powerless, darkened skyline.

And I wish I were there with them. Not because I’m afraid for their safety (I’m not), but because I’m missing a moment of New York history. I’ll never be able to say, “Remember the flood of 2012? That was insane.” I feel jealous at the pictures, like I’ve seen a photo of an ex-lover with his new flame.

These are times when it becomes difficult to live abroad. It is a perverse little voice inside of me that longs to say, years hence, as the fires and hailstorms of global climate change rain down on Earth, and we herd the animals two by two onto some intergalactic ark: “I was there! I was there when the deluge began!”

Of course, living abroad, your chances of experiencing a moment of national crisis are just as high. But it won’t be your crisis, the crisis of your native land. You will be an outsider, experiencing it as if from behind a glass, with no proprietary rights at all.

It’s an odd moment of nationalism. But then, isn’t all nationalism a product of suffering? Not only because we share our fear and sadness, but also because we as a people suddenly share a demarcated story. Narratives only become real and legitimized when they’re acknowledged and heard. During a crisis, the world is tuning in to your narrative, and your country is the star. To be a part of a nation is to be a part of a shared story. And to be a part of a national crisis is to be a part of a great story.

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