Monday, July 26, 2010

Lightning and other natural disasters in New York

Two really cool videos taken in New York City on Friday night. The first one shows the most famous skyline in the world being lit up with the type of storm you normally associate with the plains of Oklahoma or the prairies of Minnesota. The second video shows the lightning bolts emerging from the sky, followed by the torrential rains that blanketed the boroughs. It's the types of scenes that conjure up words like apocalyptic, at least when they happen in New York. The storms rolled through the city shortly before 9 p.m. I boarded a bus in New Jersey at 8:10 p.m. and was on the A train in Manhattan by 8:35. It was dry in Jersey. By the time I stepped out of the subway at 207th Street in upper Manhattan, the rain had started to fall.

Because I forgot an umbrella when I left the house nine hours earlier, I cursed the gods and my own incompetence. I stopped at McDonald's to pick up some dinner. By the time I stepped out of the restaurant five minutes later, the rain had turned into a downpour. Lightning decorated the sky in every direction. By the sound of the thunder, it seemed like the storm was centered directly over Inwood, maybe over the local 99-cent store, maybe over our apartment building. I'd never seen a storm like this during my time in New York. It reminded me of the storms that precede tornado warnings in Minnesota. The cities hit the sirens, meaning it's time to find a basement, though many people use them as a signal to step out on the porch or into the car to see what all the excitement's about.

"Wanna go find the storms?" is an actual question sober people ask their friends and family.

With my McNuggets and fries jammed into my black bag, I sprinted six blocks to our apartment, avoiding puddles while searching the sky for bolts. An ear-piercing thunder strike - which brought about cries of "Holy Shit! Let's get into the subway!" from a group of four cowering men - actually made me jump higher than I have since grabbing a rebound my senior year of basketball.

My run took me past a city park, which means my run took me under some trees, which means my run freaked me out for about 30 seconds. Good god, do not go under a tree during a storm. How many times have I heard that over the years? A hundred? Two hundred? I finally made it home, soaked but safe. Only later did I learn that a woman got struck by lightning around this same time in the Bronx. A man got drilled in Brooklyn. Both, fortunately, survived. Only later did I learn that there had actually been a tornado warning issued for New York City, an occurrence that is seemingly as rare as a hurricane warning for Minneapolis. But tornadoes have actually hit the city. A twister did severe damage to Brooklyn in 2007 - the first tornado to hit Brooklyn since 1889. There have been some brief touchdowns in Staten Island. Manhattan seems immune.

Except in the movies:

Are trailers about scary movies supposed to look and sound like an Onion News Video?

There were no tornado terrors in NYC on Friday night, but it was as close to the real thing as possible, minus the funnel clouds.

One thing I actually love about living in New York is that we are, for the most part, immune to natural disasters. We're in Manhattan, so we should be safe from tornadoes. Even Hollywood has only been able to come up with laughable scenarios like the one above to document the threat. If it did ever happen and you were going to describe it as being something out of a movie, you'd have to be much more specific: "It looked like something out of that hideous 2008 movie starring Nicole de Boer."

Experts always say a hurricane could one day strike New York. Call me complacent or naive, but hurricanes still aren't something I worry about. Blizzards hit the city, but during my six years in New York I've learned that if you don't have to drive in the treacherous weather - and driving through whiteout conditions in rural Minnesota is often a great time for internal conversations like, "God, if you do exist, and you get me out of this alive, I promise to live a better life" - blizzards really aren't too bad. We don't worry about earthquakes or tsunamis.

We're safe from natural disasters here. Man-made horrors delivered by terrorists are another story. But even with those I operate on the assumption that it's pointless to worry about something that's out of my control and I fear those as much as I fear a tornado strike. Being naive is occasionally a good way to go through life.

I've often thought about where the perfect city would be to avoid natural disasters. Minnesotans loathe blizzards. They fear being caught on the road during one and swear at meteorologists who deliver news about them, but they accept them as a part of life. You usually have two or three days warning. When they survive them, they talk about the storms with pride, or compare them to blizzards from two decades earlier so they can say, "You know, when I was younger, our blizzards were ten times worse than this. This was nothing." But tornadoes terrify. They can emerge from nowhere, and the damage can be totally random. Tornadoes have completely destroyed small towns, flattening every home and business. But they can also hit larger cities and crush an entire neighborhood, while leaving one house standing in pristine condition. For the first seven years of my life we didn't have a basement. When the Janesville sirens blared, we hustled into the car and drove to my dad's aunt's house. There we huddled under the pool table, riding the storm out. Basements feel safe. But while they can protect human life, they do nothing to prepare people for the heartbreaking damage they often encounter above when they emerge from below.

The entire Midwest faces these threats. So they're not ideal places to avoid natural disasters. Earthquakes, to me, are even more frightening. The randomness, the potential for collapses - from buildings and the ground. The stories we keep hearing about "The big one" that's bound to hit. Add it all up and the West Coast is no place to live, for those seeking to avoid Mother Nature's wrath. The south has its hurricanes. Idaho and Montana have...whatever Idaho and Montana have.

In the end, New York City is probably the best place for avoiding all of that, for avoiding earthquakes and hurricanes. It's the best place for dealing with snowstorms and it's the best place for avoiding tornadoes. At least, that's what I'll tell myself the next time I'm sprinting through lightning strikes and downpours.

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