For some reason, hurricanes have become a spectator sport among natural disasters.
Earthquakes happen too quickly and the worst of them are accompanied by immediate and terrifying devastation. Tornadoes look more sinister. Blizzards are just kind of pretty until you have to shovel your way out of the aftermath.
Hurricanes, by contrast, can deliver some awe-inspiring destruction but somehow come across as less of a threat. Their paths can be predicted with a great degree of accuracy, and the fact that the preparations are usually for worst case scenarios allow people to scoff at any lesser degree of damage and say the prior warnings were all hype.
It all probably contributed to citywide incidents that spurred a palpable atmosphere of annoyance on New London's scanners and in its Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Sandy. Throughout the hurricanes, the public statements going out suggested an increasing lack of common sense.
I’ll admit that I may have been guilty of a certain lapse of judgment in the early stages of the storm. With parking and traffic bans in effect, I figured the best way to get to the EOC would be to walk. Hey, it’s easier to climb over a fallen tree than drive around it. I made it there in one piece, but as the evening wore on emergency responders increasingly complained that people out walking were putting themselves at risk from toppled limbs and wires.
The EOC was keeping a close eye on forecasts and storm surge predictions and hazards around town. And they were really aggravated by those venturing out for a firsthand look at the storm.
One Pequot Ave. resident told me that spectators were going to the seawall like it was some kind of water park attraction, blissfully unaware or uncaring that the flume was throwing timbers and other debris over the side. One EOC member angrily called the landlord of a building visible from the center’s location on the second floor of the fire department headquarters, asking them to order their tenants to stop partying on the roof. One officer had to scatter a group of kids frolicking on a playground where a tree had already split and come crashing down in the wind.
It all culminated in the most bizarre request of all. Would I please post a notice, the EOC requested, telling people not to drive around barriers or caution tape? Not only were some people still venturing out in the height of the storm, they were apparently too thick to realize that such barricades seek to keep drivers away from floodwaters and other impassable areas.
This storm is likely going to be dismissed by Connecticut residents as another case of hype. Indeed, a catastrophic storm surge feared for this area never materialized and the winds died down soon after. The casualties were trees and a few bathhouses, but no lives or residences. On the way home, I passed one person chatting on his cell phone saying that Hurricane Sandy was a dud.
There’s really no shortage of examples to prove that statement wrong: New York City subways flooded almost to street level, neighborhoods burned flat by out-of-control fires, devastated New Jersey communities, beached tankers…just because it didn’t happen in New London doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been just as bad here. As one EOC member remarked to me, we’re all too young to remember the Hurricane of 1938 and all its attendant horrors.
It’s always a judgment call as to when it’s safe to go out when a hurricane is brewing. But when the next one comes, hopefully fewer common sense requests will be necessary.