Those who live in our part of New York would call it an anti-climax. I wouldn’t want to downplay the seriousness of hurricane Irene – her severity could only be measured by where you were at the time, and people in the worst affected areas will be recovering from this for years. What has been incredible about this hurricane is that nobody really knew what they were in for – and while the worst case scenario was played out for many, much of the talk of widespread devastation thankfully came to nothing.
The build-up induced a particular feeling of helpless uncertainty that I had never felt before. Mr Applepip and I agreed that this must be what it felt like to live in wartime London, preparing for bombing but not knowing where it was going to strike. In another way it was like the eve of a completely joyless Thanksgiving or Christmas, in that a mass of people were getting ready for the same inevitable event, and if you hadn’t bought a present for Aunt Beryl or defrosted the turkey then you had probably run out of time. New Yorkers stocked up on food and water, brought in from gardens anything that could become airborne, located torches, charged up phones and laptops and unearthed their battery-operated radios in preparation for power cuts. Armed with two tonnes of cooked pasta and potatoes, the dying light of our torch (for which we had no fresh batteries) and our radio with its broken on/off switch, we were ready for anything. I even packed a bag of clothes and food, not quite daring to visualise why we might need it.
However, while some prepared to hunker down, others dismissed the warnings as hype. We only had to look at our neighbours to witness the opposite ends of the belief spectrum. Just two hours before the storm, one neighbour balanced a figurine of a supplicating Virgin Mary on her chimney stack, while another was seen in her garden watering her plants.
Meanwhile, the news and weather channels were having a field day. For them it was Christmas, and they were devouring this particular gift with a voracity that Irene herself would have envied. We were told that New York had never experienced such an extraordinary hurricane before, that we should brace ourselves for the worst; they only just stopped short of uttering the word ‘Armageddon’. And so as Irene got nearer and nearer, it felt like we were about to enter a tunnel without knowing what the tunnel would be like inside, how long it would take to get through it, and what life would look like when we came out the other end.
We knew by now what had happened in North Carolina and hoped that our homes would be able to withstand the battering. I told Bigger Boy and Littler Boy that there was going to be a big storm, but stopped at that, feeling there was no need to worry them unnecessarily. Bigger tried to persuade me to leave the tomato plants outside, arguing that they needed the water. At the same time, I had visions of wind and rain mercilessly lashing the city, roofs being ripped off, sun umbrellas flung through windows and my family huddled in the stairwell as glass smashed above us. As my imagination ran wild, I put a couple of extra bananas into our emergency bag for good measure.
Mr Applepip and I decided we should bring Bigger and Littler into our bedroom with us, partly because we didn’t like the look of the menacing tree outside our boys’ bedroom, but mostly because we felt we should all be together. For a couple of hours, it was hairy. The huge tree outside our window thrashed in the gale, the rain pounded the skylight and then our very own water torture started up: the ‘plip, plip’ of drips through the landing ceiling. Not able to sleep with this going on and Littler babbling away, I got up and thought I’d better fill the bath with water in case the supply was cut off, then immediately drained it when it occurred to me that one of the boys might wander into the bathroom during the night and fall into it. Unlikely, but with little sleep and a hurricane raging we were like delirious cats chasing our own tails by then, so rational thinking was not a strong point.
Morning brought the unbearable aftermath: stinging eyes, a depressing drizzle and a Man United/Arsenal game on the TV. (More unbearable for Arsenal supporters, admittedly.) It felt like the morning after a general election, news channels reporting the latest power outage tolls, and admitting that here in New York City, the havoc wrought was minimal. By the time Irene had left New York, she had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and the news networks were forced to rebrand her too; the blaring ‘HURRICANE IRENE’ graphics swiftly transformed into a slightly less dramatic ‘TROPICAL STORM IRENE’. Mr Applepip declared that he had personally downgraded it to a storm in a teacup.
And so we waved goodbye to Irene, thankful that in this part of Brooklyn, at least, all we were left with was a leaf-strewn street, a tree down here and there, and a week’s worth of cooked pasta to get through. Five hours after her departure we have rose-rimmed clouds and a blue sky approaching. It could have been worse, and we’re so lucky it wasn’t.