MacCarthy’s World | Manhattan mayhem: a reminder of what really matters

For some unknown reason the television feed to most of Gentofte went AWOL today. The husband and kids thought this a disaster until I reminded them to cast their minds back to Sandy – the superstorm that recently spread havoc from the Caribbean to New Hampshire and beyond. It robbed scores of people of their lives and thousands of others of their livelihoods. Suitably chastened, they revised their definition of ‘disaster’ on the spot.

One of the most enduring images of this vicious tempest’s rampage across the American East Coast was the sight of a blacked-out Manhattan skyline. As the storm bore down on the Big Apple, television viewers worldwide were transfixed by the scale of the disaster and the human suffering that would inevitably follow.

When cascading power outages knocked off electricity across the megalopolis, we wondered how New Yorkers would cope. Living off canned food for a few days is easy enough to imagine, but what would it be like to be trapped in an elevator on the 50th floor with no mobile phone signal and no idea of when power would be restored and rescue would come?

That the disaster hit in late autumn (or fall, as our American friends prefer to call it) made the event all the more poignant; at this time of year most of the world’s major religions celebrate some variant of a festival of light. For Hindus and Buddhists it’s Diwali, for Jews Hanukkah and Christians have their Christmas.

The New York melting pot is home to them all, and this wonderful, welcoming city, which has the heart to accommodate every strand of opinion, is usually a great place to visit in late autumn. For the occasional visitor such as myself, it’s often the cheesy touristy things that are most memorable. No native New Yorker would dream of going ice-skating on Rockefeller Plaza, but believe me, it’s a fun thing to do.

Likewise, the giant Christmas tree that is erected every year at the same site strikes a chord with people regardless of their attitude to Christmas. It’s a marvel to behold – a tree of up to 30 metres high, bedecked with 30,000 lights strung along five miles of wiring.

The Rockefeller tree tugs at the heartstrings because it’s fundamentally an expression of joy and hope for the future. And New Yorkers being the tough and resilient folk that they are, you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a tree again this year – power shortages regardless.

But while we all gear up to celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah or just the seasonal break, another aspect of superstorm Sandy is worth bearing in mind: the response of the authorities to the disaster was truly outstanding. Everybody from the top brass at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to individual fire fighters on the street, swung into action quickly and efficiently in a superbly co-ordinated effort. As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial, FEMA, which is charged with directing everything from search and rescue teams, to supplying fresh drinking water and helping hospitals in an emergency, is funded by central government funds.

This is an element of ‘big government’ that neo-cons like Mitt Romney wish to eliminate. Conservatives in the UK, Denmark and elsewhere are similarly keen to roll back spending on anything they don’t deem immediately necessary. But perhaps the devastation wrought by Sandy might give them pause for thought?

I wish you all a happy and safe holiday.

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