Disaster imaged by a city icon under threat. In several Hollywood blockbusters key icons from New York City’s landscape are turned into detritus, attacked, or mobilized, in various circumstances. A meme floating around facebook enthymematically gestures to a cannon of New York disaster films, including Ghost Busters II, Godzilla, and, not included, Planet of the Apes. In the recent images from Hurricane Sandy’s landing on New York shores one of the many chilling images that caught my attention was the above image of Ground Zero construction site flooding.
It is a beautiful image, water cascading like a waterfall from the flat construction site bove, filtering through various tunnels and scaffolding to create a variegated crystalline flow that breaks above the lower level below, almost like the terraces in Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house.
In a way, spatially, disasters of two kinds: one the result of geopolitical distributions of resentment, terror, U.S. Empire, and an assortment of motives known and beyond knowing, but decidedly linked to human calculation, and another, the seeming blunt and faceless vengeance of Mother Nature at her worst. However, Hurricane Sandy is not some deus ex machina turned foul, it is the result of decades of overconsumption, lax environmental policy, careful attempts at sidestepping difficult collective decisions, and the residues of disasters felt in third and fourth world coastal cities to an even greater degree. The image evidences the profound vulnerability that we all face vis a vis “nature” in an era of global warming. Further, it illuminates the threat of profound loss, a wound so great that it floods the capacity to remember and even honor its own memory, in the wake of natural disasters beyond reckoning.
The relationship was made clear to me while on a phone call with my mother. My family is all located on the East Coast. “I couldn’t sleep last night.” I said “The images, the destruction, it is frightening to know your home town is getting the crap beat out of it.” She answered: “I couldn’t either. That hum from the train, buses, cars, the normal noises. It was quiet. It was like 9/11. That eerie quiet.” The hunched shoulders, tight breathe, and sense of foreboding that I’d felt the last 48 hours, to the point of calling my family every four hours to check in on them, made a certain sense. The sense of betrayal that I was not physically there.
Among humorous references to New Yorkers “preparing” for the Hurricane by stocking up bottles of wine and complaining what reveals is an affective economy of fear, and anxiety that reveals not so much through public statements, though some, such as Governor Cuomo have at least admitted the need for rebuilding differently because of "greater frequency of flood patterns", but more importantly, through images.
Images of a transformer exploding , of a building façade crumbling,
of a crane hanging of the side of a several story tall building: everyday objects, architectural tools or components of structures taking on a life of their own and becoming threatening. Uncanny.
But the image of the 9/11 memorial also, for me, unlocks a central component of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall that provides an instructive link between the trauma and tragedy of a city under terrorist attack, and a city under assault by nature: both require a more careful, and collective response, and in a bizarre way, both highlight the potential for care and compassion latent in New York City, a city largely defined as callous and “rude.”
The images reveal an anxiety about agency: how do we respond to, prepare for forces that are seemingly beyond our control, and more forebodingly, threaten to erase every human effort at remembering, and responding to disaster?
Ariella Azoulay argues that analyzing images helps us make sense of complex situations. Although she discusses images of quotidian violence in the militarized daily life of Israel-Palestine, her insight is helpful in a broader context. The images taken by journalists, and everyday citizens illuminates a desire to make sense of a situation seemingly beyond any individual’s control, a desire to hold on to some agency, and to care for a history the physical traces of which are vulnerable to being washed away in a very powerful storm.
I am extremely lucky that those close to me are warm, and dry. I know that millions across the globe are not so fortunate and my prayers and good wishes go out to them. A discussion has been going on via images, and dialogue, for several years about the need to live in a more sustainable way with nature, and with each other. To make difficult decisions about changing consumption and energy use patterns. What the 9/11 memorial/Sandy image reveals is that crisis is not a one time occurrence. It has complex histories, pasts and futures. The nearest approximate to coherent action we can take is to think about how to work more holistically, and collectively to thinking about the distribution of disaster, risk, and vulnerability globally, and attempting to work towards understanding responsibility, rather than merely piling up sandbags. The flood can always burst through.