Letter from America: Stocking up for Sandy

The last time I stocked up on supplies, I was living in Jerusalem preparing for the US invasion of Iraq.

Catching waves before Sandy 390 (photo credit: Keith Bedford / Reuters)
Catching waves before Sandy 390
(photo credit: Keith Bedford / Reuters)
WASHINGTON – The last time I stood in endless lines stocking up on water, flashlights and batteries for my radio – as I did on Sunday in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy – was nearly a decade ago. In March of 2003, I was living in Jerusalem and Israel was preparing for America’s invasion of Iraq.
On that occasion, my flatmate and I decided my room would serve as the sealed room in the event that any biological weapons landed around our apartment. We spent hours covering my gigantic windows with heavy plastic sheeting and listening to TV announcers explain what to do during an attack.
And then for several weeks I lived among stacks of canned food, bottled water, a bucket, toilet paper, hand-wipes and other emergency supplies. Luckily for me, I also got the TV.
As the warnings about Sandy swirl along with the wind and rain, there are echoes of that experience: the stream of public service announcements, the runs on supermarkets and convenience stores, the unease of not knowing what could come at you from the sky.
But, crucially and obviously, this time I have not been given a gas mask.
Yes, I am once again sitting in my home anticipating what might happen. But it feels very different when the cause of such consternation isn’t due to a choice made by a fellow human being, but by a literal force of nature beyond anyone’s control. When the agents of destruction are wind and rain rather than rockets and chemicals, it is so much less fraught, not to mention less frightening.
Though I live in an urban center and it’s the start of the work week, the streets are quiet, with only emergency responders and a few stray taxis making the rounds – just like it was in Haifa during the 2006 Lebanon war. But here there are no sirens warning of incoming missiles.
In some parts of the Northeast, whole towns have been evacuated – but the residents didn’t have to choose between leaving or sticking it out in bomb shelters, like so many in Northern Israel did back then.
There is, however, a significant similarity of substance, and not just form, between preparing for a state of emergency in the United States and in Israel: the sense of solidarity.
The people behind you wait patiently in line, the stranger on the street wishes you well, the community tries to be responsible.
As US President Barack Obama put it when he addressed the nation on Monday as the hurricane was reaching the coastline, “This is going to be a big storm. It’s going to be a difficult storm. The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together. We look out for our friends. We look out for our neighbors.”
And, he said, “We set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise, to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness.
And that’s exactly what I anticipate is going to happen here.”
That would be fairly boilerplate except that it comes at a time when the nation has been obsessed with divisions, of finding distinctions between groups and leaders, of pitting red states against blue states and of turning the election into an argument of us versus them.
Both Obama and his challenger, former Republican governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, canceled campaign events planned for Monday and Tuesday. Obama skipped a rally in Florida and flew back to Washington to monitor the situation, receiving briefings from emergency response teams and departments, such as homeland security, that will be dealing with the fallout from the storm.
The Romney campaign, for its part, announced that it was canceling events planned in the Midwest for Monday night and Tuesday “out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.”
At a campaign event earlier in the day, Romney had a message similar to Obama’s.