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New York Pre-Sandy: A Tale of Two Cities

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"I shop here all the time," shouted a woman in a fur coat. "I shouldn't have to stand in line!"

She glared at the other people standing in the queue for the Westside Market in Chelsea, New York, as if they were something her well-groomed dog had just crapped out.

The security man declined to let her in. Instead he pointed her to the end of the queue.

Her husband was not angry; instead he was terrified. He had an empty suitcase with him which he was rolling back and forth on the pavement with all the energy of a demented child clutching a toy truck. "Is there any food left in there?" he asked, lip quivering. "I need food."

I would have contested this if I were the security guard. He looked like a man who had eaten a lot of food in his time.

The couple were reassured that yes, there was food inside, but they continued to hustle aggressively for a queue jump. Then: "GET IN LINE," yelled a man about halfway up the queue. "YOU PAIR OF ASSHOLES."

There was laughter and applause.

Naturally, I enjoyed this exchange. There's nothing like hearing a proper New Yorker calling someone an asshole, especially when the asshole is an asshole. Obviously it would have been even better if he was wearing a pork pie hat and a leather jacket and mentioned cwaffee before sloping off into a jazz club... but still, it was pretty good.

But on the whole the incident was depressing.

New York is one of two places today. It's either a place where you're sitting watching TV box sets and texting your friends about how much cheese you've stowed away for the storm (me) or it's a hostile, frightening place which is offering you very little, beyond an order to evacuate that you're unlikely to be able to obey.

Some 375,000 people were served mandatory evacuation notices on Sunday. Mayor Bloomberg told them that if they didn't evacuate they'd put the lives of emergency service workers in danger. Which would be 'selfish.'

As Sunday afternoon wore on, police cars cruised the evacuation zones megaphoning anyone who didn't have a television or the internet that they had to leave.

The general consensus is that the evacuation went well. I read one report that described it as a huge, excitable mass of people wiping out local shops before hopping on the subway before it closed at 7pm. There were jokes about batteries and bread. What fun! Blitz spirit! Or whatever they call it over here! Yay!

What the report failed to mention is that many people have not left, and, as Hurricane Sandy closes in on us, will not and cannot leave. They are stuck in areas that at very least will be flooded by a deadly 11 foot storm surge. At very least.

'"Selfish! Selfish, the very lot of them," shout trolls in the online news comments. "Putting our firefighters' lives at risk! Idiots!"

But where are they meant to go? How are they meant to get there? And who is paying for this?

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005 it killed nearly 2000 people, mostly those who had not complied with the evacuation orders. The vast majority were black working class Americans. Those who did leave were generally middle-class, well educated people with access to information, transportation and (most importantly) to a social network that extended way beyond their immediate neighbourhood. Most of those who stayed did not.

The same thing is happening right now, as I type this blog in an apartment in Chelsea. There are people down on the Lower East Side who have nowhere to go. If they do know about the few emergency shelters on Manhattan, they have no way of getting there - I doubt there are any taxis left down there now. And the subway closed last night. It's six o'clock, the 90kmph winds are less than two hours away. The confluence of the East and Hudson rivers is angry and it broke over the paltry defences at the bottom of Manhattan this morning. I can only imagine what it's like now.

We went to an emergency shelter just now. It was depressing and shady. It was by no means full.

I think everyone found this storm business a bit silly, a bit OTT at first. "Bah, we'll probably just lose internet for a few hours," said a man with a fashion moustache at a clothes shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "Big deal, man!"

I was as guilty as the rest of them. "I'm trapped in New York!" I announced gleefully to my friends on facebook. "Yessss!"

Finally, we started taking the news seriously. We began to worry. Bottled water sold out. Candles, batteries, loaves of bread, packets of crisps, tins of soup. The shelves emptied quickly. Now we're all holed up in our safe zones, watching news until the electricity inevitably dies. I had a bath just now. And washed some lettuce so I'd still have clean vegetables if the water got contaminated.

The problems I face when this storm hits are luxury. The problems faced by those less fortunate than me are life-threatening. Never before has the social divide of the Western world felt so immediate, so uncomfortable and so hopeless.

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