Note: This is the first post by Ryan Dicovitsky, the newest contributor to The Composite. Enjoy.
My long adventure with Irene started on a Thursday night. The Yankees had already completed their routine depantsing of the Orioles (three grand slams!) and I was settling in for a nice long night of sloth. Then, the weather reports started getting a little crazy. Mandatory evacuations? Hurricane force winds? Massive flooding? I mean, surely New Jersey would be fine. The state hadn’t had to worry about a storm like this since at least the 1950’s. I turned off Michael Kaye’s stupid face and went about my business. What follows is one person’s account of how the storm affected them, their Governor, and a state in crisis.
The reports kept coming. By 7:30, it seemed that every media outlet was reporting on preparations for what I came to learn was named “Irene”- I wasn’t impressed. Still, as reports kept coming in with more dire predictions, it seemed that a weekend stuck inside the illustrious confines of Newark wasn’t going to cut it. So, being an upstanding citizen and model of graduate student-diligence, I did what seemed obvious: I called my father and made plans to drink the entire weekend. I seemed set: minor inconveniences would be unavoidable, but on the whole a weekend of Blackberry Brandy didn’t seem too bad.
My plans (and soon, my feelings toward my Governor) took a turn in the bat of an eye. I received a phone call from a close friend from home, asking if he could bring his valuables and family to my mother’s home in case of flooding. (Quick back story: I grew up in the land that time and tourism forgot, otherwise known as the Bayshore of New Jersey. There are beaches, and there are major highways. Aside from that, the closest thing you will get to the Jersey Shore is to go buy an overpriced boogie board and sit in someone’s backyard- longingly). Naturally, I told my friend yes. He would move some things out of caution, and my weekend-long escapades would have an additional participant. Despite the increasing worry of those close to me, I still wasn’t concerned about the storm.
Let’s be clear about something: politics was the last thing on my mind. President Obama was off searching for a spine somewhere after the last budget debacle, the Republicans were out-Michele Bachmanning Michele Bachmann, and the Garden State’s governor had taken a break from the 2011 “Bash our Teachers” State Tour. Nobody expected this storm to be anything more than a literal blip on the radar screen. A long weekend of saying prayers for the Outer Banks seemed to be the worst thing possible.
By Friday morning, that had all changed. Before 9:00 am, my friend found out his town was being evacuated under mandate. By 10:00, I was on the Garden State Parkway South, heading to help him move valuables out of his house. By 11:00, the southernmost points of the state had already been cleared out. By 12:00, I was driving to the shore to pick up my sister before the roads shut down. By 2:00, I had already listened to the governor detail how he had mobilized the entire state government’s apparatus to address impending doom. By 3:00, I was moving my friend’s valuables to my mother’s house, listening as Chris Christie berated New Jersey residents to think with a clear head.
I’m not sure when it was exactly, but somewhere in the confusion and hysteria, I came to a realization: He is doing a really good job. Now, I’m not referencing his one-liners, but those did help. Between telling beach loafers to “Get the hell out” and arguing the finer points of skin tanning in the late afternoon, Christie was assuming a leadership position that citizens of all political stripes could appreciate. All county OEM’s were mobilized, evacuations were underway, and Christie was on the ball giving information and advice to what was already a massively confused state.
Lest we all forget, Christie is not overly popular in his state- he’s less popular in NJ than across the rest of the country. Pre-Irene, he had already committed numerous other foibles, lost credibility with a lot of of New Jerseyans, picked useless political fights, and generally ran the state like his own personal political playground to bully. In a funny way, though, nobody was prepared to question his leadership in coordinating a response to a storm that was going to affect 8 million residents in New Jersey alone. After all, he had a stellar track record of dealing with Mother Nature’s crises, right?
The first thing that shocked me about the response is how much was left of the state’s emergency infrastructure. Despite all the national prattling on about budget cuts, fiscal restraint, and small-government ethic, it seemed that New Jersey was adequately prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime storm. Which is why it felt so strange to praise the governor.
As I listened to NJ 101.5 FM, I heard listeners provide countless stories and concerns: where could residents take pets? Where were there still storm supplies available? Where were contra-flow traffic patterns in place, and how could local residents reach their homes? Who was in immediate danger? Sure enough, Chris Christie kept updating the state’s residents throughout the day, providing every minute detail he could think of. Including these two gems: Buy a can opener to open the cans you buy. Followed by the classic I can’t believe I’m saying this as governor, but buy kitty litter if you are taking your cat with you. I remember remarking to multiple friends: he actually has it together. I think he has this situation under control.
Flash forward to Saturday morning. The weather forecasts hadn’t changed, and multiple towns north of I-195 were being evacuated. Left with nothing else to do but wait, I commenced my previously-planned festivities and watched the impending doom creep up the New Jersey coastline. We will be fine, I told my family and friend’s family. The storm won’t be that bad, and we are prepared.
I’m not sure what time I finally went to bed, but I remember lots of wind and rain. Meh. I awoke at 5:00 Sunday morning, and didn’t know what to expect. For the most part, Irene hadn’t seemed to have much of an effect. My mother’s neighborhood was just really wet and windy. When I turned on the television, I got a brutal wakeup as I watched the storm cover an entire radar screen, accompanied by shot after shot of flooded homes and roads. It’s okay, this will be minor and the state will be fine.
By noon, the rain had stopped and the most exciting thing to watch were the reports out of New York City and New England. Power outages and flooding were occurring across the state, and it seemed that the state certainly had a long recovery ahead of it. Still, there were scarce reports of casualties. Seeing as the roads were starting to clear, I decided it was time to drive back to Newark. And as I did, I listened with outrage as caller after caller on the radio described their situations. Massive flooding. Power outages for at least a day and a half. Confusion as to how the recovery effort was progressing. Finally, Christie held a statewide press conference, detailing what emergency efforts were underway. As I listened, I heard his voice crack as he described the death of a firefighter in duty, and looked forward to his recovery update after his scheduled helicopter tour.
Up until this point, I had never questioned Christie’s leadership. He had surely saved dozens of lives by calling for the evacuations, leading a diligent preparation by the state government apparatus, and pleading with citizens to use common sense. Yet, I knew something was wrong at the end of his press conference when, out of the blue, he made a joke about not taking his helicopter to a baseball game (it’s a long story, but for some background, the tubes have got you covered here, here, and here).
Wasn’t the state in crisis? Weren’t entire towns under water? Weren’t millions left without any sense of what the next minute, week, or hour would bring? I found Christie’s comments to be inappropriate at the least, offensive and insulting at the worst. As if to purposely compound the fact that he sounded like a giant (no pun intended) ass, he cracked wise about operatives from Iowa helping him assess the damage. For a time that shouldn’t have been political, Christie sure did his best to make light of the situation and his own political dealings. Still, Christie seemed on the ball and had a plan to help the state moving forward.
It didn’t dawn on me earlier that day while I was watching countless reports of the storm to surf the cable news channels. As someone who reads enough news and casts looks of aspersion at the entire cable news enterprise, I felt that it just wouldn’t be appropriate to watch Gretchen Carlson or Ali Velshi’s mugs waxing poetic about meteorology. Apparently, my aversion was a mistake. Soon after Christie’s nightmare of a press conference was over, the hosts of 101.5 began to tell it brutally honestly: the past twelve hours had been a media buffet (pun intended) for Christie.
As he gallivanted from one national media outlet to another to pat himself on the back for the state’s emergency response, the good people of countless towns still were struggling to hold onto their livelihoods. By the time he began his local press conference, it had been nearly a day since the state had heard anything from him. Sure, he gave general details to the national press, but nothing that was going to save someone’s life or tell them how to deal with a tree that fell on their house. The hosts were rightfully indignant, and recounted how local reporters were so graciously allowed to watch Christie’s national media tour from another room. Seriously. No questions, just ogling.
By this point, it was edging close to 3:00 pm and I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Parkway was flooded, the Turnpike was closed to non-emergency personnel, and the reports of power outages were growing worse. As I sat on a detour road, I watched countless ambulances drive by, presumably to go rescue another family. It was then that 101.5 lost their signal. I didn’t get to find out whether the afternoon hosts kept their promise of asking Christie about his media antics. It didn’t matter. As I got back on the road, I felt that the damage had been done.
Driving through Newark was (thankfully) not a hassle. Despite the countless reports of closed roads and flooding, and near-constant updates on Twitter from Mayor Cory Booker, I had a safe passage through. But I wondered: did the owners of the two houses I saw smashed by trees find Christie’s jokes funny? Did the individuals who could not go into the street because of flooding care that Christie increased his national cache? I seriously doubt it.
The late and great Senator Paul Wellstone once said
Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives. It’s about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world. Politics is about doing well for the people.
I always found that quotation accurate, increasingly more so in recent years. Regardless of whether you are to the left of Ralph Nader or the right of Sam Brownback, it’s a maxim that politicians ought to be able to live by. I’m not so naïve to think that politicians aren’t always trying to improve their image and court votes (and money). This isn’t about disaster preparedness, political critique, or even Chris Christie as a policymaker. I wouldn’t have been overtly shocked if he had tried to turn Irene into a political windfall from the start. This was a story of a man who gained a lot of respect and credit, and blew it in a matter of hours. On a personal level, the entire ordeal sobered my view of the situation more than the storm itself ever could have. It’s a tragedy all around: for Christie’s character, for the state of our political institutions, and most importantly: for the suffering citizens of New Jersey.
Postscript: As I finish writing this post, water levels are once again cresting in New Jersey thanks to torrential downpours. Over a week removed from Irene, the state was having enough trouble recovering before it got hit in the gut again this morning. Christie has done his due diligence and ensured federal disaster relief funds. He has gone on record and criticized incompassionate members of his own party, while cooperating with a man many want Christie to replace. Despite his best efforts, this headline truly reveals what was at work all along: “Hurricane Irene helps Gov. Christie score political victory.” Finally: my friend’s house was ok. He watched as kayaks traveled down his street, yet miraculously the water receded to his front stoop. Many other friends went without power or services for days after Irene had passed. I wonder if Christie will take time during his next national media tour to tell the stories of those people.