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Escape from New York: Notes on Disaster Preparedness

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As always, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy remind us of the great limits to our abilities to order or contour the universe to our liking. When people are killed by rushing water and trains are blown great distances off their tracks, floating onto the New Jersey Turnpike, for instance, as 24 railcars did the other week, we motorists – even those of us riding high in the bulkiest SUVs – are forced to acknowledge that in the fight against Mother Nature and the laws of physics, height (no matter how elevated) and weight (no matter how great) do naught to protect or enable. They may even be a hindrance.

An SUV will not get you out of this one. (Maia Caballero-Silverman photo)Having been fortunate enough to survive Sandy and lived through (where others didn’t) another terrifying nearby tragedy that wasn’t natural at all – September 11, 2001 – one can discern in the hellacious high winds and submarinating storm surge some glaring automotive truths in the field of disaster-preparedness, as one could also eleven years earlier in the crushed and incinerated rubble of the World Trade Center.

The first key insight is that when disaster strikes, a car may have no relevance at all. If it retains any, the takeaway is that when it comes to choosing cars for near-Armageddon scenarios and beyond, bigger isn’t necessarily better. In the same way citizens might load their freezers with food and their pantries with canned goods, many New Yorkers (hell, many Americans) think they are preparing themselves for the apocalypse when they choose a heavier and taller car. But if the prospect of flooding, and the mass motorized exodus it prompted, and then the flood itself, proved anything, it was what the World Trade Center attacks had already shown us: to the extent that any wheeled vehicle can help you, the smaller the better.

Images of beached SUVs on Manhattan’s two main highways, the East and West Side Drives, remain indelible memories of 9/11 for me. Stuck in impossible traffic from the minute everyone simultaneously figured it was time to get out of town, New Yorkers’ slow-moving cars stopped once and for all when the bridges leading off of Manhattan Island were closed. Big and small, four-wheeled vehicles were useless, beached and abandoned by their owners on the highway, each of whom suddenly found themselves on foot and in urgent need of a new plan.

Scary, you bet, and it confirmed my long-held suspicion that what you’d really want if you had to hightail it out of the city in a crisis is something really small. A 50- or 125-cc motorcycle or a moped, something that might transport you through and around traffic, possibly off road and maybe to the rubber dinghy you’d have also laid in if you were really serious about being prepared for the apocalypse. There are many situations one can imagine where a collapsible bicycle will offer more options than a car. In theory, I keep meaning to buy one and leave it in my trunk but, then, I guess in the majority of the disaster scenarios I can conjure  up, a part of me doesn’t really expect to get out alive.

But say you’re not in the city and there is miraculously a possibility that a major "abandon ship" warning will not trigger gridlock on the local highways in your corner of the world. It may not matter, anyway. Sandy brought trillions of gallons of floodwater, more accurately thought of as a water-based toxic substance, to the streets of lower Manhattan and accompanying photographs remind us that while a foot or more of extra ground clearance may help your car corner more like a telephone truck when the weather is fair, it doesn’t do a lick of good when there are 100-mph winds and the ocean’s pouring in. More than a quarter of a million cars whose path Sandy crossed are thought to have made the supreme sacrifice.

The ocean meets the streets. (Maia Caballero-Silverman photo)And here’s an obvious but seemingly necessary reminder: No one’s going anywhere in a hurricane or flood, so don’t expect to drive out of one, because you won’t get there, even in a Jeep, as more than a few people discovered to the eternal regret of their loved ones during Sandy. If you wish to drive, do all your driving BEFORE the hurricane, rather than during it. You can drive AFTER the hurricane, if you’re lucky. But wait.

If you deliberately ignored the evacuation notice issued for your environs and paid the price, it seems heartless to say but you ran the risk of being viewed as having been naturally selected out of the gene pool. Same thing if you come out of your house too soon and have a tree or live wire fall on you. Wait.

Of course, there’s getting out of town before a disaster and getting out after one, and then there’s living through one. The world hasn’t ended, you’re still at home, but things are plenty messed up, as they were in New York, New Jersey and much of New England, when tens of thousands were flooded and millions lost power, phone and internet. Gasoline was instantly in short supply, too. No surprise there.

If your escape route has you driving great distances, assuming your car is still around, fuel is going to be an issue. But even if you’re sticking around, you’re going to need gas, sooner or later. And even if you don’t need it, you will think you do, in case the power never comes back on and you wind up having to split, and there’s no gas left...and…and. Add to this demand all the people running generators with their insatiable need to fill cans with gasoline, and there’s a not unpredictable run on the stuff. (And generators.) To an American, few things are sadder than long lines at the pump and one of them is no car and no power. We need the juice.

Thus if you are truly dedicated to your own mobility and comfort in the event of a disaster, you'll probably want to stockpile fuel. Except that it’s unlikely that you have a safe and secure underground tank for storing an explosive liquid. You could maintain dozens or hundreds of cute little gas cans. But they’d need to be refilled every six months or otherwise treated to promote longevity, as gasoline tends to go bad. Such a huge bother, it seems, for an environmental hazard masquerading as a dangerous idea.

The Kitman CRDs! (Jamie Kitman photo)Though I’d never thought of it before, as the owner of many, many old cars, I discovered I didn’t face this conundrum. Because each of my cars has a full tank of gas -- I do this to keep their aged tanks from rusting out -- I was fortuitously prepared for an extended interruption in gasoline supply. You’ve heard of the military’s MRE – Meals Ready to Eat? Well, welcome to my garage and CRD's, Cars Ready to Drive. My 1968 International Harvester Travelall 1100 4x4 looked the part post-hurricane while happily sucking down the regular with its 304-cubic-inch V8. But when the Travelall’s twin tanks went dry, the 1967 Triumph TR4A and the 1979 Saab 99GL I own had tanks to share, as did a 1963 MGB and a 1958 Lancia Aurelia. Old cars that more typically are their own disasters suddenly and unexpectedly became disaster relief, repaying their great debt to me, which is something I never expected. Where gasoline supply was concerned, I was good for months. While I still felt small in the face of stormy weather, suddenly, I didn't feel quite as stupid.

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