Magazine article The New Yorker

In the Dark

Magazine article The New Yorker

In the Dark

Article excerpt

In the Dark

As President Donald Trump headed to Florida last Thursday morning, to survey the damage from Hurricane Irma, he was asked about the five million people in the state who were still without power. He said that repairs to the electrical grid were going well, thanks to what he called "the largest assemblage of human beings ever in one area for power." Indeed, in Florida alone, tens of thousands of linemen were on the job, brought in from as far away as California--some of them sleeping in trailers at the Sarasota Fairgrounds, where, the Wall Street Journal reported, they had named their encampment the Hotel Sarasota. Similar efforts were under way in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Puerto Rico, where a dilapidated power system had collapsed in the first winds. Still, according to one estimate, three out of four Floridians were without power at one point, and a great many will be for weeks to come. In a comparison of NASA space photos taken of Florida at night, before and after Irma, clusters of cities and suburbs that are normally illuminated disappear into a topography of flooding, drawn in power lines.

In some respects, Irma was not as devastating as it might have been; Miami and Tampa were spared a direct hit. But the Keys were left largely uninhabitable, and Jacksonville, three hundred miles to the north, suffered severe, unexpected flooding, illustrating what may be the most important lesson of Irma: how close to the margins many Americans are living. That lesson involves, most glaringly, climate change; Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which struck two weeks earlier, are reminders that we live in an era of standardized disaster, with cities sprawling across what are now, effectively, floodplains. But in other areas, too, relating to infrastructure, income inequality, and health care, Irma provided a case study in precariousness.

Last week, as temperatures in the state reached the mid-nineties, the police chief of Hollywood, Florida, announced that eight patients at a rehabilitation center that had lost power--and, with it, air-conditioning--had died of what were apparently heat-related causes. The Miami Herald described retirement communities that had no working elevators, and where food and medicines that were supposed to be refrigerated were spoiling. In another measure of desperation, in Orange County, an emergency crew found three members of a family dead, apparently of carbon-monoxide poisoning, from fumes emitted by a generator they had bought and set up; a child in the house had called 911.

There were also reminders last week of the pathology of the federal government's near-bankrupt flood-insurance system, which encourages overdevelopment in vulnerable areas, and subsidizes the coverage of many august structures, such as Trump's estate at Mar-a-Lago. Even so, according to the A.P., only forty-one per cent of homes in Florida's coastal counties have flood insurance. In many cases, those policies fail to cover damage from mold, which, in the heat, can set in almost immediately and persist indefinitely, compromising a house's structural integrity and its residents' health. In Houston, standing water left from Harvey is also breeding clouds of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

When Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, was asked how he could square the Republican Party's budget-cutting priorities with the need to respond to the hurricanes, he brushed the question aside by saying that America is a "bighearted country" that is always willing "to cover these emergencies. …

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