“Roland Emmerich was right,” said one screenwriter who had rung me up me excitedly to see whether my area in Brooklyn was underwater or not. She had in mind Emmerich’s 2004 disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which consumed New York with a giant tidal wave, although we soon fell to swapping other cine-antecedents: 1998’s Deep Impact, 1933’s Deluge, and Spielberg’s A.I. with its visions of a sunken Coney Island, underwater skyscrapers, and a statue of liberty submerged but for its torch, now become the perch for seagulls.
Such is the fate of New York, that when disaster strikes our first thought goes to the movies, so repeated has the city been devastated over the years, whether by tidal wave (Deep Impact), zombie plague (I Am Legend) asteroid (Armageddon), alien (Independence day), or ape (Planet of the Apes). It is the apocalyptic city par excellence. “What a ruin it will make!” H. G. Wells exclaimed, upon catching sight of the New York skyline, which formed one of many indelible images from Monday night — not entirely blacked out, but partially, from 39th street and below, which meant that unlike the blackouts of 2003 and 1977, we got to see it at night, the buildings of Greenwich Village just visible in silhouette against the lights further uptown.
The citizen in me was horrified, but I’d be lying if I said that the connoisseur of apocalypse — and since 9/11 all New Yorkers have been experts in that field — wasn’t awed and fascinated at this fresh evidence of what happens to the city in extremis — what Andrew Sullivan has termed “ruin porn.” Everyone compared 9/11 to a disaster flick but Hollywood would have made the fireballs the jets made when they hit the side of the world trade centre much bigger; and scattered the debris much wider. It was, curiously, the modesty of the image that terrified: seeing that a jet makes this sized fireball when it hits a building, and casts no debris at all, instead vaporizing on contact.
Something similar applied on Monday. What we saw was both less than and more than the hyperbolized destruction of the movies — not Emmerich’s tidal waves, or Spielberg’s underwater skyscrapers, but the half-submerged streets of Hoboken; cars floating down the street like flotsam against a grate; the beaches of New Jersey, relocated to the street; shuttered subways, and a rising tide of briny water. Roland Emmerich was only half right. As Vulture noted:—
"No matter how often the eggheads told us to watch for the storm surge, not falling skies, we still expected Death From Above — because that’s the apocalypse we’re best rehearsed for, from Independence Day to The Avengers. The actual onslaught turned out to be far more insidious, less visible, with few celluloid precedents: a bubbling-up from below, a slow submerging of our vulnerable undercarriage and the corrosion of our centuries-old subterranean infrastructure. Sandy wasn’t the cataclysm we’d been trailered; it was more slow-acting snakebite than one-punch obliteration. It could color our future shared nightmares of Big Apple Armageddon, a sector of splashy pessimism that has, for the last decade, been dominated by The Obvious."
Because Sandy made landfall in the evening, most of us woke up to find out what had happened, the storm having moved on, leaving behind images whose stillness more closely resembled the eerie landcapes of fiction, rather than the movies. I was reminded in particular of J G Ballard’s The DrownedWorld, in which the polar icecaps have melted turning Europe is "a system of giant lagoons" and the American Midwest into "an enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” More recently, we have had Kim Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2005) in which rising sea levels have turned America’s cities into versions of Venice:—
“A city floored with water. Here it was quite shallow, of course. But the front steps of all the buildings came down into an expanse of brown water, and the water was all at one level, as with any other lake or sea. Brown-blue, blue-brown, brown-gray, brown, gray, dirty white – drab urban tints all. The rain pocked it into an infinity of rings and bounding droplets, and gusts of wind tore cats’ paws.”
The comparison with old Europe is telling. For New York has taken up the position in the popular imagination that used to be occupied by London, which, in the years leading up to 1916, was subjected to repeated fictional apocalypse, in pulp novels gripped by pre-war jitters. “Great wars that devastated civilizations were fought in the skies and on imaginary battlefields dwarfing those of Verdun and Stalingrad,” writes literary historian W Warren Wagar. “ Fascist dictatorships led to a new Dark Age, class and race struggles plunged civilization into Neolithic savagery, terrorists armed with super-weapons menaced Global peace. Floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues, epochs of ice, colliding comets, exploding or cooling suns, and alien invaders laid waste to the world.” Sounds like a movie pitch.