“Everybody Gets Wet?”: Class, Race and Region after Superstorm Sandy

November 9, 2012
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A regular refrain in local New York news coverage of the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was that “everybody gets wet,” a disingenuous piece of pseudo-democratic rhetoric comparable to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s repeated assertions that in austerity Britain “we’re all in this together.” Formulations of this kind typify state and corporate regimes which have increasingly freed themselves from facts and trade in the assertion of opposites. Under these new rhetorical protocols, for example, there are no cuts to customer service, only “innovations” implemented with built-in affective cues about how “exciting” they are.

What is most apparent a little more than a week after the storm is, in fact, “growing belief that the recovery from Hurricane Sandy has cleaved along predictable class lines.” Media presentations of white ethnic working-class “shore” populations in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island are distinct from, yet overlapping with, both those of the more privileged and more visible Manhattan, and also those of the poorer and more disenfranchised Lower 9th Ward and other communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The reporting on these “outer borough” residents tends to emphasize a sense that officials place them at a lower priority than wealthier areas such as Manhattan. In direct comparisons with others in the Sandy-affected region and in (implicit) juxtaposition to Katrina’s most visible victims, the white working-class people portrayed in the Sandy coverage occupy a unique position in media discourses of race, class, and region.

In many ways, hard-hit areas of the Tri-State region were pre-positioned through reality and crime tv as sites of inferior or deficient modes of citizenship. The tabloidization of the Jersey Shore (largely through the eponymous series) syncs up with similar dynamics around the South Shore of Long Island which in recent years has attracted media attention for the gruesome serial murder of prostitutes whose bodies/body parts have been found throughout beach dunes in that area. Such locales are the homes of “off-white” citizens who are precisely and distinctly positioned in a region “whose multiethnic makeup still betrays a remarkably hierarchical, if invisible to many, pecking order.”

Reporting of the disaster’s impact in places like Breezy Point in the Rockaways is colored by a strong element of mourning for obsolescent, geographically fixed communities, in contrast to the more affluent, gentrified, and relatively transient residents of the areas of lower Manhattan that were also affected. [1] News articles elaborate the class identity of the area by naming the professions of residents as “retired teacher,” “retired guidance counselor,” “school secretary,” and “volunteer firefighter.” Breezy Point is defined as a “tightknit enclave that is home to many firefighters and police officers and is known for a self-sufficient sensibility,” which tags it as a white ethnic area of working-class Irish Americans, a marginal community with outdated traditions and deep family ties (not to mention precarious beachfront real estate). Yet this image of a tightknit neighborhood where people believe in personal responsibility also constructs an implied contrast with other (non- or less white) working-class areas whose inhabitants are known rather for their dependence on public assistance.

“Outer borough” Sandy survivors are also constructed as emotional, feminized, and unsophisticated. Photos of residents surveying the wreckage of their homes tend to portray women in sweatshirts. Headlines announce that the Rockaways are “forlorn” and resentful of the relatively quick return of power to much of Manhattan. The New York Times quotes an elderly woman caring for her disabled sister, “We need to know when we’re going to have gas, light, electric. Everywhere is getting something but us.”


Figure 1: Jennifer Maloney/The Wall Street Journal.

Figure 2: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, in the New York Daily News

Figure 2: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters, in the New York Daily News

In contrast to the images of vulnerable and marginalized shore-dwellers, pre-storm media accounts heavily emphasized the spectacle of authoritarian white male politicians—in particular, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie—in press conferences scolding the public and suggesting that it would be unconscionable for them to stay in their homes and put “first responders” at risk. In issuing his evacuation order, Mayor Bloomberg reprimanded those who might defy the mandatory evacuation: “they are being … very selfish. A lot of people say, ‘Oh well, I’m just going to tough it out. If down the road you can’t tough it out … those first responders put their lives in danger and aren’t available for true emergencies.” Governor Christie was characteristically blunt in his characterization of those who might choose to stay in evacuation zone locations: “It’s just not acceptable conduct.” In lengthy and continued admonishments he noted “This is not a time to be a show-off, this is not a time to be stupid. This is the time to save yourself and your family,” and berated hold-outs as “stupid and selfish” for endangering those who might be tasked with rescuing them should conditions worsen. [2] Christie’s bullying communication style inspired a satirical Saturday Night Live take on his press conference in the post-Sandy November 4 episode, which presented him as a Sopranos-style New Jersey tough guy.

Satire notwithstanding, the stern face of the paternalistic official presents a striking contrast to the many images of crying women, positing the male politician as the enforcer of ethical civic participation and personal responsibility. Chiding the public for making the decision not to evacuate, Bloomberg and Christie perpetuate the fallacy of the rugged individualist as the appropriate subject of authoritarian political discourse. This kind of discursive presentation reinforces fantasies of neoliberal preparedness while displacing the unpreparedness of the state to fully cope with disasters. It also elides the reality that for many– the poor, the elderly, the ill, those without family or friends to call upon–preparedness is a purchased condition that may not be available.

The scolding tone of elected officials during Sandy echoes the widespread criticism of New Orleanians after Katrina, blaming them for living in a low-lying city, for not adequately taking care of the infrastructure or of their families and communities. Much hostile rhetoric circulated around questions of whether or not the city should be rebuilt, and if so how and on whose budget. The abandonment of the devastated American city posed as a practical, common-sense measure; yet as Mark Schleifstein reports in the Times-Picayune, 55 percent of Americans live in counties protected by levees. The punitive attitude of Bloomberg and Christie implies that those who “choose” not to evacuate don’t deserve to be rescued; similarly, the post-Katrina debate revealed that many believed New Orleanians were to blame for their own misfortunes because they had “chosen” to live in an unsafe area. In an article about the ethics of defying evacuation orders, Deidre Hodges is quoted in the context of her Katrina experiences: “It’s harsh to be really judgmental or critical of someone [without] understanding why they’re making the decision to stay….Some people are alone; some are elderly. There are just a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to go or the means to travel.”

The persistent Othering of US working-class populations in the wake of catastrophe and the staging of “family values” priorities and concerns mesh with the normalization of authoritarian reproach amidst efforts to mobilize support for impacted populations. These developments are significant for the ways in which they fortify current dynamics of social inequality. In addition they may well help to facilitate climate silence and perpetuate “magical thinking” about twenty-first-century America’s vulnerability to disaster.



[1] Another potential contrast is between these communities and the idealized, location-transcending virtual communities of Facebook and Twitter. David Carr has suggested that Superstorm Sandy elevated social media from the realm of the trivial to the realm of the serious.  See “How Sandy Slapped the Snark Out of Twitter,” New York Times Oct. 31, 2012.

[2]  Another noteworthy feature of storm preparedness rhetoric is the inability to conceptualize citizens apart from their membership in families.  This is all the more striking given the high rates of singleness in the New York area.  2009 data revealed  that fully 61.4% of Manhattan residents were single with comparable rates of  41.0% of Staten Islanders and 46.3% of Queens residents.  See Jennifer S. Lee,  “Single New Yorkers, Ahead of the Pack,” New York Times Sept. 25, 2009.


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One Response to “ “Everybody Gets Wet?”: Class, Race and Region after Superstorm Sandy ”

  1. […] out “Everybody Gets Wet” about news coverage of Sandy, by Julia Leda and Diane Negra, over at […]