The Oil Drum: New York City

Helping New Yorkers understand, prepare and adapt to the implications of Peak Oil

Friday, September 02, 2005

Every Man for Himself

This was perhaps the most anticipated natural disaster in history. For decades, all levels of government were aware that a major Hurricane would devastate New Orleans and much of the surrounding areas. As Paul Krugman points out this morning in the NY Times, FEMA listed the New Orleans hurricane scenario as "perhaps the most deadly", more deadly than a major terrorist attack in NYC or an earthquake in San Francisco. Much effort was made to prepare the city for at least a Category 3 Hurricane, but it seems now that there was no real back-up plan for a Category 4 or 5 Hurricane.

Instead, the alert went out to residents to get out by any means possible. The president urged anyone in the storm's path "to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground."

Basically, this was a call for those with cars to jump in and get out. For everyone else, they had no plan except to get to the Superdome, if possible. For the elderly, for the disabled, for those that did not own cars, they were all on their own. And since Monday, they have had no shelter, no running water, no electricity and no food, save for what they could find.

In New Orleans 27% of the population lives below the poverty line. Many of these folks did not have cars to immediately flee the city. Effectively, there was no plan for them. It truly was every man for himself.

The swift breakdown in civilization is something that many people who have studied peak oil worry about. This really should be a lesson learned on how not to evacuate a city. However, I'm really trying to not give in to the "every man for himself" mentality. We are ALL in this together. If this happens to NYC, then god help us all. And if this could happen in a major metropolitan area, then don't think you will be safe in some rural outpost. You will be probably be found by greedy and fully armed people just as easily if law and order break down. In fact if you were allocating resources, would you concentrate your few resources in protecting urban areas or rural areas? If you go it alone, you better be very prepared. Or think of this another way - we are only hearing now about the urban chaos because that's what the media has been able to pick up. Just wait until you hear about the silent chaos/score settling happening in rural areas.

I wrote about the differences between the 2003 and 1977 New York blackouts in my review of James Goodman's Blackout. My basic conclusion was that negative economic conditions combined with a lack of immediate response by the police caused a much worse breakdown in 1977.

Recent events seem to confirm that civilization is somewhat fragile. Some would interpret these events as a reason to become ever more self-reliant, further insulating them from society and and that is a natural response. You should take steps to prepare yourself for a number of eventualities - including the evacuation of yourself and family from NYC. Personally, I keep a bag ready to go with a sleeping bag, water, food for 2 days, a first aid kit, flashlight, etc.

But really the answer lies not in a nation full of survivalists, but in strong communities that can withstand major crises. Rather than withdrawing into our own private bunkers when the oil storm strikes, we need to build stronger more sustainable communities now.

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