OCTOBER 31, 2012
As I sat stranded in a friend’s Manhattan apartment, watching nature make a mockery of my plans, I had a hard time tearing myself away from local Channel 4’s coverage of what New York's Governor has called “Sandy’s fury.” Sopping beachfronts were swarming with reporters barely able to stand in the wind; governors, mayors, and officials of all sorts were giving press conferences, detailing what was closed where, whom they’ve talked to and when, and what they’d done to manage the fallout of a historic storm. When they weren’t giving pressers, they (or their minions) were tweeting about the latest developments: a gust here, a flood there. ConEd, provider of the city’s power, robocalled my friend and just about everyone on Monday morning, to warn them that, at some point in the near future, the lights might go out. The city government sent SMS alerts to warn people to get inside–that is, it had not evacuated from the lowest lying areas.
To everyone around me, this seemed absolutely normal—to be expected, even—but to me, it was—well, it made me want to weep through an off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
Two years and two months ago, you see, I was stranded in an apartment in a different city and watched nature wreak havoc around me. It was the Moscow of early August, 2010, and, after a hot, dry summer, much of Western Russia caught on fire. By morning on August 6, the smoke from the peat bog fires around Moscow reached the capital. It was toxic smoke, full of harmful particles, with levels of carbon monoxide reaching nearly seven times the allowable limit. According to the country’s chief pulmonologist, breathing such air does “damage to an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours.” The smoke was visible from space, and scientists said they had spotted pyrocumulus clouds, which appear during volcanic eruptions and nuclear tests. As the toxic cloud hovered over the city for days, morgues overflowed with old people who weren’t up for the pulmonary challenge and healthier people reported headaches, the first sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Through it all, the Russian authorities and the official Russian press were largely silent. Russia has never been a transparent place where information flows freely, but when it was most needed, information became hardest to find. Should we leave the city? If so, where were the areas clear of smoke? How could we get there, and what was happening with the airports and train stations and roads? If we stayed, what precautions should we take to minimize inhalation and death? And, if you’re out in the regions and there’s fire approaching, what do you do? Russians (and I) were left to figure this stuff out on our own.
But, unlike the efficient, rational things that are theoretically supposed to happen when government gets out of the way, things just spiraled into dog-eat-dog chaos. There was a run on the pharmacies for facemasks, a run on the train stations and airports for a way out. Imported air conditioning units that could filter out the harmful smoke were hoarded by the corrupt border authorities until their price skyrocketed, making them far out of reach for those who needed them most: the elderly barely getting by on their pensions. And instead of trying to find ways to save the rapidly dying elderly, Moscow authorities merely pretending there was nothing amiss. Or worse: there were reports of doctors being sacked for talking to the press about the overcrowded morgues and a death rate that had suddenly quadrupled.
And, worst of all, Moscow’s mayor, the proletarian cap-sporting Yury Luzhkov refused to come back from his vacation. When pressed on why the mayor was absent during this surreal cataclysm, his spokesman responded as follows:
What is the problem? What, do we have an emergency situation in Moscow, a crisis? What is the problem in Moscow? Is it Moscow’s problem? Is the crisis in Moscow? What can we do in Moscow in this situation? If it’s necessary to come back and just show yourself, that’s one thing. But everything that should’ve been done in Moscow has been done. A system has been worked out. When he was asked where the mayor was vacationing, the spokesman said,
“If we want to tell you, we’ll tell you.”
Eventually, the city opened four air-conditioned shelters. It seemed like a joke in a city of over twelve million, especially when the A/C immediately cut out at two of them. It was a little less funny when news leaked that the mayor, who saw no crisis in Moscow, had taken care to evacuate his beloved honeybees from the region, the only citizens to be evacuated. (Luzhkov was well known–and well-mocked–as keen hobby apiarist.) Only when the toxic cloud began to drift out of town, did the mayor come back. As if in admonition, he explained that because of us wheezing, weeping wimps, he had to break his physical therapy for a sports injury short.
And this was just one disaster. There was the time, in March, 2010, when two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow metro at rush hour, taking some forty people with them. State television was silent for four hours. When asked by a journalist from the Times why Channel 1, the biggest channel, was not broadcasting news of the attacks, or of whether there might be more, or of which subway lines were open, and which closed, a spokesman explained that “The majority of people who are not journalists leave the house before 9 in the morning. After that, the majority of people who watch TV are housewives.” This summer, the southern Russian town of Krymsk was destroyed in a Katrina-like levee implosion that killed nearly 200 people (a number authorities tried to, er, soften). When it became clear that the local authorities had known the levee break was coming, the region’s governor couldn’t quite understand what people wanted from him. “What,” he said to angry hecklers, “are you saying we should’ve gone around and warned everyone? That’s impossible. First of all, with what resources? Secondly, what would you have done—just stood up and left your houses?”
If you disregard the staggering contempt for those killed in the flood, the man had a point. He likely had few resources because his comrades had stolen most of them, but with the disastrous forest fires of 2010, it was a direct result of an earlier reform when Putin slashed the number of forest rangers. As a result, they had greater areas to cover and more paperwork to do, giving them less time to actually patrol their territories. (The reform also made it a crime to put out small fires, classifying it as a misuse of state funds.) When the fires hit, the firefighting was left to the volunteers—a libertarian wet dream. The problem is they didn’t do that good a job, lacking professional equipment as they did. Most didn’t even get a fire warning—Putin sent a bell to one critic who wrote him an open letter—and when they asked for help in evacuating, they were told to do it themselves. My friend and colleague, Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder went to see the fires in the regions, and wrote this of what she saw: "With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” The resulting devastation—hundreds of thousands of scorched acres, lost crops, hundreds of fire-gutted homes, and a completely unclear number of deaths—was a result of this hands-off approach by the authorities.
This is not to say that America is the paragon of earthly perfection. Lord knows it has its massive issues, and Lord knows FEMA does, too. But watching the city, state, and federal authorities respond to Sandy, I couldn’t help but recall that panicky, sucking feeling I had two summers ago as I scrambled to figure out whether and how to get my grandmother, who has heart failure, out of the city, and had nothing but guesswork to go on. There were no tweets or press conferences about relief and preparedness efforts; hell, there were no relief and preparedness efforts, period. I couldn’t help thinking of this when my Twitter feed lit up with reminders about Romeny’s plans for FEMA. I couldn’t help but reach back to a conclusion I reached about a year into my Russian stint: let Republicans rule a place unchallenged for a decade or two, let them institutionalize their strange ideas of self-reliance, and you’ll get a place that looks a lot like Russia. And then I heard another sms alarm come in from the city and I couldn’t help thinking, just a month after moving back to the States from the Randian paradise that is Russia, “You people. You don’t know how good you have it.” And also: “Please, don’t fuck it up.”