A hurricane’s inequality

By David Rohde
October 31, 2012

A hotel bellman said he was worried about his mother uptown. A maid said she had been calling her family in Queens. A garage attendant said he hadn’t been able to contact his only relative – a sister in New Jersey – since the storm hit. Asked where he weathered the hurricane, his answer was simple.

“I slept in my car,” he said.

Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city.

Hours before the storm arrived on Monday night, restaurants, corner grocery stores and hotels were open in the Union Square area of Manhattan. (My wife and I moved to a hotel there after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan.) Instead of heading home to their families as the winds picked up, the city’s army of cashiers, waiters and other service workers remained in place.

Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.

Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.

New census data shows that the city is the most economically divided it has been in a decade, according to the New York Times. As has occurred across the country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Twenty-one percent of the city is in poverty, and the median household income decreased by $821 annually. Per the Times:Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.”

Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681.

All told, Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth, up from 38 times in 2010. Only a handful of developing countries – such as Namibia and Sierra Leone – have higher inequality rates.

In the Union Square area, New York’s privileged – including myself – could have dinner, order a food delivery and pick up supplies an hour or two before Sandy made landfall. The cooks, cashiers and hotel workers who stayed at work instead of rushing home made that possible.

They were a diverse group. Some were young people in their twenties. Others were middle-aged Americans who had never landed white-collar jobs. Most were immigrants.

On the other end of the wealth spectrum, New York’s age-old excesses emerged. Some families brought their nannies to the hotel to help care for their children through the hurricane. Others panicked when the power went off. All the while, waiters, maids and doormen continued to help them.

The storm affected the affluent as well. Tourists and business people from Boston, California, Britain and Japan were stranded in our hotel. They found themselves without power, water or transportation, and completely at the mercy of strangers.

But the city’s heroes were the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year. And the local politicians who focused on performance, not partisanship, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Corey Booker.

Twenty-four hours after the disaster, ugly political lines were already being drawn. Democrats pounced on a statement by Mitt Romney in a Republican primary debate last year that disaster response should be shifted to the states and, where possible,  privatized. Michael Brown, the much criticized director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under George W. Bush, argued that the Obama administration had responded more quickly to Hurricane Sandy than it did to the terrorist attack in Benghazi.

“One thing he’s gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in … Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?” Brown was quoted as saying to a Denver alternative newspaper. “This is like the inverse of Benghazi.”

Over the next few days, Obama’s and Romney’s reactions to the storm will be parsed. The role of the federal government in covering the costs of the disaster will be praised and assailed. Politicians, as always, will jockey for advantage.

The storm showed many things about New York. It exposed the city’s vulnerabilities. It also displayed its strengths. And to me, it showed New York’s growing economic divide. I’m sure that many of the people who remained at work yesterday chose to do so voluntarily. But I fear that many of them did not.

PHOTO: A general view from Exchange Place shows the skyline of lower Manhattan in darkness after a preventive power outage caused by giant storm Sandy in New York October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

8 comments

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An excellent and insightful article.

Whilst learning about this disaster, I was thinking about a similar subject: the reported differences in survival rates between passenger classes on The Titanic, and the controversy over the underlying reasons behind that. Then, I imagined the streets of New York, with various service personnel risking their lives to help the wealthy to evacuate safely.

Your article has colored in the dim outline of my imagination!

If a disaster like this can bring political factions together to actually start solving problems again, synthesizing their various approaches together into something greater than the sum of their parts; or, if the wealthy can gain at least a little insight through a few days without electrical power — then perhaps some good can come out of this.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

11:43 am UTC

An excellent and insightful article.

Whilst learning about this disaster, I was thinking about a similar subject: the reported differences in survival rates between passenger classes on The Titanic, and the controversy over the underlying reasons behind that. Then, I imagined the streets of New York, with various service personnel risking their lives to help the wealthy to evacuate safely.

Your article has colored in the dim outline of my imagination!

If a disaster like this can bring political factions together to actually start solving problems again, synthesizing their various approaches together into something greater than the sum of their parts; or, if the wealthy can gain at least a little insight through a few days without electrical power — then perhaps some good can come out of this.
Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

One slight flaw….nothing will be learned, nothing will change….if it hasn’t in 100 years since the Titanic went down, 2 World Wars – the latter driven by the financiers….the human race is nasty, greedy, ego-centric and destructive..

Posted by randburg100 | Report as abusive

An excellent essay, Mr. Rhodes. $9,681 MEDIAN for the bottom quintile ??? !!! Am I reading that right? So not only did these folks get stuck at work, stranded from family and friends, but they likely have no renter’s insurance or receipts for their meager second-hand belongings. Yeah, life’s fair. How can I make sure that my relief donation gets to these folks?

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

“How can I make sure that my relief donation gets to these folks?”

Deliver it to them in person.

Posted by tougar | Report as abusive

aren’t all those folks who livew on the jersey shore the “1%” ? How does this fit into your story?

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

So why does “Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth”?. It’s always looked at on the surface, not the history of it. Let’s take the same sampling and go back a few generations to see who had continuous privilege and who did not in their families. Then lets begin looking at that privilege and see why that is. The anecdotal story is useless unless the entire picture of inequality (that is to say inequality of liberty, not the false sense of equality we’ve all been fed) is looked at from its beginnings.

Let the power stay out permanently. Then we’ll see who rises and falls in a society and what the basis for it is.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Those who put all their wealth into their car could sleep in their car, surrounded by their wealth, right?

Posted by tommurphy | Report as abusive

This post should be entitled: Welcome to Bloomberg’s New York. It’s hard to imagine a person who more personifies this world, with his utter cluelessness about how the bottome fifth — actually, make that the bottom 99% — actually live.

Posted by f.fursty | Report as abusive