Symbolism plays an important role in the aftermath of tragedy or disaster. Iconic photographs of everything from troops returning home from war, to firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero after Sept. 11 sear themselves permanently onto the public’s consciousness. On a smaller scale, candlelit vigils are held for the dead and protests express public outrage. And for every somber moment of silence there is an equally important symbolic act of moving forward with new hope.
It’s tricky territory to navigate. To put it in cold terms, when is the appropriate cut-off point for grief, and when is it possible to move on? Let’s look at an example of a situation in which someone tried to rush the moving on process.
With a 1,000-mile diameter, Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, according to the National Hurricane Center. With economic damage estimated at $50 billion, Sandy is predicted to be the second-most expensive storm in U.S. history, behind Katrina. Last week, it wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and up the east coast of the United States, hitting the Mid-Atlantic area the hardest. Currently, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that 113 people have died in the United States as a result of the storm.
For our purposes, we’ll focus on the impact of the storm in New York City. Not only are super destructive hurricanes relatively uncommon on the East Coast, the pictures of a flooded NYC are eerily reminiscent of stills from disaster flicks. We’re not used to seeing our cities like this. Images of a blacked-out Manhattan, flooding at the Ground Zero construction site, fires in Queens, and water flowing into abandoned subway stations are undoubtedly disturbing.
Visceral reactions aside, on the practical side of things, efforts to restore power and repair the extensive damage, not only to property, but to the city’s infrastructure, which will be expensive and time-consuming. The frightening devastation Sandy caused is leading to calls, including from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to better storm-proof the city as extreme weather becomes more frequent. Cuomo said that the city should consider a barrier system to keep flood waters from entering underground infrastructure, according to The New York Times article, “For Years, Warnings It Could Happen Here.” Undertaking a project of this magnitude would be incredibly expensive.
But that’s in the long term. The real question at the end of last week was, apparently, whether or not to go on with the New York City Marathon.
Late last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the marathon was still on for Sunday, Nov. 4. The race was scheduled to start in Staten Island, the borough that was hit the hardest by the hurricane, where 20 of the city’s 41 deaths have occurred.
Bloomberg’s method in making this decision was the oft-used, “it’s what they would have wanted” explanation, referring to the wishes of those who died as a result of the hurricane. He also said that it would boost morale and bring much-needed money into the city. Bloomberg also appealed to New York’s “grit” when he said, “This city is a city where we have to go on.”
Apparently, however, now isn’t the time for symbolic rhetoric: residents and critics were angry and petitions to cancel the race began popping up on Change.org, Twitter, and Facebook. Caving to popular pressure, Bloomberg cancelled the marathon late on Friday, for the first time in its history. While some of the runners who had flown in to the city for the race weren’t very happy, New Yorkers felt Bloomberg made the right call.
When trying to defend his early choice to keep the race as scheduled, Bloomberg recalled then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to proceed with the 2001 Marathon two months after Sept. 11. According to an article from CBS and the Associated Press, Bloomberg said, “I think Rudy had it right. You have to keep going and doing things and you can grieve you can cry and you can laugh all at the same time. That’s what human beings are good at.”
In this situation however, Bloomberg may have been drawing a false comparison, as these two events represent totally different situations. Americans were shocked, frightened, saddened and angry following the attacks. They were all grieving, suffering psychologically, but they had access to basic necessities. A “morale-boosting” event two months after the fact wasn’t in bad taste — in fact, it was probably sorely needed.
So while Bloomberg’s heart may have been in the right place when he appealed to the symbolic nature of the marathon, it was way too soon to have that symbolic moving-on moment. The admittedly frivolous nature of the media coverage of the marathon would have been a kind of slap in the face to those still putting the pieces together in the aftermath of the storm. The celebratory spirit of the marathon would have also felt forced given the divisiveness it generated leading up to its cancellation.
In an article for the Huffington Post, Tim Dahlberg said that “the mayor wanted to run when the city was still struggling to walk.” And that can perhaps lead to the best answer to the question, “When is it best to move on?” It’s a step-by-step process. You can’t move on until the bulk of the suffering is over, or at least until the physical scars have healed. And you can’t push to move on, symbolically or literally, until people are ready to.
Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.