Monday, February 25, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Two

Things remain relatively quiet in Tampa as April turns into May. After nine months of pandemic living most people are just too tired and hungry to get up to causing a ruckus. They’ve seen the potential problems with group gatherings. Many have been affected by violence and have no desire or ability to continue the cycle by perpetuating it. That isn’t true of everyone everywhere all of the time, but overall things are definitely calmer than in the opening weeks of the pandemic. Of course, there are random bursts of civil unrest here and there, but for now things remain settled.

Even New York City has finally calmed, due probably in large part to the fact that less than a quarter of the original population remains in the city. A federal investigation into the effects of the mass exodus of New York City reveals the following timeline:

The first confirmed cases within the city were not the result of a foreign national arriving at Newark or JFK airports, but a lowly traveling computer salesman. Upon hearing the news of an impending pandemic while at a convention in Arizona, the salesman – known as NYC Index Case 1 – drove his rented car back to the state as quickly as he could to be with his mother who lived alone in a miniscule apartment in the Bronx. His return was two days before most of the AZ hotel staff where he was staying were quarantined with flu-like symptoms. On the NYC end, the index case was so difficult to pinpoint at first due to the unexpectedness of its origin, and due to the confusion of the quick explosion of cases in "Meals on Wheels" volunteers. This mobile group of people spread the virus much faster and wider than it was ever planned for in even the worst case scenarios.

Within days of the pandemic being a confirmed reality in the continental U.S., a mass exodus of NYC began. This exodus was primarily made up of the wealthy and the middle class who thought they had a place to go outside of the city – cabins in upper New York state, relatives in New Jersey, summer homes in Connecticut, etc. Most roads were quickly un-navigable due to gridlock. The bridges (like the GW, Verrazano, and other river bridges) and tunnels (like the Lincoln and the Holland) were quickly clogged with vehicles. Then, despite exits from the city being closed by the National Guard and local law enforcement – these closures included the ferries and other commercial waterway traffic - "escapees" quickly overran all of the blockades. People also tried to paddle out over the Hudson River in anything that would float.

The outbound NYC refugees poured into places like Ft. Lee, Jersey City, Trenton, Stamford, Bridgeport, Weehawken, Teaneck, Hackensack, Maywood, and Paramus. Many, who had expected to be taken in by family and friends, found themselves forcibly turned away – sometimes at gunpoint. Finding no refuge there, they continued north, south, and west like locusts, staying only long enough to run through an area’s resources or to succumb to infection.

Those people who remained in NYC did so mostly with the misconception that someone somewhere was responsible for filling the gap where they had failed to prepare for a disaster. This despite the fact that many New Yorkers had seen first hand what a catastrophe could mean when they experienced the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Even near misses by hurricanes, such as the deadly 1938 hurricane that came to be known as the Long Island Express, Carol in 1954, Donna in 1960 and Gloria in 1985 did not convince residents or city planners that having catastrophic preparations in place was a good idea.

Then the power went off. Hospitals failed, as did most public health facilities.

As reality began to set in throughout the city, some continued to wait in vain for help and some started going out and taking what they thought they needed or wanted through uninhibited looting. Everything disappeared quickly. There simply was no more to take. Even getting fresh water was becoming a problem as electricity was required to draw drinking water from reservoirs many miles from the city. Most of the remaining water sources were undrinkable because they were brackish, a mixture of fresh and salt water sources.

There were some neighborhoods that didn’t fall prey to panic and violence, but that was because in such locations there was already a well-established presence by a group or individual. These groups or individuals would brook no interference, no transgressions. They were proof that a strong arm was at least as important as a quick mind in determining who was boss and what rules people were going to follow. Of course, this wasn’t always proof against viral infection, but it at least afforded an illusion of normalcy for those living there. Many apartment buildings became the only island of refuge for their tenants, assuming all of the tenants cooperated with that concept.

When there was no more to take from the shelves, people began to prey on each other. There was some established gang activity but nothing compared to what the West Coast was going through at that time. The problem was that people eventually began to band together to create new gangs; but, congregating together exposed even more people to infection. The gangs offered some protection, but left people vulnerable to violence and infection. Not a good trade.

At this point, the weather hadn’t turned raw yet, but the stench of uncollected garbage and the sick and dying proved too much for many, so there was a secondary exodus from the city with all its accompanying problems. This group was even less equipped than the first that left the city. They had no friends or family they could expect to take them in. They had no resources to take with them. And any resources they expected to find outside of the city were long gone or well protected by those that held them.

Now, even those dedicated few that had remained . . . the health care professionals, local law enforcement, workers at all levels in a wide variety of fields . . . realized that there was nothing more they could do. Those that had not left before now left the city at the tail end of the secondary exodus. This set off another round of widespread violence as the people remaining in the city felt they were being abandoned. There was some attempt by the Federal government and the State of New York to evacuate the elderly, but many simply refused to leave. Some of the ethnic strongholds also refused to evacuate.

Because of the extraordinary amount of violence, the federal government felt it could not afford to risk its own dwindling numbers of personnel and resources to re-supply a city that, by-and-large, refused to do anything but flame like a Roman torch. Some of the worst violence was a result of ethnic and/or religious issues. It was like having miniature versions of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa all rolled into the confines of a dying city.

Then winter weather began to set in. The frail and elderly as well as the young and vulnerable that had thus far escaped both infection and the violence, quickly succumbed to the added problem of winter weather conditions. These fatalities further emptied the city of inhabitants.

Eventually infection rates and attrition due to violence decimated the remaining population of the city. There are still roving – and violent – bands of people, but they are more loosely aligned and can be found primarily outside of the city proper. You would no more walk around New York City alone now than you would have prior to the city-wide clean up led by Rudy Guilliani in the 80s.

With the advent of spring, roof top gardens can be seen by air patrols of the city. There is little chance of producing all the food they need, but at least people are trying. There is also evidence of cooperation within neighborhoods to clear debris from the streets and institute some organization back into their lives. Some neighborhoods have barricaded themselves off from the rest of the city using scavenged material and now rusting and useless cars.

With some semblance of self-control and order now in evidence, the federal government has expressed a hope that they can once again attempt to re-supply the remaining citizens of NYC. Whether this will work, or whether it will spark another round of civil unrest remains to be seen.

Unlike in New York, May is the month of plenty at Scott and Sissy’s home. In another way, it is also a month of worry. The family harvests a bumper crop from their gardening. They bring in burdock, parsnips, potatoes, sunflowers, black eye peas, several varieties of shelling beans, cantaloupes, more Jerusalem artichokes, lima beans, okra, garden huckleberries, husk tomatoes (aka ground cherries), both hot and mild peppers, and the first of the summer squash and tomatoes. The kids have a blast with the sunflowers, but it sure is hard work to keep the squirrels out of them. For all that though, May is the first month they are unable to plant things because of the recommended growing seasons of the seeds they have available to them. It is getting too hot, with too little rainwater, to expect seedlings to survive.

Complicating things further, while May gets a little more rain than April – not much, just an inch – the hot weather is quickly depleting their drinking water reserves. The water that remains in their pool is also evaporating at a quicker rate. The rolling black outs are occurring more often and lasting longer because of increasing energy demands. So far TECO is able to cope, but several smaller electric cooperatives in rural districts are beginning to fail. Scott and Sissy deal with each of these issues as best they can. They have little choice but to deal with the situation.

They can’t change the growing seasons so they are doing the best with what they have already planted. Sissy is preserving everything that they don’t eat fresh. That isn’t as much as Sissy had hoped. She had underestimated the combined effect of a lot of manual labor and loss of utilities. Lots of hard work means a higher caloric need than the 2000 cal/day that she had prepped for.

They are trading very little food at the barter market. Nothing that comes their way goes to waste. As an example, a raccoon turned over a pot that held a tomato plant. Sissy was just plain furious as it had been loaded with fruit. She tried to save it but the plant was too shocked and the main stem had broken. Rather than allow it to be a total loss, she pulled the green tomatoes and made things like fried green tomatoes, green tomato pie, green tomato hash, green tomato cake, and green tomato mincemeat. The remaining leaves and stems went into the compost heap.

They also can’t make more water. With only 2.5 inches of rain for the month, they are heavily dependent on water storage when the power is off for extended periods of time. Scott has his family really tighten their personal water restrictions. They must be extremely diligent to gather every drop of rain they can. They also give other forms of water harvesting a try, like condensation farming and dew gathering, with limited success. They are very careful to refill every empty water container they can scrounge up when the power is on and run water to their pool to at least partially refill it when they can.

Scott and Sissy can only effect the power going up and down in a limited manner. When the power is on they limit their power consumption to clothes washing, water needs, and canning and cooking. If the power is on they also run the air conditioning at night to drive out the humidity. They leave the air conditioner off during the day because they are in and out working anyway. They make ice when they can and when the power is off they keep it for iced drinks. When the power is on they bake bread. When the power is off they fix their bread using alternative cooking methods, or they do without.

The hurricane season is fast approaching as well. Even a hit by a tropical storm could be disastrous under current circumstances. People are living on the edge; a weather event of any magnitude will put a number of people over the edge.

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