Watching Hurricane Sandy From Israel: Our Turn to Worry

The last time I can recall Israelis being quite so concerned about danger in America was in the aftermath of 9/11.

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“It all just feels so backwards. We’re watching them and trying to understand exactly what’s going on, and we are concerned whether they are safe. It’s such a strange feeling – it’s supposed to be the other way around.”

I’ve heard versions of these comments in person, on the phone and online repeatedly over the past 72 hours, as Hurricane Sandy threatened the Eastern seaboard of the United States, and then after it became a reality.

I’ve heard them from my fellow Israelis with close family members in the northeastern United States – not only American immigrants, but all Israelis who have siblings or children living there. And as anyone who has taken a Tel Aviv taxi or gone electronics shopping in Manhattan knows – that’s a lot of Israelis.

Those of us in Israel with loved ones located in the swathe between Boston and North Carolina were glued to the Internet and foreign news channels all day Monday, oblivious to the news coming out of the Likud convention that day or to any other local headlines. We may have been physically in Israel, but our hearts and minds were far away. They were with elderly parents sitting through the hurricane on the 40th floor of an apartment building in Manhattan swaying in the wind with no elevator operator; brothers and sisters sitting in a New Jersey suburb with no electricity, a flooded basement and a fallen tree blocking their front door; or with an elderly uncle in Far Rockaway, Queens, dependent on medical equipment that operates on electricity, or a daughter in a Brooklyn brownstone apartment in a low-lying area with a new baby.

Thanks to cell phones and old-fashioned handsets for landlines that weren’t dependent on electricity, we were able to keep calling and checking up on our family members every time we were overly panicked by the latest news on CNN or Fox News or on the Israeli news broadcasts, where the coverage has been intense despite the current barrage of political news.

The last time I can recall Israelis being quite so concerned about danger in America was in the aftermath of 9/11. In the interim, there was, of course, Hurricane Katrina, which was a huge news story but didn’t grab Israelis as personally as this hurricane. Katrina, after all, took place in Louisiana and Mississippi, not New York, New Jersey or Maryland, where millions of Israelis, immigrants and native-born, feel a personal connection.

Many of us can’t stop looking at familiar landmarks that have been damaged or utterly destroyed – the piers in Long Island where we hung out as teenagers smashed to pieces, and the streets in Manhattan where we once walked to work or the Queens Midtown Tunnel we drove through to work, underwater. The boardwalk in Atlantic City where we vacationed washed away.

And indeed, it has felt strange to be cast in the role of the worriers instead of the worry recipients. So rarely are we the ones so concerned about the safety of our loved ones in the U.S. That’s their job. They are the ones who made the worried phone calls and sent the emails in the aftermath of car or bus bombings, the Gaza and Lebanon Wars, and most recently the Qassam and Grad rocket attacks in the south.

There are, of course, major differences between following the unrest over here and the short-term crisis of a hurricane in the U.S. For one thing, with a hurricane, we get a lot more moment-by-moment information to feed our obsession with the situation (not always a healthy thing.) The flip side of this is that those in the storm are aware that the world is watching and the world cares. That is the luxury of being part of a short-term crisis in the center of the universe – at least, when it comes to the financial world.

Residents of southern Israel don’t enjoy that amount of attention these days – the frequent missile-lobbing from Gaza has been going on so long that they have trouble holding the attention of their fellow citizens in the central portion of their own country, let alone the world.

Certainly, it’s not only Israelis in southern Israel that must feel this way. Many people around the world embroiled in conflict would kill for a fraction of the media coverage that Hurricane Sandy enjoys, including our Arab neighbors. Hurricane Assad has been lashing out at his citizens for far longer and far more mercilessly than the waves and winds have whipped the East Coast of the United States.

Speaking of the Arab world, Israelis aren’t the only ones watching hurricane-related events unfold with interest. An Egyptian friend reported on Twitter that Gaza residents have been tweeting tips to friends and relatives in the U.S. helping them cope with extended electricity shortages. He says that many third-worlders are surprised that so few Americans have emergency back-up generators and are now so helpless after their power is lost.

Generators I think I know what to get my family members for Hanukkah.

Pedestrians walk past a submerged taxi in Brooklyn, New York, October 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the northeastern United States. Credit: Reuters
Floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy rush into the Port Authority Hoboken, New Jersey station through an elevator shaft, video frame grab from the Port Authority twitter feed October 29, 2012.Credit: Reuters
A parking lot full of yellow cabs flooded as a result of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Hoboken, NJ. Credit: AP



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