Metropolitan Transit Authority workers lay plywood over subway grates at...

Metropolitan Transit Authority workers lay plywood over subway grates at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan to prevent flooding, as New York City braces for Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Bloomberg / Peter Foley

I live one block west of Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, a fact that only matters on weekends like this, when a hurricane somewhere in the Caribbean threatens to blow us around like loose rigging on a schooner.

Pearl was once at the city’s waterline — filled with docks, slips, ships, cargo, chandlers and swearing sailors. Today it’s about three blocks from the East River, thanks to four centuries worth of landfill. It’s usually filled with taxis, tourists, bicycle delivery guys and swearing office workers.

It doesn’t feel like a seaport until an Irene or a Sandy arrives. Last year, when Irene came calling, we discovered we lived in the mayor’s mandatory evacuation zone. Our building was shut down—no elevators, no electricity, no nothing. The subways went dead. The dog-walkers vanished. 

But Irene let us off easy. In fact, the storm was harder on the upstate community where my wife and I took refuge than it was on Manhattan. But with Sandy churning away in the tropics, who knows if we’ll be so lucky.

The truth is, New Yorkers don’t live in fear of the sea any more — not on Long Island and not in the city. If anything, we think of it as a marketable amenity — what the urban planners call a “water feature” — a place where vacationers and boardwalk strollers and al fresco diners can show up to deposit some of their discretionary bucks into the local treasury.

Then every few years we’re rudely reminded that it’s not all fun and games. Residents are reminded that the sea is not just a pretty view. Planners, marketers, publicists and real estate people are reminded that it can wreak economic disaster about as easily as it can generate economic bonanzas.

By early next week, Pearl Street could be under water, and Long Islanders might be a little more acquainted with the sea that surrounds them. It’s hard to say. It’ll be Sandy’s turn to call the shots.

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