Hurricane Sandy was a sucker punch, all right. The storm’s devastation reminded us all—even those of us who feel invincible, because we live in this capital of industry and commerce—of how vulnerable we are. A week after she struck, I’m still in the midst of it, coping without electric power (also heat and toilets) and with compromised commuter trains. I waited in a gas line for an hour and a half on Sunday and called Panera my temporary office for many days while our incredibly dedicated IT team tried to get us restored at 200 Madison Avenue, a location that was powerless for nearly a week.
As the waters recede and New York City and the tristate area try to pick up the pieces, my thoughts are foremost with everyone who has truly suffered from Hurricane Sandy. Way too many people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. (I would put myself into a gray area—we lost roof on two levels, had a small fire, and had trees take out the power poles and our electric box; we’re not out of the woods yet, literally and figuratively, but we didn’t suffer any loss of life, and most of our house can be restored easily once we get electricity—as victim, but with a small v.
But because trends, brands and perceptions are never entirely out of my mind, and because I had nothing but two golden retrievers and our incredibly dedicated housekeeper for company most of the week (if I don’t count my “bowling alone” time at Panera, six or seven hours a day), I lived inside my mind for at least 120 hours. I’ve been wondering about the permanent negativity people take on when they have the bad luck of sharing a name with a killer superstorm. (I’ve also been wondering about many other things, including the future of global warming, but that’s for another column. This one is on personal branding.)
Sandy is funny, because the name is so innocuous—the epitome of sunshine and light. Katrina sounds like a dominatrix, or at least a domineering tsarina. Irene could be a strict schoolmarm (her storm wasn’t quite as awful as the forecasts predicted, but she definitely was foreboding and taught us some lessons). But Sandy? Personal associations aside, it’s a day at the beach, the epicenter of carefree.
It’s such an everyday name, belonging to the woman in your neighborhood whom you invite over for coffee because she seems so benign and probably friendly, but now the name is associated with devastation and capriciousness, with wreaking social and economic havoc, with being out of control. Even worse, Hurricane Sandy will be known as the one that emphasized class disparities and economic inequalities: Within four days, Manhattan was back to business as usual, after wealthy SoHo and Tribeca dwellers Facebook-posted and ironic-tweeted about their candlelit dinners and treks uptown to charge their iPhone 5’s, while poorer people in outlying neighborhoods struggled to find food and stay warm. And Staten Island, the typically forgotten half sibling, has been further isolated in its pain and suffering.
So Sandy was crazy, dangerous, out of control, discriminatory and devastating. It makes me glad I’m not named Sandy. The New York Times reported on Katrina pride a couple of weeks after the New Orleans disaster—and pointed out, among other details, Rush Limbaugh’s obnoxious coinage “Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel” to refer to the very liberal, outspoken Nation editor.
She was in a position to capitalize on it (all press is good press, etc.), but other Katrinas who took to message boards, especially the younger ones, were more conflicted. One member of a Yahoo group posted “I will always remember my name associated with tragedy.” That’s a heavy burden for someone to bear. (And this seems like a good time to ask: Why is it that all the merciless, miserable, life-upending storms are given women’s names?)
The media bubble was funny this time. Mixed in with the serious stories, some journalists went all investigative, coming up with earth-shaking headlines such as “Hurricane Sandy Is a Democrat, Figures Find,” which involved an oh-so-rigorous look at campaign contributions. An the feminist blog Gurl.com posted an assessment of famous Sandys in the lead-up to landfall. Its “Sandys I’d Rather Meet” hit list: Sandy Cheeks from SpongeBob SquarePants, Sandy Cohen of “The O.C.,” Sandy from “Grease,” Sandy the dog from“Annie” and Sandy Duncan of “Peter Pan” fame. Goofy gamine, all.
So what does that mean for anyone else who happens to own the name Sandy? Maybe hurricanes should not have human names, so that the next one is just a harmless number.