27 Aug Panic at Home Depot

I went to Home Depot yesterday and was surprised to see the place packed — it was noon on a Friday. Then I remembered that hurricane Irene’s approach had just been announced and this Home Depot crowd was probably the panicked result. Sure enough, carts were filled with survival gear: lanterns and ropes and tarps. I wanted to say, “Come on, folks, let’s get real. Rarely do we get a serious storm and even then rarely does it cause sustained damage to the extent that we need survival gear.”

Okay, yes, I felt superior to the rest because I’d come only for turpentine (I’m in the midst of refinishing some floors). The guy in front of me at checkout had flashlights and plastic ponchos and a new downspout for his house gutter. I guess that’s one advantage of storm panic: everybody repairs their gutters. The clerk said to me: “Batteries are long gone. Flashlights are nearly gone. We almost had fist fights over the last few generarators. We’re staying open till midnight to get a new shipment of batteries.”

I went to another hardware store this morning and saw the same thing: batteries were gone; flashlights were gone; the place was packed.

Humor me for a minute: what is everybody doing with all of these batteries and flashlights? Doesn’t everybody already have a couple of flashlights lying around the house? Let’s say the storm does its worst and we’re without power for two days. You’ll need flashlights at night. But how many flashlights? And what do you expect to do with them? It’s not like we can buy enough batteries to power our fridge or stove.

Oh my: heaven help you if you had to go to the super market for a quart of milk this morning, as I did. Lines extended from the registers down into the grocery aisles. Here again, I am perplexed. It’s not like we’re expecting nuclear fallout. It’s a storm. It’s rain. It’s maybe power outages. I assume that everybody goes grocery shopping once a week and they have in their houses enough groceries for a couple of days. But let’s say you don’t have any groceries. Even during our worst blizzard — with 21 inches of snow on the ground — grocery stores were open in Baltimore. So what would a hurricane bring, even at its worst, that could top a dump of 21 inches of snow and leave us stranded in our homes?

When I rant like this, Jill laughs and asks: “Why does this irritate you so much?”

My answer: Because I want people to be better than that. I want them to be smarter than that. I want to know that if things get bad, I mean really bad, I can rely on others to do the right thing. I have little confidence in people who run out to stock up an already well-stocked house with batteries and groceries just because heavy rain is coming.

“Consider,” Jill says, “that most people don’t have a lot of storage in their houses, so they probably don’t have a lot of groceries stacked up.”

Okay, I”ll consider that.

“Also,” she adds, “most people eat out a lot. Hardly anybody cooks at home anymore. That’s another reason they might not have groceries at home.”

She might have a point.

Let me add a point of my own: it’s possible that, because we live in a country that has been surprisingly unscathed by wars and never touched by famine and rarely affected by catastrophes on a grand scale, Americans just don’t have a sense of perspective when it comes to their own safety.

What is more, we live in a hyper-hyped culture that makes a big deal of everything. A coming storm becomes not just a media event but a form of entertainment.Which is to say that the panicked crowds at the hardware and grocery stores are participating in a perverse kind of communal recreation. Like a tilt-o-whirl at the state fair, the threat of a hurricane turns their world upside down and, whether they acknowledge it or not, they get giddy, even delighted, by the prospect of Real Trouble. But Real Trouble almost never comes. Inevitably, at the end of these carny rides of panic, the storm blows past having left hardly a trace.

So, sure, have fun with it — load up your shopping cart with survival gear and wait an hour at the super market check-out so that you can haul home a month’s worth of food. Feel the blood rushing to your head? Wouldn’t we feel better if we just let out a big scream?