New York Revisited — December 21, 2012, 1:17 pm

Sandy and the Sandman

On dreams and prophecies of the great flood

Jane’s Carousel during Hurricane Sandy, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi

A river rushes down Sixth Avenue and I am carried along in it, on my way to meet a stranger for coffee. Somewhere around Eighth Street, I’m caught in a giant brown whirlpool, but I pull myself out. Soon I reach the café. I’m the first one there. I check my messages — my phone mysteriously still works — and dry out in the sun as I wait.

Then I wake up.

A few hours later, my brother texts me from the blackout zone in Lower Manhattan: “Had such a scary sandy dream last night just remembering it now — I looked out of my window to the backyard and there was only an ocean outside. Then a huge wave came and all this water started pouring in through the windows.” A second message follows: “totally made me think of this Ferlinghetti poem.” In “Wild Dreams of a New Beginning,” the poet describes America washed over by a single, cataclysmic wave. “Skyscrapers filled like water glasses,” he imagines. “Milwaukee beer topped with sea foam.”

In the seventh century b.c., Hindus surmised that there had once been a great flood, and that its lone survivor, Manu, saved by a fish, had to fashion a wife for himself out of sour milk and whey in order to preserve the human race. Tahitians suggested in the 1820s that, not long after mankind first populated the earth, a fisherman’s hooks became entangled in the hair of the sleeping sea-god who bubbled to the surface in anger; by the next morning, only mountaintops remained above the shore. Aborigines in Lake Tyers, Australia, claimed that a huge frog, hoarding all the water of the world in his belly, caused the flood when he laughed at the contortions of an eel. In 1912, Freud’s colleague Otto Rank proposed that such myths derive from the tossing-and-turnings of sleep itself — in dreams expressing the need to urinate in the night. 

Among the first to respond to my call for flood-related dreams in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was an artist in Greenpoint who had found herself floating on top of a Tyrian purple lagoon: “none other but the imaginary ‘Broadway Canal,’” she wrote. The ruined structures of the JMZ subway could be seen overhead. “I’m not alone in this road river. Around me there are many twenty-somethings, some straddling floating shards of billboards, sitting on models’ giant toothy grins, some riding what seem to be iPad boogie boards, while others glide through the murky swells like otters.” A pop singer wrote to me about a similar, recurrent dream in which she floated past the tops of skyscrapers on a cardboard raft. “I can’t find anyone else who is alive. I always have the same question ringing in my head when I wake up: Would I actually have the will to fight for life if everyone else was dead?”

The same question has been posed variously by Nintendo and Hollywood, each of whom dreamt up scenes others have replayed since the storm. Sexual Donut, a young woman in Brooklyn, explained via Twitter that Hurricane Sandy was a gigantic Pokémon, Tentacruel — a jellyfish who, in this version of the game, had sunk New York with its tentacles. An art director at a fitness magazine told me that he had watched as the Joker sent a hurricane to destroy the city — his second attempt, after the first, Hurricane Irene, had failed. New Yorkers seemed unaware of the chaos, as the Joker had cloaked the city in oblivion gas. “No matter how hard I tried to knock sense into citizens, they would not acknowledge it,” the art director told me. “I’m assuming I was Batman.”

“Imaginations that had been schooled in the comedy of apocalypse were forced to reconsider the same evidence as tragic,” theatre critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker a few weeks after the September 11 attacks. “It was hard to make the switch.” If 9/11 was The Siege, Hurricane Sandy was The Day After Tomorrow. A chef in Bushwick became a member of the rescue squad, taking an emergency call from a man in a wheelchair in South Florida, who reported that the floodwaters in his house were rising as he sat alone with his dog. Soon the man was overcome by water; the line went silent. After the flood subsided, the chef visited the house to search for him, but found nothing.

On Twitter, a tech-nerd joined the relief effort, but systems kept crashing: “Dreamt I was trying to clean up Hoboken after #Sandy, but sysadmin had granted me read-only access. So I was powerless to save changes.” In a YouTube video, a man in North Carolina described being on a Coast Guard cutter in the middle of the storm, throwing down lifelines to those drowning in the surge.  He hooked what he assumed was an unusually fat man, but when he pulled it up it was an enormous sea creature with the legs of a crab but the soft flesh of a jellyfish — perhaps a minion of Tentacruel.

The evening Hurricane Sandy made landfall, an editor at a publishing house was trying to check in on his office at the top of a West Village tower. “Outside I could see a vast abysmal ring filled with water, like a moat, with the ruins of many buildings poking out of it,” he told me. But as he climbed he found “only staircases, endless staircases, or I was unable to get to the top because I was perpetually on the same step.” A door labeled “Direction” led only to further stairwells. “There was water everywhere,” he remembers, “but it was orderly and directed into a marble aqueduct.”

In 1520, as tourists began arriving in Aztec lands, the emperor Motecuhzoma ordered an investigation into the dreams of his people, in hopes of uncovering an omen. The Dominican friar Diego Durán recounted in the late sixteenth century that a group of elderly women told Motecuhzoma, “In our dreams we, your mothers, saw a mighty river enter the doors of your royal palace, smashing the walls in its fury. It ripped up the floors from their foundation, carrying beams and stones with it until nothing was left standing.” The empire in its twilight dreamed of its own end. “Of course I was trying to instagram the scene,” reported an editor at a travel magazine, who found herself in what might have been Grand Central Station as aquamarine water, possibly flowing from the Caribbean, poured in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and filled the marble halls.

As I combed the internet, I realized it had been teeming with prophets all along. According to one mother, a six-year-old boy had foretold, a week before the hurricane hit, that King Neptune, defying the will of the other gods, was coming to destroy New York. A wall of water crashed down on the city, destroying buildings and towers as people were swept away. Neptune himself smashed taxis with his trident, and the Statue of Liberty lost her crown — which was later found, like the hats of so many New Yorkers, in a café.

The day after Hurricane Sandy, a man in the Tri-state area prophesied the northeaster that struck the region one week later and complicated relief efforts, leaving many, already without electricity, facing the bitter cold. “The dream started out with Hurricane Sandy Trajectory, and . . . followed . . . another trajectory by another storm. The storm location was about 100–150 miles east of New Jersey,” he wrote of a dream that revealed a familiarity with the Weather Channel. “This time it was a major rain event . . . not a monster storm or anything, but it did have a rotation in the cloud structure.”

On the dream-sharing site, Sandy anthropomorphized from weather event into woman. “There’s been so much talk about ‘Sandy’,” one user posted, “I had a dream that she was the new girl at school, and she literally blew me away.” Another writes: “I had a dream that Hurricane Sandy was mad at me for making fun of her name, so she chased after me whilst I’m screaming.” “I literally had a dream that Hurricane Sandy dropped a tree on my house and tried to apologize,” a Newark resident tweeted, “……. and I forgave her.”

The editor at the publishing house, finally escaped from his labyrinthine office, found himself compounding Sandy’s destruction with his own. “The streets are paved in brass,” he wrote of his dream that followed a day volunteering in the Rockaways. “A man is playing a clarinet that is spewing out water. I am walking around breaking windows. I don’t steal anything, I just break stuff. A large army tank runs me over, but I can still move my head. I watch as the tank points its cannon at the sea. It fires at the water and the sky turns neon green — and stays that way.”

As talk turns to levees and storm surge barriers, the forecast suggests Tri-State residents may begin to dream of a borough first charted by Italo Calvino. In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about a land where cities hover above the ground. The explorer and the emperor speculate as to why: their creators must hate the earth, or maybe they respect its sanctity so much that they avoid touching it. Or, perhaps, as Polo suggests, “they love it as it was before they existed, and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.”

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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