Irene and Emergency Preparedness: From FEMA to Grover

Posted on October 3rd, 2011 by Vina Tran

Cross posted from Jenny M. James’ blog, Ecospiritual Scholar.  James is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. Her academic interests include twentieth-century North American literature, feminist and queer theory, memory studies, and American culture.

On the weekend Hurricane Irene hit New York, my partner and I were visiting western Massachusetts. We weathered the storm in an early 20th century school house that is home to a small Buddhist community in Conway, about twenty miles northwest of Northampton, MA. While we were very concerned about our friends in the city, we also were heartened by the numerous postings and emails we received from those who had decided to bring a festive air to the doom and gloom of the media’s weather coverage. It seemed that folks were not only buying gallons of water, but also stocking up on wine, gin and cookies.

Its no surprise that many of our queer friends decided to take the hurricane as an opportunity for some bacchanalian shenanigans. Thanks to the Christian Right and Michelle Bachmann, we know that AIDS, earthquakes and hurricanes are simply God’s punishment for gay sex and lesbian parenting. Of course the gays are celebrating! Why pay attention to the hard science of climate change when we have homosexuality and Revelations?

But on a serious note, although the subway shutdown put a damper on cross-borough partying, this impulse to collectivize seems to subtly index folks’ resistance to the talk of “go bags,” “emergency kits” and “evacuation zones.” Irene hit just a week or so shy of September’s National Preparedness Month – there are ads across Manhattan for the Readiness campaign, not so subtly juxtaposed to memorials for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. On FEMA’s you can find a slew of information about tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear and chemical threats – and of course how you can make your own emergency kit from home. Rather than focus on neighborly solidarity, the federal discourse of “emergency preparedness” emphasizes an individualist, market-driven response — how you can take care of yourself and keep your family safe. And in “family,” they mean the nuclear family model, which harkens back to the nostalgic Cold War heyday of fallout shelters and air-raid drills.

Nowhere on this site can you find information for those of us who may not have the physical or financial means necessary to create such a kit. And nowhere does FEMA articulate any “special” suggestions for gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals who are often more vulnerable to being denied basic human rights such as healthcare, shelter and family re-unification during emergency situations. This is also true for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, which while doing much to help raise consumer awareness as to those necessary “Go bag” items, could have done a bit more for its less fortunate residents, such as the inmates of Rikers Island and those required to evacuate who did not own a car or were disabled.

As adults were told to be responsible and take care of their bodies, minds and property, so too did kids have to learn how to be ready for a catastrophe. The most illuminating aspect of the website is the section entitled Ready Kids!, in particular the fifteen minute Sesame Street episode called “Let’s Get Ready!” As we are guided by Grover through the process of getting ready for anything, the economic, consumer rationale for emergency preparedness becomes clear. Grover visits a bi-racial family in the suburbs to see how they’re getting prepared – the nuclear family of today! They’re busy putting together their “go-bag”:

Realizing they don’t have everything they need, mom and daughter visit the drugstore to stock up on some essentials:

Our heroine is incredibly cute, but unfortunately being schooled in good consumerism! We all know from our own last-minute hurricane shopping experiences, how much money was spent on food, water and batteries before Irene made land-fall. The jury may still be out on the greater effects the hurricane had on the retail industry that weekend. While Home Depot and Walgreens saw a surge in sales, Macys was sadly down in back-to-school week profits. The fluctuating market, however, can’t hold a candle to the extreme devastation in areas of the Catskills, Vermont, and our favorite town in Western Mass, Shelburne Falls – which should remind us of the fragility of these more peripheral ecosystems and communities.

There may be hope for those of us who are skeptical of the current consumer-focused rationale for fighting forest fires, hurricane-force winds and climate change. In a subversive take on emergency preparedness by the Sesame street muppets, Grover gives us an alternative vision. In Gover’s very large go-bag, which he can barely carry, are a feather boa, googley-eyes, and a bowling ball.

While Grover’s Chicana muppet friend Rosita reminds him that these items will not help him survive a hurricane, Grover remains focused on his hopes for impending disaster. Grover asks, “So where is this emergency?” His muppet friend replies, “There is no emergency, Grover.” He responds, “Not even a little one?”

At first struck by melancholic despair, Grover makes due and quickly suggests, “Well in that case, let’s go bowling!” Excitedly wielding his bowling ball, Grover accidentally drops it on a cat who meows in pain. The scene closes with him running to her, exclaiming, “Don’t worry kitty, I have my emergency kit!”

I leave it to you to find the irony of Grover’s somewhat flamboyant take on emergency preparedness. This may all be to say that we must re-evaluate our allegiance to kitties, muppets, inmates, and elders that cohabit with us on this planet. For, as queer eco-critic Catriona Sandilands suggests, queer and ecological politics are intimately entangled, and therefore require us to more deeply analyze the varied structures of power and capital that shape these allied struggles.


  1. New Blog post from Jenny M. James,English doctoral candidate on "Irene and Emergency Preparedness: From FEMA to Grover"

  2. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Irene and Emergency …

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