Staten Island has been devastated. The loss of life in that borough is higher than anywhere else in New York City and the damage to homes and property is practically incomprehensible. Most of Staten Island is still without power, many residents have no access to clean water, and gas shortages have prevented people from even having much freedom of movement. It is a humanitarian disaster that does not even have its parameters firmly established yet. Staten Island—like other parts of New York, like other parts of the region—is still digging out from Hurricane Sandy and needs all of the resources—both in terms of funds and manpower—that are available. That should be the priority, and yet, this Sunday, the priority for this city will be the NYC Marathon.
This Sunday, huge generators will be used to supply power at the starting line in storm-ravaged Staten Island, while tens of thousands of residents there remain powerless. This Sunday, important roads and bridges will be completely shut down to traffic so that the runners can get through. This renders emergency crews helpless to easily access certain areas, including, accessing Staten Island via the Verrazano Bridge. This Sunday, runners will—as they always do—leave trails of debris behind them as they shed clothes and toss aside empty cups. The cleaning crews that are designated to pick up after them would be better served to go to Coney Island or Breezy Point or Gerritsen Beach or the Rockaways or or or...there are countless places in New York City alone that could benefit from the manpower that is assigned to clean up the litter of the runners.
In fact, let's talk about manpower for a minute. An estimated 40,000 runners will compete in this year's New York City marathon, an event that necessitates an incredibly high level of physical fitness. Rather than invest the hours that they planned to spend running through a federally declared disaster area, it would be amazing if they would devote that time to volunteering and helping people that need it the most right now. Gawker reported on a Facebook chain mail that suggests to the runners that "half of you should turn around and run toward Hylan Blvd and go to Father Cappadanno or straight to Tottenville and help all those that lost their loved ones, lost their homes, lost everything in Staten Island… The other half should run through Brooklyn to Breezy Point to Long Island and help those that lost their homes and loved ones as well."
The arguments in favor of keeping the marathon go a little something like this. First, that it is an economic boon to the city. This is true, but the money mainly comes from the amount that runners spend in New York City by coming and staying here prior to the race. Without expecting ALL of them to do this, I wonder if a concerted effort to convince these runners to stay and help by volunteering instead would have worked. They still would be contributing to the city's economy by staying here but they would be contributing in a way that is economically incalculable.
The second argument that I've heard is that many of these runners have trained for an incredibly long time—months, even up to a year!—and would be crestfallen to have this taken away from them. I appreciate that, really. Many people who are anti-marathon right now dismiss this reason, but it is a valid, if solipsistic one. Running a marathon is an incredible physical feat, and one that has a powerful psychological and emotional component to it as well. I've never run a marathon—not even close—but have done a more moderately distanced race, and even with that, the personal accomplishment that I felt was tremendous. But. It was just that. It was a personal accomplishment. And right now is the time to feel grateful to even be in the position to have real personal joy, and to spread that joy by helping others in need.
I also understand that many runners have raised money for charities that they really care about and believe in. Perhaps this is just me, but I find it INCREDIBLY hard to believe that anyone altruistic enough to donate money to a marathon runner would, if told that the runner wouldn't compete out of respect for those devastated in the storm, ask for that money back. In addition, the fees paid by runners to the NYC Road Runners Club, could, instead of being returned to the runners, be donated to the Red Cross. The NYC Road Runners Club has pushed incredibly intensely to make sure that the race would not be canceled because it did not want to lose money. Does this have something to do with the fact that this year's event was going to be televised by ESPN? I wonder.
Finally, there is the argument that continuing with the marathon means that we in New York City have "returned to normal." Except that we haven't, not even close. Some of us never lost normal. I consider myself to be extraordinarily lucky in that regard and can't even comprehend the loss that so many are dealing with right now. Some people who were or are planning to run the marathon still haven't gotten their power back yet. Some people have lost their homes. Some people have lost loved ones. Why exactly should they be expected to "return to normal" on the time table set by people who never left it in the first place?
Something that I don't think everyone understands yet is that Hurricane Sandy is in no way comparable to the blackout of 2003. The blackout that year lasted less than 24 hours—many of which were in daylight on a balmy August day. This is not a case of the lights being turned off. Hurricane Sandy is not a discrete tragedy. It has affected hundreds of thousands of people and compromised everything they hold close. The marathon is set to begin in an area that was severely damaged in the storm, where streets were flooded and houses destroyed. In Staten Island, young children were ripped out of their mother's arms and killed by the floodwaters, people were killed helping get others to safety, a father and his teenage daughter died and the mother is in the ICU. Bodies are still being found.
This city doesn't need the manufactured togetherness of the marathon. We don't need to watch thousands of runners crossing the Verrazano Bridge in order to be visually impressed. I think we all got enough awe-inspiring imagery over the last week to last a lifetime. It has been less than a week since the storm. Conducting the marathon as scheduled is not a sign of resilience, it's a sign of obliviousness.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen