And suddenly, for the second time in its history, vibrant New York came to a standstill. Submerged in a thick veil of smoke from Canada, suffocating under a brutally stale air, filled with highly toxic fine particles and generated by hundreds of forest fires 800 to 1000 kilometers away. Suffocated, the economic lung of the East Coast of the United States takes the full brunt of the shock, at a usually festive time of year, dedicated to class outings and school promotion ceremonies.
On the banks of the East River, onlookers have emptied the natural parks, replaced by amateur photographers flabbergasted in front of the opaque orange-red curtain hiding the Manhattan skyline from view. The Empire State Building's Twitter account, mirroring the changing light adornments at its top, sketches a touch of New York humor: "Hey, it's me usually who changes color!"
The city, for the rest, laughs yellow. On Broadway, performances are canceled one after the other, as in the dark hours of spring 2020, during the Covid-19 epidemic. In the middle of a one-woman-show, Jodie Comer, actress of the television series Killing Eve, stopped the charges after three minutes, panting, confiding to the spectators: "I can't breathe that air." The Shakespeare in the Park show, which presents the plays of the famous English playwright in New York's green spaces, was the first to announce its closure.
Deserted by several actors and technicians suffering from headaches, the musicals Hamilton and Camelot announced via Twitter their interruption on Wednesday evening, promising to reopen as early as Thursday, as the air quality index continues to deteriorate. By Wednesday evening, it had jumped to nearly 500 µg of fine particles per m, making New York the most polluted city in the world, ahead of New Delhi in India, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Dhaka in Bangladesh. An absolute record for the Big Apple since the introduction of this measure in 1999. The situation worsened further on Thursday: the air quality alert went from “red” to “purple”, a level of pollution described as "very harmful to health".
Faced with the health emergency, the authorities' response was slow to appear on the screens of a population of 8.5 million souls. The Emergency Management Service (OEM) did not begin to communicate until Tuesday afternoon, when the phenomenon had been smoldering for several days, with some of the 400 Canadian wildfires (started by lightning) burning since weeks. Eric Adams, mayor of New York and ex-policeman, only posted his first press release at 11:30 p.m. the same day, when the city was already bathed in a pre-apocalyptic gray-orange halo.
On Wednesday, Empire State Governor Kathy Hochul announced that one million N95-type masks would be made available to the public: 400,000 in subway stations (MTA), at the Penn Station bus terminal, in parks and the Jacob Javits Business Center on the Hudson River; 600,000 in Homeland Security and Emergencies (NYSDHSES) pharmacies, for the needs of neighborhood communities.
"Are this weekend's matches maintained?" asked a worried mother the same day to a football coach, well obliged to kick into touch: "I hope so, but you understand that we are on the ground unknown." Everything really depends on a low pressure system centered on the province of Nova Scotia (Canada) and rotating counter-clockwise, in which the winds push the columns of smoke in a corridor Boston-New York -Philadelphia-Washington.
But the deterioration in air quality now affects a much wider area: from Massachusetts to Missouri, twenty states are affected to varying degrees by the phenomenon, comprising nearly a third of the population of the United States ( 100 million out of a total of 330). If conditions were to improve from Friday, when the low pressure system moves north, with a return of blue skies expected over New York on Sunday, the pollution cycle is not about to stop: the area of Canadian forests in flames, or 3.4 million hectares, now exceeds the total area of the State of Vermont.
Faced with the danger of another scorching summer, the Great Lakes region will probably be the most exposed. “We are in a mess, sums up meteorologist Mark Wysocki, from Cornell University in Ithaca, (New York). The end of these fires is not for tomorrow.”