When Hurricane Sandy swept NYC, mine was one of the lucky families. Our downtown home was left in darkness for five days, but we were safe & dry.
I haven’t always been a city girl. When I lived in Maine, I had frequent outages–some of them for days. But, in Maine I had 1) a lake where I could fill buckets to flush toilets (and an ax to break the ice) 2) Snow I could melt 3) Hurricane lamps in every room and 4) a wood stove.
As Sandy made her lumbering way toward the city, I started my modest in-the-city prep: buy a phone for my land-line that didn’t require power, get batteries for my travel radio, buy loads of soup, grind coffee to use in the french press (must have coffee!!), check supply of wax-logs and buy milk boxes. On the advice of my writer friends on Facebook I filled the tub with water and printed my manuscript (work must go on, after all).
Contrary the rude-New-Yorker stereotype, everyone in my local grocery stood in a polite line, though there was a heightened sense of nervous giddiness. A 20-something guy said in a stage voice “let’s all admit we feel like complete idiots.” Everyone laughed. Another guy pointed to his companion’s basket, which contained eggs and sour cream and said, “especially him, he doesn’t understand what no power means.”
With 5-6 hours still to go before the storm hit, my husband and I decided to take a walk (steering clear, of course, of trees and scaffolding). We saw a woman carrying flowers. At first, I frowned. Then, I said, why not? Our local vendors were going to be hit hard, why not buy some stems to brighten the house and help out the Bodega? I bought a bunch of daisies. The streets were empty in anticipation, but the closed Hudson River park was packed. The water was already over the pilings. That’s when the calm certainty it would be bad settled in my stomach.
The storm was, oddly, near-rainless. Other that gusting wails, the only sound was distant sirens. Eerie. My husband carved a pumpkin and then went to the basement and made a few candles. (Yes, he makes candles) I hand-edited. Then, the lights went out. My windows look out on other buildings, and I wanted to see the streets, but leaving shelter on a night like that would have been very stupid. So, we went to bed.
Morning dawned dry and less windy than was forecast. I was worried about family who live further downtown and on the East river. Their phone had clicked off the night before, just as they were telling us that from their 11th story window, they could see cars floating down the street. We wandered through miles of still-empty streets. The Hudson still lapped over the HRP walkway. The Brooklyn-battery underpass was filled with water. The bigger buildings had generators hooked up to pumps–and the pumps were pumping water from filled basements into the streets. The worst sight was the South Street seaport, where air was thick with a gag-worthy stench of oil. The shops were in complete disarray. The prior night’s high water line, visible in fogged windows, was over my head. Those shops have been completely emptied and now have signs from the department of buildings warning people away.
We connected with our family, who came to our place for what turned into about two weeks. No, we didn’t have power, but we had gas water and a gas stove and are on ground level, which, for once, was an asset. In the evenings, my husband cooked by headlamp and during the day, we traipsed the 40 blocks (about 5 miles, round trip) for ice, food and phone charging–minor, considering what others faced.
I was on my way back from an uptown pilgrimage when the Chelsea Neighboorhood’s lights came on. The streets were packed with others doing what I was doing and laden with just as many bags. A spontaneous cheer went up, and people put down their burdens to whoop and laugh and hug. Our lights came on at 5 am the next morning. That evening, a couple who lives 4 blocks to our west visited. Their apartment is sub-level and they lost everything. She had only one pair of shoes, which were lined with salt water stains. She said all she wanted to do was curl up with her husband and feel his warmth and be glad he was alive. He was in the apt when the wall of water came in, and only just got out.
I saw so many things that made me proud to live in New York. People pooled resources, neighbors checked on one another, young people got off buses so elderly people could get on, Uptown gyms opened their showers and outlets to residents, and people tweeted places to get help & recharge.
I am in awe of the kindness in this world and in this city while praying for those in still need.