Notes from the Hurricane: Surviving Sandy in NYC

When the power went off, I saw a blue flash in the sky and heard something like a sonic boom. But an earlier Con Ed robocall had promised “pre-emptive” power shutdown, so we didn’t think much of it.

The lights had already been flickering. It was 8 PM. Forecasters had said this would be the worse point of the storm. Outside, it was blowing “wicked, wicked hard.”

We were having a nice dinner. Initially, I felt Sandy had helped “set the mood” by lowering our lighting and drawing a powerful sense of intimacy.

A little later, I noticed a missed emergency text message from the city officials. It was powerfully simple: TAKE SHELTER NOW.

Scanning Twitter, I found more causes for alarm. That blue flash and sonic boom was the Con Ed substation at 14th and FDR exploding.

That substation is half a mile away from the apartment. The explosion clearly caused the power outage. Perhaps power restoration would not be easy.

Images of cars floating in 7 feet of surge on Avenue C began to fill my Twitter feed. In the dark apartment, I felt a new sense of terror. Avenue C is two blocks away. Would there be floodwaters at our stoop soon?

The sky was inscrutable. We finished our beers and went to sleep.

Day 2: The Return of the Payphone

Day 2 was still, calm, gray. The ample 3G service that had provided data in the early blackout was gone. In fact, I couldn’t complete phone calls or send text messages.

We decided we had to go out. So we took our cash, dressed warmly, and stepped into the dark stairwell with our flashlights.

You know those scenes from 28 Days Later and I am Legend? The scenes of urban desolation and emptiness that terrified the urban psyche? The East Village was nothing like that. It was PACKED with people scurrying in all directions. Cabs were running. People were out running and exploring the damage.

We walked down to Washington Square. A shocking number of bodegas and pizza places were open. There were simple rules: you could come in if you had your own flashlight. In some bodegas, purchases only took place with flashlights.

“What do you want?”

“Oatmeal”

[Flashlight beam probing]

[Oatmeal located]

“That one right there!”

The only seriously dangerous thing were all the traffic lights being out. Intersections were a mess, particularly as motorists drove with abandon rather than concern. Was it a sense of panic that sent NYU students in BMWs screaming up 1st Ave?

There were only lines for two things: coffee at MUD and payphones. I’ve never seen so many people use pay phones. For a single day, all of the unused telecommunications of lower manhattan were suddenly hot commodities again. I’ll file that under “unexpected technology revivals: NYC 2012.”

There was no cell reception anywhere. But there was pizza. East Village Pizza was already one of my favorite places on earth. Then they served pizza in the dark to the hungry village. Current status: Living Legends.

Sometime in the early evening, I managed to get a few text messages on the roof. They came in bursts. Tom Rodelli texted in news updates, my brother sent a few power updates. My mom panicked. I learned that work was marginally on for tomorrow. But how would I get in?

On the roof, I could look up town towards a glowing midtown. The Empire State Building was fully illuminated, while beneath it tiny candles flickered in cold windows.

Day 3: The Disaster Fare

With no hot water, lights, or telecommunications for a third day, I awoke to an alarm on my iPod Touch. It was the last thing with power.

I crossed the city with a gym bag and a change of clothes, hopeful I could find an open Health & Racquet Club uptown.

There was supposed to be bus service running everywhere. But I found few in the East Village and those few were overstuffed with passengers. Everyone wanted out. NYU dorms were now officially closed, dispelling a stream of undergraduates across the city.

I walked completely across town to 18th Street and 8th Ave, looking for an empty bus or an open cab. Miraculously, I managed to hail an off-duty yellow cab who was ignoring his meter and offering flat “disaster fares.”

$10 got me 20 blocks north to 39th Street and work. I made a triumphant entrance to a status meeting of four people. They all applauded.

It turned out that most people at work were just like me. Dark, bored, and cold in Lower Manhattan, we had fought our way north to the electric bliss of midtown. We worked eagerly, soaking up the heat, light, and power. Overdue Instagram photos and Status Updates were blasted out. Con Ed news was checked closely, but it was increasingly clear that power was days away.

As night fell, I slipped into the evening with my flashlight ready. At 23rd and Broadway, I confronted the new electric front between power and darkness. The Flatiron building loomed up like a cenotaph marking a dead city. I continued past it, down Broadway and through an eerie Union Square. Cutting through sidestreets was terrifying. A homeless men slept in darkened store entries and coughed out as my flashlight scanned the sidewalk ahead.

The Empire State Building was lit in black and orange.

I remembered it was Halloween.

Day 4: The Guardsmen

I hit Thursday with force. I jumped between overflowing 1st Avenue buses to get up to 45th and Lexington – home to the New York Health & Racquet Club and my first hot shower in days.

I walked across midtown to work in Hell’s Kitchen. The work pace seemed undiminished by Sandy and her aftermath. New Yorker’s are an odd bunch: we love to work. I realized that the rapid resumption of work was less for the businesses in question and more for the rest of us who needed that sense of purpose. Without basic amenities in over 500,000 NYC homes, there was nothing to look forward to.

Sandy was not a snow day. Snow days are defined by being comfortable and home-bound by an enveloping weather event. Snow days invite relaxation, reflection, and above all, a sense of well-being.

Think of the words in “Let It Snow” – “the weather outside is frightful / but the fire is so delightful.” That’s fundamentally about having a good time inside. In the aftermath of Sandy, there was no inside “delightful.” Work became the best part of the day: warm, lit, and socialable.

I walked home through Gramercy. Near those fine, granite homes I found National Guardsman seemingly fighting the dark itself.

Things had improved slightly. There were more traffic cops on busy intersections. Flares were marking side streets with an eerie red glow.

Back in the apartment, Colleen and I reached capacity. There was almost no one still in our building, few candles peeked out around our block, our foodstuffs were depleted, the neighborhood felt empty/even dangerous, and we really wanted some hot water. It was time to go.

Day 5: Escape & Redemption 

Almost effortlessly, we woke, lit our candles, washed in the dark bathroom, and caught an empty uptown bus. It was a sign of total adoption; we barely noticed our electricity-free habits.

Work went quickly. A series of presentations and content deliverables. We finally found two intrepid Hoboken residents in the office, back from a harrowing National Guard evacuation. While the Lower East Side and East Village crew swapped stories of plumbing work-arounds, we had a quick “survivor’s lunch” at Tir Na Nog. It was a chance to pretend briefly that things were normal, even celebratory!

Throughout the blackout, those affected by the power outages and flooding experienced a parallel existence to the rest of the city. Uptown, life continued with just transit disruptions. Businesses were opened, restaurants functioned, meetings continued, and schedules were un-impacted.

This proved most frustrating. When you needed to walk into the darkness every night, then wake to no subways, no power, and no heat, simply arriving at work in a chipper mood was remarkable. Gawker observed this marked lifestyle distinction and satirically called it out.

I caught the a quick train out of the city at 4. On the other side of Newark, I felt relieved. Power was streaming by. Heat was comfortably set. Then I got a flurry of good news. Power restored to the East Village, Con Ed tweeted. Dozens of friends of friends and neighbors confirmed.

 

Watching the Knicks later, I enjoyed seeing a friend celebrating  new hot water while hating on the Heat. “This is for New York!” he mused as Carmelo Anthony lit up the night.

 A new week

Many things are back to normal now. With heat, light, and telecommunications back, it’s easy to rush back into New York’s frantic idea of business-as-usual.

But the storm’s wounds have not truly been healed. Lots remains to do. I’m proud to see the Occupy movement recognize service in the face of need as a political orientation point. It’s also wonderful to see FEMA and Red Cross support rush to the needy.

I am looking for some small way to give back and help out. Until then, we should all give what we can to the Red Cross.

This entry was posted in adventure, culture studies, Internet, lifestyle, new york, reflection, rhode island, Social Media, travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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