Superstorm Sandy and After Sandy - in Lower Manhattan
I have tried to write this post four times since the power went back on here on the Lower East Side on November 2, 2012 after nearly a week without power, water and connection to the outside world when in lower Manhattan last week due to Superstorm Sandy. Every time, I would attempt to start to write about it, I would stare off into space: speechless. The only thing I could muster this past week has been to post the photos I took of the storm and its impact on New York City here:
I told people on my Twitter last night that a segment from a beautiful memoir I read last winter (The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston) permeated my thoughts over the last few days because it was how I felt when I would attempt to make sense of living through the aftermath of Sandy here in lower Manhattan:
“When it was my turn, the same voice came out, a crippled animal running on broken legs.You could hear splinters in my voice, bones rubbing jagged against one another.”
My voice is still splintered but I need to purge the details of what it was like here last week if only for myself to try to make sense of it all. I lived in upper Manhattan (border of Spanish Harlem by the East River) nearly 10 years ago when New York City plunged into darkness during a summer blackout that lasted nearly 2 days. That seems like an eternity ago when I think about it now and in many, many ways the city was a completely different place. People were less connected to the internet and with almost all of New York City plunged into darkness, there was nowhere to go to see the glaring difference between the part of the city that was without basic amenities and the part of the city that basked in limitless amenities. I waited in lines for bread back then with New Yorkers who were anxious but resigned and called 311 on my landline for updates on the status of the city’s power. There was nothing to do but wait and in the heat of the summer, the city and world slowed to a halt.
It was a far cry from the panic-steeped situation I experienced last week. Where resignation reigned a decade ago, frustration, bewilderment and full-on survival mode took precedence for the masses of New Yorkers who lived below 39th street in Manhattan. We are a more connected populace with cell phones and access to news at our fingertips 24 hours of the day.
I was in my apartment when the power went out on Monday night. I had been downstairs in my lobby watching the 80 mph winds rush through the streets recording it on video (I will never forget the wind’s howl that screeched through the city). Minutes earlier, a green light flashed through the sky and I joked that maybe in addition to a hurricane whipping through NYC that perhaps aliens had finally decided to come and beam us all up. As the lights and power abruptly went off, I did my best not to panic. The mayor had stated earlier that Con Ed would probably preemptively turn the power off to Lower Manhattan in advance of the worst of the storm surges to make sure that power could come back on in an orderly fashion. I figured that by the next day, power would be on and the night would be nothing more than a scary storm memory.
It was almost impossible to sleep after reading Game of Thrones by candlelight prior to slinking off to a cold bed. I had seen a harrowing video of the explosion at the Con Ed electrical plant that supplied power to my part of Lower Manhattan on my phone (here: Sandy Con Ed Explosion) prior to attempting to go to sleep and I wondered how that would impact efforts to get power restored. My building, a nearly 100 year old building on the Lower East Side, shook with every wind gust and loud clanking sounds that echoed loudly in the streets after every rush of wind didn’t inspire the best of dreams.
On Tuesday, after an anxious sleep, I awoke and attempted to check my voicemail and texts to no avail. There was no service at all. I figured it was a brief issue with the cell towers and remembered reading before sleep that the power was out from midtown on down to Battery Park. After eating a little bit of food that was in the refrigerator (had to use it up!), my boyfriend and I set out to seek out connection if only to find out the latest news. Like many New Yorkers, we no longer have a landline since the cost to run a landline seems(ed) silly with constant connection via our phones.
As we stepped out onto the streets with other Lower Manhattan residents, the look on everyone’s faces was one of dread, confusion and determination to migrate to the part of New York City with connection to the outside world. There were waits at pay phones that had been dormant relics from a distant past only a week earlier as people tried to call loved ones. With no buses and trains running yet, many people crowded the streets walking uptown past evacuated hospitals, darkened street lights and storm debris while a light rain fell under darkened cloud-filled skies.
It’s hard to describe how surreal it felt to pass the threshold between 39th and 40th streets on 2nd Avenue that first time. It was like stepping out of an abyss into an only slightly-traumatized modern world. The street lights were working, many stores were still closed and tourists were snapping pictures of the Chrysler Building without missing a beat. Starbucks tends to be one of the places most people think of to go to when they need to charge their phone and connect to free wifi. However, the day after the storm, 99% of Manhattan’s Starbucks were closed since many of their employees live in other boroughs which had no access to Manhattan due to flooded trains and no bus service. People who were lucky enough to still have battery life in their phones huddled near the windows of closed Starbucks since that was the only way to have a connection due to the widespread cell tower issues.
We started to notice people sitting in the lobbies Chase banks plugging their phones into power outlets that had probably been largely unused before this strange situation. Humans react strongly to group signals and after that first sighting, it became apparent that any place in midtown that had power outlets was a place to charge dead phones, call loved ones, answer frantic texts and potentially find out what was going on in the city. After a terrible attempt at eating food in a place that I can best describe as smelling like a dirty locker-room (which was packed since barely anything was open), we were determined to find a spot to charge our completely dead phones.
Walking into a CVS (a store), we noticed that all of the aisles were full of people huddled next to power outlets with their phones plugged into power outlets. Tired and cold, we decided to wait until a spot opened up on one of the outlets in the back of the store. While waiting, I talked with people who lived in luxury high-rises below 39th on the east side of Manhattan who had never experienced not having water or power before. Some had walked down 20 flights of stairs and were terrified of getting back too late and navigating 20 flights of stairs with only a flashlight. We all speculated about how long it would take to get power back and shared our stories about where we were when the power went out. It took 3 hours to go from a fully dead phone to a full charge and it quickly became night as we tried frantically to contact people and figure out what was going on with a slow connection (everyone was probably trying to connect at once that day in that small part of midtown). We had wanted to make our way back to the Lower East Side before night fell because we didn’t know what complete darkness would be like but we realized that this was our fate.
Bus service had been partially restored and was free since it was the day after the storm and many New Yorkers were without any other option. Gas was limited, gas lines were just starting to get out of control and most New Yorkers rely on public transportation to get everywhere because when there isn’t a catastrophe, you can literally get anywhere you want in New York City without ever needing a car. We hopped on a bus with other fearful Lower Manhattan residents whose eyes all got big once we ducked down past 39th street where there were no traffic lights and only the light from oncoming cars served as illumination.
As we got off the closest stop to the Lower East Side, it was disorienting to step off the bus into darkness. The Lower East Side is a well-known party spot and sidewalks, restaurants, and bars are usually full of people every night of the week. This night, it was empty and dark. We had a tiny LED flashlight and as we flashed it down Rivington Street, it became apparent that without it and without the light from oncoming cars, you could literally not see even a mob of people directly in front of you. At one point, we turned a corner and as we flashed our light in front of us, an entire group of kids were standing where we had presumed there was nothing in the darkness. It was disorienting and nerve-wracking. We marveled at the bodegas and bars that stayed open by candlelight that night seeking to help the community cope with the present power-less reality and finally made it home where after reading a bit by candlelight, we went to sleep wondering what the next few days held in store.
Sandy didn’t only cause devastating flooding and wind damage. It also brought colder weather to New York City. The night temperatures dropped to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. When the cold surrounds you in a place that you once relied on for warmth, it’s a psychologically draining experience. Covered in blankets, the night dragged on: frigid, empty, devoid of light.
My boyfriend’s job is dependent on connection and any movement in any direction outside of the apartment felt better than sitting in the drafty and unwelcoming cold without water. With no service still, we woke up after a fragmented sleep and bundled up with hope in tow. We waited in line for an uptown bus and as 3 buses passed us by, we resigned ourselves to the nearly 50 block walk uptown once again. We passed by families filling up plastic water bottles with water from fire hydrants in the biting cold and countless numbers of people charging their phones via generators on sidewalks and next to various stores.
We came across a hardware store that had its doors open where we purchased a power strip since we had seen how valuable power strips were the previous day in midtown. We walked up to the mid 50s looking for a Starbucks that was open and found one after a 15 minute exploration of the blocks in the area. My boyfriend connected with his work place and I talked with people who had just walked over the 59th Street Bridge from Queens. One girl told me that she watched in horror the night of the storm as her car was totaled by the storm surge in Long Island City. Another girl told me that she walked from Soho seeking out a place with a working toilet and some heat. I ran into my friend Bonnie who had walked over the bridge from Queens with her roommates. I tried in vain to upload photos I had taken the day before on a connection that was seriously taxed since many, many people were trying to connect to find news. The Starbucks employees told us they had to close early because the employees had to get back to the outer boroughs (somehow? I still don’t know how any of them made it in) before dark.
People made an exodus to nearby Starbucks which were all also closing early. We started to walk west towards Times Square and after eating another awful cheap meal in an inhospitable midtown deli, we trekked over to 7th Avenue where we gawked at the lights in Times Square and the mounds of tourists and people who all seemed to be living a wonderful, alternate electricity-filled life. It was strange to keep reminding myself that all of Lower Manhattan was a cold, inhospitable place and yet here in midtown, it was as if nothing had happened. We found another Starbucks in Times Square and tried to make plans to go to Brooklyn the next day to be with a co-worker of my boyfriend who offered his space to use for the day so that my boyfriend could get work done and we could be somewhere where there was heat and hot water (a dream!). The Starbucks closed and we decided to trek home on foot since we had heard that all bus service had been suspended to lower Manhattan due to a fear of ‘mobs’. It was Halloween and apparently, many people were out in the darkness and the MTA feared accidents in the darkened streets.
And so, we walked. We walked from 7th and 52nd Street all the way back down to the Lower East Side (it’s quite far). Now, I normally walk quite a bit. I walk a couple miles at once usually but by this time, we had been walking quite a bit for days and it was very, very cold and we were really feeling it. It’s so psychologically crippling to realize that after a long walk on achy legs, with limbs shivering in the damp cold, there was no hot water and no power waiting for us at home. There was no hot food, no connection to the outside world, just cold and darkness.
On the walk home, we passed by the National Guard who had just arrived at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. I stood there staring at the troops with a feeling that I can best describe as relief. There were barely any bars or restaurants open on this night. Where people had banded together to celebrate the night before, there were just closed storefronts with burned out candles. I marveled at how comforting it was to see colorful lights from nearby ambulances illuminate a wall near flame-lit lamp-posts after walking many blocks with only the rare light from passing cars.
In the freezing cold apartment, we collapsed into bed covering the cats with blankets hoping they weren’t too cold too. Our limbs ached and the cold air permeated our thoughts. I closed my eyes and wondered how the rest of New York City and New Jersey were doing and tried to remember the last time I took a hot shower and how good it felt to make hot tea and drifted off to disjointed sleep wondering how the trip to Brooklyn the next day would go.
We live right at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. We woke up, ate some bread with peanut butter, choked down some cold water and bundled up even more than we already were bundled up from the night before. We had no spring in our step as we crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge. Just like every other day after Sandy in New York City, the sky was filled with dark storm clouds and the sun barely made an entrance making the wind harsh and the air as unwelcoming as the situation in lower Manhattan.
I am not sure we really were thinking about exactly how far Park Slope (where my boyfriend’s co-worker lives) is from the Williamsburg Bridge. We still had no service on the bridge so we couldn’t access maps to figure this out and the night before when we made the plan, it was right as we were entering the ‘dead zone’ and so we had no real idea about the distance. Once we got into Williamsburg we walked something like nearly 2 miles before coming across a tiny diner where we sat with other people who had come there from parts of Brooklyn without power who were talking about how devastating the storm had been in their areas. My heart was heavy and I felt numb at that point. I had heard about how the storm had affected the Rockaways and parts of New Jersey but this was the first time I heard about the extent of the damage in Brooklyn. My boyfriend grew up in southern Brooklyn (near Brighton Beach) so he was in shock when he heard how places he grew up with were no more.
We connected with another co-worker who told us that the company had rented out the floor of a house via Airbnb for the day so that people could go there to get some heat, water and a connection to work (his company is based in lower Manhattan: their office was in a building that was flooded). We walked another mile to Prospect Heights with numb limbs marveling at how most of this part of Brooklyn seemed untouched by the storm. Spending the afternoon in a heated house was slightly surreal. It felt amazing to be in heat and be somewhere with power that wasn’t a bank, store or a Starbucks. I felt completely broken at this point. The thought of trying to find our way home filled me with dread and once night fell, we set out towards Barclays Center in search of an open Starbucks so my boyfriend could finish work (the house’s connection ended up being terrible after a while due to router issues). It was a strange experience since the Starbucks was almost entirely empty. I drank hot tea and braced myself for another night sleeping in the cold without the ability to wash properly. We split a taxi home. Driving over the Williamsburg Bridge was bizarre. The half of the bridge close to Brooklyn was lit normally and somewhere in the middle it lapsed into darkness. We dejectedly looked at the darkened NYC skyline juxtaposed with the lights in midtown before getting home and collapsing into bed. I started to bawl when I realized I had half a bar of connection near a window and listened to an emotional voicemail from my mother (I hadn’t talked to her in a year, we have an estranged relationship). I went to sleep with an emotionally wrecked heart and tired limbs.
I keep saying that Brooklyn broke me. It did. We must have walked 5 or 6 miles the day before in Brooklyn through the bitter cold and I felt completely shattered on Friday morning. I couldn’t stop worrying about my cats, worrying about the possibility of not having power for another week, worrying about the fact that we still didn’t have a working connection and worrying that another week of this could lead to an uptick in night crime. We anxiously walked through the East Village to 14th Street where we squeezed onto a full bus that took us back uptown. We walked to Grand Central from 2nd Avenue and found a seat in the Starbucks there. I was determined to get my photos online because I kept getting messages thanking me for showing what reality was like for lower Manhattan during Sandy’s aftermath here on my blog and on Flickr. We talked about how insane the week had been and tried to search for news about when lower Manhattan would get power and water again. I talked with more people who shared stories while charging their phones about their exodus from lower Manhattan and fretted about a project I was supposed to start this past week that I had to put on hold due to this crazy situation.
At around 5:30 on Friday night, Con Ed called our phones to tell us that power was back on. I openly started to cry in that Starbucks in Grand Central Station. We bundled up and squeezed onto a crowded bus full of hopeful and anxious people going downtown to their homes. It took us to Broadway and 8th Street where we walked to St. Mark’s Place and couldn’t stop smiling seeing after seeing all the traffic lights working, the store lights on and signs of normalcy. We ate hot pizza on St. Mark’s Place, stared at the lights for quite some time then walked home to the Lower East Side where all the lights were on and the water was hot (after running it quite a while). I took the longest hottest shower and just cried letting the water run down my body. I was battling a cold, my limbs were numb from all the walking, and it felt like I was washing the chaos of the week away down the drain.
It’s hard to explain the emotions I have gone through since Friday night. I am struck with a mixture of relief to have power and normalcy back and crippled by sadness and guilt that others are suffering so much. I don’t have very much financially (or anything really at all materially) but I donated to the Red Cross on Saturday after crying while finally seeing the photos of the destruction here in New York City, Brooklyn, Long Island, the Rockaways and in New Jersey. My heart is in pieces for those who lost everything they owned and who are dealing the cold and elements and violent crime that is rampaging these shattered communities.
I didn’t write this post to have anyone feel sorry for what I went through. I wrote it to make sure I don’t let the memories wash away down the drain with time because it frightens me to know that this wasn’t anywhere near the power of something like Hurricane Katrina and yet it destroyed so much and exposed a certain fragility here in New York City.
I keep wondering how we would cope in a Category 2 Hurricane, how we would deal with a more widespread power outage, how cut off we are when we lose connection to the internet (and by extension: to the outside world), how the people in the devastated communities will heal or if they ever will, how this could just be the beginning of more storms of this nature and how no matter how much you think you are prepared, you just aren’t prepared for the reality of what it is like being cut off from the things we are so comfortable with here in the first world.