On the Ground: The FS Perspective of Hurricane Sandy
I don’t expect many of you have lived through a natural disaster, and that’s a good thing. Up until this point, the worst I had ever experienced was a couple of earthquakes, the most damaging of which occurred when I was a toddler. But these past few days living in the heart of Manhattan (and Jerrit, Noam, and Jon as well, spread out across the city) have been a scary, eye-opening challenge.
Below is the personal account of my experience, surrounded by images taken by myself and Fstoppers writers Jerrit, Noam, and Jon. Jerrit snapped the tree crushing the dark vehicle, Noam’s images are labeled, but also include the title image, Jon photographed the city after dark, and my photos are the ones taken during the day.
On Thursday October 25, no weather center in America predicted Sandy would swing up and smash in to New Jersey/New York. In fact, all but one center predicted it would fly out into the Atlantic when it came as far north as the Carolinas. That one weather center based in Europe predicted the path to swing up, but no one was taking it seriously. There was nothing to worry about.
By the following afternoon, everyone had changed their tune. This storm was coming. I along with Lee and Lauren were busy at PhotoPlus, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about the possible danger. Lee and Lauren were set to fly out on Sunday. I was staying in town a few more days and leaving Wednesday. But it was fine, we still didn’t put too much worry on it. It was just a storm.
As the days progressed, the story on the news continued to worsen. By Sunday evening, it was clear this was not going to be your everyday storm, or even your everyday hurricane. Sandy was colliding with two (correct me if I’m wrong) storm systems and being affectionately named “Frankenstorm.” A joke. Something we all could relate to. Laugh a little, stock up on water and canned food, and prepare.
I felt terrible for this guy. I understand getting the news, but he didn’t have to be out in it.
I was enjoying a giant bowl of hand pulled noodles at Tasty Hand Pulled Noodles with a friend when we both sat and watched the news seriously for really the first time. It was then that I started to get a little scared. It was easy to reassure myself though. The news likes to dramatize the real, so I was willing to continue to believe things would be ok. Just hunker down, and wait it out.
Things really were ok for a while. Then the power went out.
Every single one of us has experienced a power outage. It’s not really that big of a deal. You sit in the dark with candles for a while, enjoy the company of friends and family, and sooner rather than later, it comes back on.
That didn’t happen here.
No power means no running water. No sinks, showers or toilets. Without power, cell towers can’t function. So in Manhattan below 39th where the transformer exploded due to too much strain on its line, we were cut off. With no power and no cell signals, we had no idea what was happening.
An amateur video of the transformer exploding. With this transformer went a giant chunk of Manhattan’s power supply.
A longer video from a more steady perspective. No sound.
I was staying in an apartment on Elizabeth and Houston, right in the center of the dead zone. The cell signal didn’t immediately die, so before I fell asleep, I could still communicate to my friends and family that things were ok. When I woke the following morning, I had nothing.
You know all those electronic locks that keep you safe in your building? well, when those can no longer read your RFID signal, they don’t open. That means that for 24 hours a day, the building staffed someone to sit by the door and let people in and out. That’s a big strain. A big stress that we don’t think about when we lose something we take for granted as much as power.
From where I was, things didn’t look that bad after the brunt of the storm had passed. Sure, a few downed trees, some signs had fallen over, and scaffolding in places had given out. But when you’ve seen images of true destruction after tidal waves or tornadoes, we got away without the vast devastation that we theoretically could have experienced. Not as bad as New Jersey, who was crushed by the storm. At least from where I was, I felt grateful it wasn’t worse. It could have been so much worse.
But the damage Sandy caused in New York, at least in my area of New York, isn’t the kind that is visible. Though buildings still stood and people were for the most part safe, Sandy really damaged the infrastructure of what made Manhattan tick. No power and flooded tunnels and basements meant a mess for cleanup and a prolonged recovery period. The stock exchange was closed for an unprecedented two straight days, and the rest of Wall continues to be out of commission. I can’t even begin to fathom how to clean up a mess like a flooded tunnel. Last I heard, they needed to pump out over 300 million gallons of water from the subways alone.
It was obvious no one really knew what to do once the hurricane passed. I went out into the city to see what had happened and to document the situation. Thousands of people were out, just milling around. I don’t think anyone really knew where they were going or what they were doing. They were just getting out of the house. Across the street from my apartment twenty or so young adults just sat on the street corner. During the storm, I saw them there too. They don’t look homeless, so there must be something about that building that they all relate to. So rain or no, they would wait.
Coffee. The situation surrounding the most basic of morning beverages was perhaps the most interesting. Spread thin through the lower half of Manhattan were a few brave businesses who opened their doors despite the damage and lack of power. If someone was walking down the street with a cup of coffee in their hand, they were subject to a flood of inquisition from anyone they passed (myself included). “Where did you get that?!” and “Where did you find coffee?!” was the norm. When a buddy and I found coffee yesterday morning in the Deutsche Bank building, we were subjected to the same flurry of inquisition we were dishing out just the day before.
Food was a challenge. By the end of the second day, nothing we had stored in the freezer or refrigerator was any good anymore. With water running low, there was no real reason to stay where we were. It is a frightening and monumentally stressful experience to pack everything up in the hopes of finding something better. We had to walk several blocks just to find a cell signal, and with the help of Blair Bunting and my friend’s San Francisco-based fiance, we must have called twenty hotels. We were most often met with a disconnected dial tone from Verizon or AT&T, but when someone did pick up, either they had no power or they were fully booked.
Three hours later, we finally did manage to find a motel in Brooklyn that had rooms. Rooms meant a hot shower (something we hadn’t had in three days), internet (which meant connection to the world), and most importantly, cell service. We had no idea where we were going. Did it matter that we were in a particularly sketchy area of Brooklyn less than 50 feet from the railroad tracks? No. What mattered was that we had access to that which we had been removed from.
As I write this, there are still those stranded in Manhattan with no water, electricity or connection to the world beyond where they can walk. Let’s get something straight: it sucks. I heard a lot of folks talking about how this was going to be “exciting.” How it would be a nice change from the norm. When I got to safety and was on Google Talk, I talked to a few people who said they were a little envious. How they never got enough natural disaster days off.
Look at Noam and I. Do we look excited? Does this look enjoyable? So if you were thinking you wanted some “disaster days off,” stop it. This is not fun. This is not exciting. This. Sucked.
Only last night was I connected enough to see the true extent of the damage. Noam, Jerrit, Jon and myself were extremely lucky. Staten Island is destroyed. The Jersey Shore was completely devastated. What I experienced was a minor inconvenience compared to the lives that were crushed by this storm. I sat in awe, watching the news last night as I realized how much worse it could have been. I still had a bed to sleep in. I still had access to food and water. That’s far more than what thousands of others, stranded due to Sandy, have had these past three days.
Our hearts go out to them.