You know, when I moved to New York City five years ago, I never expected to encounter a hurricane. “Oh, that’s the stuff of the Gulf [of Mexico] Coast,” I thought, site of such horrific storms as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans back in 2005. But if someone had told me that I’d be experiencing two hurricanes in as many years in NYC, I’d have said they were crazy! But when Hurricane Sandy pounded the city last Monday night, that is precisely what happened…
By now, I’m assuming just about everyone knows about the devastation we’ve faced, especially the folks along the Jersey shore and along New York’s coastal waterfronts, especially in Staten Island and Queens’ Rockaway Peninsula, located by JFK Airport. There are some truly horrible images, like the 100 houses burned to the ground at Breezy Point in Queens or the folks who are literally trapped in their homes due to flooding across the river in Hoboken, NJ.
But for me, those are now far off places, nearly inaccessible due to flooded subway tunnels and power outages. It was here in Manhattan where we became a borough split in two…
My Experience in Hurricane Sandy
I was one of the lucky ones. See I live uptown in northern Manhattan and as Hurricane Sandy beat down on the city my lights flickered a bunch and my cable and Internet went out 3 times. As a large swath of lower Manhattan lost power, which would be out for at least 4 days, mine stayed on. And no power meant no Internet or cell reception which meant no way to get in touch with my downtown friends.
The next day I walked around Harlem, my neighborhood, to asses the damage. It was all pretty light. Mostly a few awnings strung about. Several wooden fences had fallen as well and a Rite Aid sign just fell straight down. Nothing quite as bad as the building pictured above, located on 8th Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets.
In a city where almost nobody drives, no subway was a really big deal. Wednesday, as the bus system returned, traffic jams the likes of Cairo hit the streets of NYC. And buses were so packed that many, including me, saw it more fit to walk miles and miles to get where we wanted to go. Heck I got on one bus and promptly got off 3 stops later because you couldn’t move on the bus and tempers were REAL short. I ended up walking 6 miles (9.7km) just to have dinner with a friend, spotting some damage along the way en route.
But I’m really not in a position to complain with so many folks suffering in my city… And with so much media hype about the blackout, I decided I needed to head downtown and see things for myself.
Exploring a Power-less Lower Manhattan
34th Street. That was as far as the subway went in the days after the storm. And as I walked downtown, I passed a very obvious diving line between power and no power. It was like entering a whole different world. One with no traffic lights (and, frequently, no police directing traffic) and almost no open shops. People wandered the streets and Union Square (14th Street), which had become a staging ground for visiting power companies who had come to help, life showed signs of returning to normal.
Food trucks lined up in their normal spot, one of the few eating establishments not affected by the storm. The Hare Krishna folks chanted in a corner. Workers hauled fallen tree parts out of the park, which remained closed. Representatives from Con Ed (short for Consolidated Edison, the local electric company) handed out ice to those in need. And a handy truck had been set up with rows and rows of power strips so folks could charge their devices.
As darkness fell, flashlights became a necessity for walking. With cars still running, crossing the street became a rather perilous task. But a sense of community was strong.
Life in the Dark
I had made plans to meet my friend Phil who lives in the blackout zone the old-fashioned way. You know, arrange to meet at a specific place and time? Cell service was virtually nonexistent. He was surviving ok, being a part-time student at New York University, who had opened their facilities to anyone with an NYU ID with showers, Internet and free meals (many other organizations offered similar services to those in need as well). And he insisted we had to venture further into the darkness to have a rather unique experience…drinking by candlelight!
Stores may have been shuttered, but bars were in full swing. Packed with people wanting to avoid their dark apartments, they made do with candles everywhere (humorously, in one Alphabet City bar, they were all Jewish Memorial Candles!). The bartenders refused to serve anything on tap, as they had no means of keeping that cold, but bottled beer was sitting in ice buckets so that was fair game.
Drinking by candlelight was a wonderful experience. There was no football on TV. No loud music playing. And nobody messing with their phones. There was just real, genuine, human interaction! It was really pretty awesome!
A Dark Interview
My friend Phil took me to his apartment, a fifth floor walk-up, to grab a few items. And it was in his pitch black living room/kitchen that I decided to interview him about what life was like in the dark. You can check that out below in my video about my whole downtown experience below:
Back to the Light
As Phil and I parted ways, I began wandering back to 34th Street to catch the subway home. And as I walked north on Broadway one landmark stuck out to me on the horizon….the Empire State Building, a sort of “North Star” guiding people to where there was electricity!
And then, I found the division line. The power came back halfway between 25th and 26th Streets, at least on Broadway (it varied by where you were in Manhattan), a stark division between the two totally different worlds in the very same city. I went home that night thinking about just how very lucky I was to have been so unaffected by the storm.
The next night, my friend Phil texted me, “LIGHT.” The power back and, according to Phil, people were dancing in the streets, before promptly running inside to charge their phones! And with that, the unique night out I’d had the night before was history, hopefully not to be repeated any time soon!
Still, my heart goes out to the millions of people still being affected by this storm. You hear about these things so often on TV, but when it affects a place you know so well, it really hits home! Stay safe and warm everyone!
What About You?
Where you affected by Hurricane Sandy or a previous natural disaster? What’s your experience been like?