Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sandy's Haves & Have-Nots

New York Subway map, post-Sandy
"How are you doing?"

That's what people from all over were asking as we weathered Hurricane/Post Tropical Storm Sandy.

Our answer felt kind of embarrassing. Because when the storm hit and divided the city into the haves and have-nots, we fell above the power-grid equator of 30th street. So all we had was extra vacation days, impetus to take long walks, and survivor guilt.

And I did a lot of posting on Facebook.

I mean, of course we heeded all the warning preparations.  I went to the local supermarket and CVS where people had cleared the shelves of bottled water and batteries and candles [right], but otherwise supplies were plentiful. Back home, we filled a tub with water "for non-drinking purposes" in case the power (and thus water pumps) went out, brought in the furniture from the balcony and closed up the windows.

Then it started to get warm so we opened them again. With nothing else to do but wait, we began catching up on back episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad. I mean, a lot of episodes.

I went on Facebook to see the News Feed.  There was a kind of almost giddy energy to the anticipation, mixed with skepticism about all the dire prognostications.

People shared fun photos, like the one in the New York Times of Hasids gathered at the beach watching surfers before the storm hit [right], or the photoshopped tracking map that likened the storm's progression to its namesake in Grease as she got progressively skankier.

Others made jokes about how they were still finishing up their supply of Y2K crackers and water.

It started to feel like we had been hyped. By noon Sunday, city area schools and businesses had already announced they'd be closed both Monday and Tuesday. Friends -- especially those living north of the city, where they had no real weather change yet - starting griping. By Monday 4pm, all the city had experienced was some drizzle. Yet the subways shut down at 7pm, and the buses  followed at 9pm.

Sure, we heard the accelerating wind whistling through closed windows like a tea kettle. Felt the 100% humidity, saw the wall of clouds in the sky.  So we kept switching over to TV news to make sure we weren't missing something.

And I began trying to be useful the only way I could -- making my Facebook "News Feed" literally that, sharing updates both large and small. At first, most of my postings were meant to entertain during the endless wait, but soon things got serious.

Early on, local and national news reporters were mostly notable for their hypocrisy,
standing outside in areas that had been designated for evacuation, chiding passersby about why they were standing outside and hadn't evacuated. CNN's Erin Burnett seemed hell-bent on drenching herself at Battery Park to prove she was every bit the war correspondent Anderson Cooper was. I made fun of Piers Morgan for booking Sebastian Junger, clearly keen to get him to pronounce Sandy "The Perfect Storm."

None was as entertaining, or as self-imperiling, as CNN's Ali Velshi [right], who stood in the middle of a rainy Atlantic City boulevard, suddenly realized cars were about to plow into him and hightailed it to the corner, all on live TV. Then the storm really hit and Velshi was suddenly waist deep. I complimented him on going "deeper" than Burnett.

Part of the joking was guilt. Because in Harlem, we were still nearly bone dry. The wind gusted but not exponentially.  We saw the water in our filled tub gently lapping from side to side, so we knew the building was swaying (as it was designed to), but there was no real sense of danger. Those came to us via TV -- and Facebook. People shared them, sometimes before they could be cleared (or shot) by the networks.
First, there was the crane, dangling over midtown, from the 90-story, overpriced new apartment building, having been blown backwards and hanging sadly -- like, one commenter noted, a Viagra ad.
Then the lights went out downtown -- and almost simultaneously, someone posted a YouTube video of the cause, a Con Ed plant exploding on 14th street. the plant that, after 9-11, they'd protected by closing off the entire FDR drive exit to, but apparently had forgotten to build a moat around. (When I posted it on Facebook, it had about 345 views; a few days later, when I'm writing this blog post, it has 6.4 million.)

I tried to remain entertaining too, spinning songs like Journey's "When the Lights Go Down" and Billy Joel's "Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway," finding chestnuts like the opening title sequence to Where Were You When the Lights Went Out starring Doris Day and MadMen's Robert Morse.

Soon I was scouring the web for the latest updates -- the subway and park closures, the devastation in New Jersey, the news of NYU Hospital's loss of power and evacuation. I reposted news source photos, like this one of Seaside Heights NJ before and after:
and friends' photos, like Markey Boyer's telling shot of the Red Hook, Brooklyn sign:
What everyone noticed was that the hurricane had created a quiet eye in another one -- the endless Presidential campaign and its haranguers on both sides. People were united in a bipartisan way, as later symbolized in the post-Sandy bonding of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama.

Tuesday afternoon, the park was still closed and mass transit and the airports were shut down, but I was able to walk down Central Park West to work at ABC News, seeing several fallen trees in and out of the park, some of which had crushed unsuspecting parked cars, like the one pictured up top. 

Meanwhile, downtown, the Times later reported, 
By Tuesday, the elevator shafts at Bellevue, the country’s oldest public hospital, had flooded, so all 32 elevators stopped working. There was limited compressed air to run ventilators, so oxygen tanks were placed next to the beds of patients who needed them. Water faucets went dry, food ran low, and buckets of water had to be carried up to flush toilets.
Whereas by Wednesday uptown, I was posting cautiously optimistic photos of blue skies, visiting MoMA, taking a bus home from midtown, and seeing a friend in a play at Lincoln Center (Disgraced -- go!).

I was actually annoyed to learn my NYU course was cancelled because there was still no power downtown, until I remembered that this also meant the students were not getting hot showers. 
It's easy to forget when the only sign that anything is altered is the fact you could get on subway trains and buses free (and thus were surrounded by more crazy homeless types than usual) or that the trains didn't go south of 42nd street.  Uptown there were kids trick or treating; downtown there was looting and people climbing stairs in elevator buildings out of necessity. 

Jon Stewart and The Daily Show made light of this by contrasting tales from a downtown correspondent who was fighting off rats, with one up in Times Square, holding shopping bags and whining that his ice cream store had run of sprinkles. 
Accurate, but maybe a little "too soon." Rich Regen, a screenwriter friend who lives downtown (in the grey area in the subway map up top) summed up his experience like this: 
Status update from the dead zone. Still no power, no water, no toilets, no cell service, etc. rolled Upper East Side last night with friends to charge devices in car and was amazed at the divide. Kids out for Halloween, buildings lit up, restaurants packed with well- heeled diners. Thank God a kind-hearted manager let us eat without a reservation at Orsay. Down here there are no services, no Red Cross trucks with hot coffee, few cops at night. Side streets feel dangerous. Can't think what older people trapped in high buildings are doing. We're going to a hotel tonight, but it's getting BAD downtown.
Soon the unified world started splintering again. People started complaining that the Mayor's decision to continue with plans to hold the Marathon with people still without power and dead bodies still being discovered. Others started complaining about the politicizing of the relief efforts.

On a personal level, I learned that my late mom's car, that we'd given to a neighbor had been crushed by a falling tree like a pancake, a few days after the fifth anniversary of her death.
It was just a junky old Mercury Sable station wagon, but it had often ferried my kids when they were little, and its demise removed one more remnant of her. And one of the last grand old trees in their former front yard also toppled.

But compared to the wrenching fires in Breezy Point, Queens, the decimated beach towns in New Jersey, the premie babies who were carried down flights of stairs at NYU Medical Center while nurses respirated them to keep them alive, my friends with small children who were displaced from their homes, even my neighbors whose scheduled childbirth was delayed, not to mention the dozens of people who lost their lives, I had nothing dramatic to tell people who asked, "How are you doing?" The only answer is "fine."

In the aftermath I've been trying to keep up the posts, passing along information about how people can volunteer to help, including this weekend's cleanups in several city parks and playgrounds, and this sobering list of distribution locations for food and water.
As I write this update Friday, there's a movement afoot to keep the generators hauled in for the Marathon to be kept here to help out. Sounds pretty reasonable.

In retrospect, it strikes me that the divide wrought by Sandy mirrored the one engendered during this Presidential campaign:  it's hard for those with power living in their bubbles to picture what it's like for those without power. (Which is why Romney's "47%" quote got so much traction on both sides.)

For a while, though, the power of nature, the power of images, and people's resilience, conquered all, and tonight some people's lights started to come on again. Hopefully it won't always take disasters to make us all a little more conscious.

So they cancelled the Marathon, reopened Central Park, power is gradually being restored downtown (though less so upstate), the subways have crept back into existence (though not the L train) and volunteers are helping people in the Rockaways, Red Hook and other places. One survivor's tale, Greenwich Village-based writer Eric Gilliland, posted on Facebook: 
So it's about five in the morning and I've decided to sleep next to my fireplace because it's really really really cold in my apartment. And I had pre- emptively boughten wood. I just had dinner and drinks at Dublin's with Nadia and Ryan and Moira and Jeff and Matt and Hanwaa and everyone in the neighborhood who were neighbors. All candlelit. All went for a drink at Tavern On Jane. Then said goodbyes. Then went to my home. It had no heat. It was in the 40s. While I like the music of the 40s, I'd rather sleep in the 70s. So I lit a fire, had some Scotch, and curled up in front of the fire. A couple hours passed.. and then I was woken up by an annoying hiss. What the--? Oh. The hiss was from my hundred-year-old radiators. And what is that light? Oh. It's a light. That was not switched off. We, the West Village, are back on the grid.

Thanks for your patience. 
And to all a good night. 


Robert said...

So well said, and so true. This should be required reading, David!

David Handelman said...

Another take on the class divide this exposed...