Sandy: New Yorkers coming together

Today marks the second anniversary of Sandy hitting New York.

Less than a week before Sandy hit the U.S., I was on a plane heading back home to NYC. The past few weeks had been very emotional, and I’d had to deal with business in Europe and the Middle East. A friend advised me to take a break as soon as I was back in New York. I had no idea it would be such an impactful break.

The West Highway in Manhattan is deserted on the afternoon of October 29, 2012 when hurricane Sandy is making its way towards New York.

The West Highway in Manhattan is deserted on the afternoon of October 29, 2012 when hurricane Sandy is making its way towards New York.

When Hurricane Irene grazed past NYC in 2011 and Mayor Bloomberg gave the evacuation order, it turned out to be much ado about nothing. So I hesitated in 2012, as the Frankenstorm Sandy approached, to leave my place in Lower Manhattan. Only after the mayor appealed to our civic duty — and after my friend Geert asked if I wanted to stay with his family near 22nd Street — did I pack my weekend bag, take my emergency supplies out of the fridge, and ride one of the last subways north to Chelsea before the MTA shut down. We all believed my stay would last for one or two days. My wonderful hosts made spaghetti, and we — the family, another evacuated friend and myself — watched the storm unfolding on TV.

After dinner, we looked out over Tenth Avenue and saw water rising in the Chelsea streets, despite being more than a block away from the Hudson River. By 8 pm, the water had covered most of the avenue. We put on our boots and went out for a quick look. We’re not always that smart….

Standing in the street, we saw something that looked like lightning, and then all the lights went out. We later learned that the lightning was an explosion at a power substation on 14th Street. Tenth Avenue faded to darkness. That’s when all the fun and laughter started to fade away, and we all felt this was serious. We had a chat with our host family by candlelight and went to bed.

The day after
We woke up early in a cold house. The two evacuees, Inge and I, decided to get some warm food and drinks before the sun rose, so I walked up to 32nd Street, where the power was still on. Inge stayed in the house because there was no doorbell, waiting for my return. Some people joked that we now lived SoPo, South of Power…. Loaded with coffee, rolls with ham and bacon, and candy, I walked back to the house.

Later that day, when it was light out, we all walked uptown to get more food and charge our phones. This time it was shocking to pass the area around 30th Street. All of a sudden, nothing seemed to have happened, other than a few branches downed from trees. The lights were on, shops were open, restaurants served meals…. What a difference a block makes.

People charging phones and laptops in New York after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. (Picture by Simon Pearce - Flickr)

People charging phones and laptops in New York after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. (Picture by Simon Pearce – Flickr)

And in dire times, New Yorkers were supporting each other. On every block, we found people  providing power cords so we could charge phones and tablets, or posting signs with their Wi-Fi password in the window. We later learned about the effort by people on Airbnb and other platforms to support fellow New Yorkers through these days. Below 30th Street, the NYPD had police officers on many street corners and emergency lighting at the main crossings. With power out, Lower Manhattan had no traffic lights.

Getting around
The city had to react and make decisions. A temporary taxi-sharing system for Lower Manhattan allowed use of all seats in a cab, even if the passengers were going to different destinations. (On November 1, we had a new temporary Subway map, showing that there was no transportation below 30th Street in Manhattan). Buses were rolling and were free. By the time a bus arrived at 23rd Street, where I was staying, it was packed beyond belief. New Yorkers are walkers, so we mostly walked. Half a mile to the coffee places above 30th Street, three miles one way to my apartment in FiDi, three miles back to Chelsea….

Winter coming

Snow falls over Harlem on November 7, 2012 in the days after Sandy

Snow falls over Harlem on November 7, 2012, in the days after Sandy hit NYC

Five days after Sandy, temperatures started dropping below freezing. On November 7, 10 days after Sandy hit, I thanked my hosts in Chelsea and moved to stay with a friend in Harlem. She had plenty of hitherto-unseen luxuries, such as a hot shower, heating and electric lights. The day I moved to Harlem, snow hit New York.

People on Staten Island and in the Rockaways still had complete outages, and now the cold was adding another layer of complexity. In Manhattan, older people and those unable to climb several flights of stairs had been stuck in their apartments for a week without water, power or food. Groups of New Yorkers volunteered to go door-to-door, floor-to-floor in these highrises to see if residents needed water, blankets and food. My place in Lower Manhattan was on the 22nd floor, so I know firsthand what a job it is to walk up and down 22 flights of stairs. I was still evacuated but needed to pick up clean clothes occasionally and water the plants in the apartment. The team of doormen in the building kept us informed with email and phone messages about all the reasons why we couldn’t return home yet.

Generators in lower Manhattan, NY on November 11, 2012, to power buildings, as the grid was down after the explosion on 14th street during hurricane Sandy.

Generators in lower Manhattan, NY on November 11, 2012, to power buildings, as the grid was down after the explosion on 14th street during hurricane Sandy.

Aftermath
During the months after Sandy, my neighborhood became the new home of several hundred power generators. The building where I lived was connected to one of these generators for months. Most residents moved back before Christmas. The gym on the ground floor re-opened in April 2013, though our elevators were under repair for 13 months. The R subway line returned much later, in October 2014, and half of the South Ferry subway station is still not in use.

Forty-three people were killed by Sandy in NYC.

But the city of New York and its people restarted their lives, as they always have and always will.

I can’t imagine how different my experience could have been if I hadn’t had friends willing to open their homes, and if New Yorkers hadn’t come together once again in times of need.

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