In late August of 2011, while living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with my girlfriend, I had a planned a weekend in the country with a buddy of mine. We were to head up to Sullivan County N.Y. to camp along the Delaware River. The city can be a tangled mess of impatient crowds in the summer and we were looking forward to the sounds of the woods as opposed to the drone of air conditioners and car horns.
Unfortunately, when the much-anticipated weekend arrived, so did Hurricane Irene. We decided to call off the trip, stay in the city and live off our camping supplies: a battery powered lantern, a wide range of the finest canned food; flashlights, matches, gallons of water and a couple of bottles of whiskey. Except for the whiskey, we had everything we were told to buy in advance of Irene. We were ready.
We waited and waited to lose power. We sat in small Manhattan apartment ringed with candles as if we were holding a séance. We lined up flashlights and canned food and filled our bathtub halfway. That night, in upper Manhattan, it rained and trees fell down but that was the extent of the destruction. We never lost power for a second.
My girlfriend and I now live in Hoboken N.J. in a tidy condominium complex that sits right on the Hudson River. On Friday October 26, as I came to our office also on the Hudson River in Hoboken, I mocked some of my colleagues that work for National Underwriter Property & Casualty for the fervor that they had in believing that the impending Hurricane Sandy was going wreak havoc. I believe I said something along the lines of “You know what is going to happen on Monday? It is going to rain.”
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That I am writing this column on my first day back in our nearly empty office, after a week of forced evacuation, flooding and power outages, speaks to just how wrong I was to scoff at Sandy. I am looking at a printout of Sandy’s trajectory that one of my colleagues taped up near my desk that reads: Sandy is coming for you, Michael! Sandy did come for me, and she blew the smugness out of my lungs.
I believe that it is human nature, to some extent, to have a muddied and often contradictory attitude towards risk. The guy who always wears his seatbelt and never speeds while chain-smoking cigarettes is a prime example. For some reason, and I know some of it should be attributed to the arrogant and ignorant chutzpah of being a young man, I had a “fool me once” attitude toward hurricane Sandy. I had been inconvenienced by hurricanes before. I had waited around and cancelled and changed plans all for nothing to happen. This time, I told myself, I was not going to let this storm interrupt my weekend.
I had friends in from London on Friday night and we socialized late into the evening. On Saturday, I took in a show at Carnegie Hall. Sunday I slept until ten and then read the paper until about noon. When I finally went outside on Sunday afternoon to take a walk it was eerily quiet and strange on the Hoboken Waterfront. The Hudson had a green tint, it was unusually choppy, even for a windy day, and the sky looked like it had been smeared with charcoal.
I started getting phone calls cancelling engagements for Monday. Then I started getting calls from family and friends asking if I was ok and reminding me to get supplies.
Nervousness is contagious. It causes you to observe and then to mimic. I saw people unloading tape for their windows, piling into the condominium building with canned food and flashlights and generally running around like a colony of ants.
“Damn,” I said to myself, “This could be the real thing.”
I picked up my girlfriend early from work and we rushed to Home Depot. Most of the shelves were almost empty and it had not even begun to drizzle. I began to battle with a nagging guilt that I had not prepared adequately nor taken this seriously enough. By the time we got to the supermarket on Sunday night, it looked as if they were giving away their food. Shelves were barren, price tags hung dangled and askew on the shelves like they were trying to be part of some abstract art exhibition. Cashiers and store managers shot us incredulous and frustrated looks as if to say, “We need to get home to our families. You waited until now to do this?” Poor planning on our part, to say the least.
We hunkered down Sunday night and fell asleep. I was being rough on myself. I felt like a 15-year-old kid who blew off warning after warning not to cut class and was heading to detention the next day.
I woke up on Monday and took a shower and tried to treat it as a normal day. I got an umbrella and rain coat and began the mile walk to our office building. We were feverishly working to get National Underwriter’s Life & Health November issue to the printer. I almost made it to the office when I saw that the Hudson had crested and water surrounded an aged- green copper statue. I was advised to turn around and head home by a police officer.
I walked home along the waterfront. The finely manicured piers filled with playgrounds and dog parks that stretch like arms into the Hudson River were busy with people. Children chased each other in circles with the littlest ones nearly being pushed over by gusts of wind. Dogs, always prescient, howled and stared at the water; they knew this was going to be serious and I was still unsure. Waves began crashing onto the piers. Police quickly wrapped caution tape around areas where water was already coming in. A news anchor got caught in the tape and nearly wrapped himself up like a pre-Halloween yellow mummy.
I turned the corner by our condo building and watched a Canadian goose and a mallard trying to get off what was a gravel beach. The waves relentlessly pounded them. They could not move. Two seagulls swooped in the wind and tried desperately to maneuver. They looked like feathers against a strong fan. They, too, could not get away.
At the entrance of our condo building the Hudson River had come over the guard rails. As I helped our maintenance crew sand-bag the doors, any lingering doubts that I held about the ferocity of the storm vanished.
We ordered Chinese food Monday evening and watched the coverage on the news. As the rain began to pick up we watched out of the window as light after light in apartment building after apartment building went out. Transformers exploded in the distance lighting up the sky like some New Jersey aurora borealis. We got an email from the building management company telling us that the Hudson River had entered our building and that we could not leave our units. Half of the lights and T.V. in the condo went off.
We were transfixed to the window. A telephone pole (probably from NYC) washed up in front of our building and began floating down the street which was now, for all intents and purposes, the Hudson River. A piece of a large boat washed up against the building and smashed into pieces, its fragments scattered. Moments later, a 30 foot sail boat slammed into the building. It became lodged between a fence and sat, crookedly in the water covering the sidewalk while the sail, now unfurled whipped and hissed.
We climbed into bed expecting for the rain and the sound of ambulance sirens to sing us off to sleep but there was no sound. There were no flashing red and blue lights dancing on the wall, just candle light and the sound of wind.