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Seven days after Sandy

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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.”

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.

We woke up to the sound of crying children on Tuesday morning. There are many couples with young children in our building and I’m sure that they were cold, bored and frustrated and were letting it out in long plaintive wails. I wondered whether any of the cries were because of injuries sustained in the storm but then remembered that first and second floors were evacuated so, they were probable empty cries of boredom.

When I got up and looked out the window I was floored. Darkened traffic lights swayed in the still strong winds; cars floated in the streets and debris was scattered everywhere. The water had receded and you could see the flattened grass and mud. It looked like hair slicked with too much pomade. It was 7:00 am and people were beginning to creep out of their homes and poke around. We decided to do the same.

We walked down the ten flights of stairs to our lobby, not knowing what we would find. Sludge covered the couches and carpet and marble floors. There was about an inch of river water on the ground, down a couple feet from hours before. We pried the sliding doors open and walked outside. People were taking pictures of the damage while they walked their dogs. Rain was still pissing down and the wind was pushing live power lines around. We decided it was not safe to explore. We watched from our window all day in our dark apartment. We warmed cans of soup on our stove by lighting the pilot light. We drank wine and watched ambulances and fire trucks dart around town. To use a hackneyed expression, it looked like the end of the world.

Our condo building was able to procure enough diesel fuel to get a generator running early Wednesday morning. The generator kept the lobby lights on and one elevator running. A janitor’s closet was turned into a “charging station,” a term that was about to become part of my everyday vocabulary. We eagerly charged up our phones and called family and friends to let them know that we were ok. We were unable to get any news, we did not know what was going on at all. We did not know the extent of flooding apart from what we could see out of the window.

My girlfriend’s mother called us to let us know that Hoboken was making national news. That mayor had proclaimed that the town had “filled up like a bathtub,” another phrase that was about to enter my budding hurricane vocabulary. She also told us that the National Guard had entered town and that volunteers were needed and could report to City Hall. We bundled up and walked outside, it was the first time we had seen sun since the weekend. Our eyes squinted; it was 8:00 am on Halloween.

As we walked down the main street in town we saw a convoy of Army trucks. People stopped on the sidewalks with their disheveled heads cocked to gawk as if it were some type of parade.

Hoboken is a busy town filled with bars and restaurants. As we walked down the street both were boarded up. You could not get a cup of coffee if you tried. We made our way to City Hall and it was bedlam. The National Guard was everywhere. We were ushered inside once we indicated that we wanted to volunteer and were told to sign our names and wait for the mayor to address us. As we waited, another group of volunteers slept on cots in the usually busy courtroom. We were told that our assignments would be handed down shortly so my girlfriend and I snuck outside to look around the neighborhood a little. As we were leaving a relentless CBS newswoman was kicked out of the building for asking to use the bathroom and then sneaking off and waiting to ambush the mayor when she came out of her office.

It was west of City Hall where the real destruction in town lay. People were trying to walk through waist deep water (which was comprised of rain, Hudson River and sewage as the treatment plant had lost power) in makeshift waders. A father trudged through the water with a crying baby on his back as he frantically yelled to a member of the National Guard that his pregnant wife was still stuck in their apartment building.

Another man ran into City Hall in a panic. He was afraid to drink the tap water and he had run out of bottled water. A town employee shrugged and said, “I’ve been drinking the tap water, so I hope it is ok.”

Obviously, I was not the only one in town who had not planned properly, who had shrugged this whole thing off, who was now, luckily, trying to help people who were in a much worse state than my own in maybe some vain attempt to compensate for my initial lack of judgment.

Being from Hoboken and therefore quite familiar with the area, I was directed to hop in a Humvee and assist members of the National Guard navigate the flooded streets of town. We circled around the worst hit areas and I watched as they assisted the elderly and frail from their homes.

The day was surreal. When we finally got back to our dark and cold apartment we filled pots with water and boiled them on the stove. We waited for them to cool and then took turns bathing. That night, we dined on crackers and chicken noodle soup the constant use of the pilot light on the stove filled the apartment with the smell of gas. I looked in the cupboard and realized that we were running very low on food.

I took the one working elevator up to the roof of our building and stared at the interrupted Manhattan skyline. The Empire State building was gleaming down on all of those East, West and South that had no power. It seemed, for a second, that it was both mocking me and calling me. I went downstairs and told me girlfriend that we were going into Manhattan tomorrow to get food and we fell asleep.

The underground train system that takes you from Hoboken to Manhattan had been hit with severe flooding and the buses were not yet running so our only choice was to take a ferry. The ferry was filled with dirty, bedraggled people and crying children. As we bobbed in the Hudson before we left I thought about how well everyone was dealing with this. Amongst the tired eyes and muddied clothes people were surprisingly chipper. I was witnessing the friendliest display I have ever seen people in this part of the country put on.

We stocked up on more soup in a ravaged but powered supermarket in Hell’s Kitchen. We caught a burger and fries; the first real meal we had eaten since Monday. While we were making our way back to Hoboken on the ferry Army helicopters buzzed overhead. When he docked there was a long line of filthy and exhausted people waiting to get into the city. As I walked off the boat one of them whispered to his friend “Why are they coming back, don’t they know that there is nothing here?” It felt horrible to hear that said about the place that I call home.

While in Manhattan I had gotten hold of a newspaper and was finally able to wrap my head around the amount of destruction that was caused. I read the whole paper from front to back in the lobby Thursday night until I fell asleep.

When we woke up Friday morning we were both extremely cold. We meandered down to the lobby where we were told that we had to leave the building because our supplier had run out of the diesel fuel that we were using to keep the generator running. We would have no working elevator, and in the event of fire (not out of the question when everyone is using candles) we would not be able to get out of the building fast enough.

Temperatures were beginning to drop on Friday and we waited in the apartment for my father to drive 35 miles with limited gas to pick us up and take us to his powerless and full house for the duration of this mess.

As we were driving out of town, I looked back at the blank swaying traffic lights; the boarded up buildings; the floating cars and the struggling people. I felt bad for leaving. Something inside me felt like I was giving up. Something inside also told me that I would never again look at risk through the unconcerned eyes of an aloof young man. I have saved this blog three times already while writing it (something I never did before); our condo now has a drawer filled with batteries (just in case). Maybe sometimes it takes getting the stuffing knocked out of you by tragedy to look at risk seriously. Maybe, no matter how you prepare, you will still have to contend with hardships, and as corny as it may sound, better safe than sorry is indeed something to live by. I know I will.


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