Letter From New York: Surveying Sandy

November 3rd, 2012

First of all, I’m safe. Thank you to all the people who have reached out to me. On the Friday before Sandy I retreated to the cottage. The eastern edge of the storm kept moving west; there was rain and wind but I was shielded from the brunt of the storm.

Wednesday, trains still not running, I carpooled down into the city with some friends. It’s here reality struck. The news upstate tended to the local side highlighting the relief the region had done as well as it had – no repeat of Hurricane Irene. But in the city wide swaths were affected. The lower third of Manhattan was without power and subways, elderly and disabled isolated in their apartments while teams went through and checked each apartment, finding them to offer assistance and evacuation.

Staten Island, the “forgotten” borough, suffered extraordinary damage and clamored for help when all the attention seemed to be going to New Jersey and Queens, where the Breezy Point section suffered over a hundred homes burned to the ground while others were washed away. One of the security guards in our building has taken in his neighbors; a boat went through their living room.

Vast sections of New Jersey are without power; friends and colleagues have had to leave home to find warmth and comfort with friends and relatives. Gas rationing was implemented in New Jersey today. There isn’t enough fuel to go around. Cars are being pushed into stations and gas tanks siphoned down to power generators.

The images of Staten Island and the Jersey Shore evoke memories of Katrina. They are devastating. Seeing the ruins of Breezy Point it would be good to note that at the height of the storm, men and women of NYFD rushed in to save what they could. Today I heard a paean on the radio for the brave men and women of the NYPD and the NYFD and their counterparts in New Jersey. Amen. They regularly risk their lives and did so during this storm.

The remarkable spirit of New Yorkers is also much in evidence. For the most part even those who had lost the most maintained their composure and spirit. Neighbor helped neighbor. Our IT leader had her apartment under water and blessed her neighbors for all they were doing. Scenes like that were repeated in New York and New Jersey. In crime-ridden Newark, there were no crimes of “opportunity.”

A woman on Staten Island had her two children, two and four, washed away from her; later found dead in a field. Streets in Staten Island and in Breezy Point evoked pictures of London during the Blitz. Thankfully the death count is below a hundred and not in the hundreds.

My friend Robert Murray, a structural engineer, marveled at how well the older buildings held up. Built to withstand wind bursts of 85 miles per hour they held up to wind bursts in the 90’s. One friend lives on the top floor of a Harlem building and felt it rock and sway as if in an earthquake.

There are two New Yorks, the New York that was affected and the New York that isn’t. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan it is hard to believe that not far away is devastation. Everywhere there are signs asking for help. Riverside Church is a gathering place for supplies to be distributed to Staten Island. Diapers are in demand.

This has been a great crisis. It brings back memories of 9/11. It is being handled with that great generosity of spirit one finds in New Yorkers when push comes to shove. It gives credence to why some call this the greatest city in the world. It makes one realize the vulnerability we have to nature. Climatologists say this is only the beginning, that we need to expect and plan for more storms like this. We’ve had two “hundred year events” in the last two years.

Good to the people of New York for their courage and spirit. Good that we have seen everyday heroes rush in where angels fear to tread. Good that we have survived one more bash to the head. And good if we learn lessons from this.

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