Fragile

by: Michael Shields

One of the lucky ones recounts Hurrican Sandy’s New York landfall…..

Admittedly, I did little to prepare.  Although I was far from naïve to Sandy’s capabilities I did take comfort and misplace my confidence in the fact that Hurricane Irene didn’t even cause the lights in my pre-War fortress of a building to flicker.  I knew the low-lying areas of the city and the shorelines were in for trouble1, but I believed I would be watching this catastrophe unfold on television with the rest of the nation.  At 8:34 pm on Monday the 29th of October the power in my apartment went off, the water stopped running soon after.  Both were not restored until the following Saturday.  Many weren’t so lucky.

New Yorkers tend to live a certain way.  When not eating out, which is frequent, I purchase vegetables, meats, and produce as needed and then cook them in concert with the choice staples I keep on hand.  This being the case, and the norm for many a New Yorker stifled by limited space and spoiled with overwhelming dining opportunities, emergency supplies are rarely in abundance2.  When the lights flicked off without warning early into Sandy’s New York Occupancy I realized, quickly, how unprepared I was.  I understood how vulnerable I was.  The luxury of going hand to mouth with fresh food is quite a privilege.  As is crystal clear delicious water flowing freely from the tap.  Yet, these leisure’s, and a reliance on the lifestyle they provide, is a debilitating contingency plan in case of emergency.

Sandy showed me how close I live, how close we all live, to literally having…nothing

Sandy killed more than 100 people in 10 states; 22 in Staten Island alone, including 2 boys, ages 2 and 4, who were pulled from their mothers grasp by the force of the rising storm water as they attempted to flee via SUV.

The ‘Franken-Storm’ reached 1,000 miles across3 and knocked out power to 8.5 million homes and businesses on the East Coast.  It canceled nearly 20,000 flights. And early estimates of the damage surpass $50 billion, making Sandy the second most expensive storm in U.S. history, behind Hurricane Katrina4.

FEMA said it has already dispensed close to $200 million in emergency housing assistance and has put 34,000 people in New York and New Jersey up in hotels5. But local, state and federal officials have yet to devise a specific, comprehensive plan for finding them long-term places to live. And given the scarcity and high cost of housing throughout the boroughs and the lack of open space, it could prove an impossible undertaking.

With the temperatures dropping into the 30’s this week thousands of people are still in the dark, buried under blankets, and trying to stay warm in unheated homes.  I had it easy; Sandy was nothing more than a nuisance.  Many are hurting6.

It was barely hours after the storm had passed that I found myself sitting on the floor of a Duane Reade next to an outlet I had luckily secured to power my phone, with a queue of about 13 people behind me.  When my phone was finally charged, I hustled home only to have to climb 15 flights of stairs lit eerily by glow sticks.  The stairs were already dampened with water as the super had been hauling buckets up to the elderly throughout the building who wouldn’t be able to seek refuge in the half of the city where power was available.  The word was that it would be days, possibly a week or so, before power would be restored.  I had to find a warm home with running water, particularly for my toddler daughter.  A couple phone calls later I was hailing a cab uptown to wait out the power outage in the relative safety of midtown Manhattan.  Once again, I had it easy.  I had help.  I was lucky.

Since moving to New York in the early 2000s I have yet to feel intimidated by this imposing grandiose concrete jungle7.  I have always found it fairly safe and the people of New York are as caring as you can find anywhere, no matter what you may have heard. Yet a simple stroll post-sundown during the power outage this past week was a reminder that New York can still be scary as fuck. The limited moonlight, perpetual police sirens, and strategically placed ominous red flares provided the only light to the lower half of the city.  You could literally walk into someone if not careful.  If not for New York’s finest holding down almost every corner of this shadowy aphotic Gotham I can imagine hell would have easily broken loose. Too many nights with not enough lights, with residents appropriately frustrated, cold, and bored, seems to me the perfect recipe for disaster.

Uptown, where I was camped out for the week, was a dramatically different story.  Life was going on as if all was normal.  People could be found jogging, eating out, and even shopping, apparently naïve to the conditions found just a few blocks South or the horror found just across the Verrazano Bridge.  Tourist taking photos, locals angered at the closing of Central Park, marathon preparations in full swing8, election talk, and fully charged cell phones as far as the eye could see.  It felt wrong, a city divided, two different worlds on one island.9  It is amazing that just a few miles away in the Breezy Point section of Queens an entire neighborhood was charred to a crisp, still smoldering.

Things are not yet right.  Gas is limited throughout the city, as are many everyday necessities10.  For many, things will never be right again as a storm that didn’t exist a few weeks ago has washed away their entire lives. The Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and the low-lying parts of Queens will need to rebuild.  They will need help.

I did not lose my home.  I was not injured, nor did I lose a loved one.  I did not suffer as thousands of people suffered, and still are.  I was merely inconvenienced.  But, I did see and feel how close we all truly are to being homeless, helpless, and hungry.  We are all, regardless of class or creed, a natural disaster away from living in a Cormac McCarthy novel.  It’s daunting how close we are to the day after tomorrow…..

  1. How much I did not know – we still don’t – truly devastating. []
  2. The average New Yorker has less than a three day supply of food in their kitchen. []
  3. “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet” – Mitt Romney []
  4. “In none of the debates did they mention climate change. And I feel like every six months the worst thing that’s ever happened in the world happens weather-wise. And I feel like we’re going to look back on this time the way baseball fans did in the 90’s and were like “No, nobody’s using steroids”. We are in the Steroid Era of storms and yet there are more people in Congress who probably think this is because, like, gays are marrying…..than the fact that the world is just dying.” -Seth Meyers []
  5. It is said 40,000 New Yorker’s have been rendered homeless due to the storm. []
  6. As of last evening upwards of one million people in the tri-state area are still without power []
  7. And believe me when I tell you I have put myself in precarious situations in equally precarious neighborhoods on numerous occasions. []
  8. Bloomberg stayed in long enough on that one to impregnate, thank all that is good he finally pulled out. []
  9. I do not blame these folk living their life one bit – they could have been volunteering their time, sure – but most of us would go on living our lives as if nothing had happened, as to them nothing did. []
  10. I’m still hiking uptown for milk and eggs, etc. []

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