|900 miles across, Sandy was a superstorm|
It started off feeling a little bit like Thanksgiving. Last minute shoppers were raiding the about-to-close local stores for locked in necessities like water, milk and canned soups. I was among them all doing the same thing at the Butcher's Block, the local Irish supermarket in Queens that's already well stocked for the holidays.
In time of crisis New Yorkers find a we're-all-in-this-together spirit and it truly can bring out the best (and worst) in them. I noticed there was a weird kind of holiday humor about, but instead of seasonal cheer, this atmosphere was underlined with anxiety about what was coming shortly.
I saw young people patiently helping older people, but I also saw some hoard up on essentials to the detriment of the people in the growing lines behind them. How you react to a crisis tends to reveal who you are, I observed. Some people were so kind and self-effacing that it broke your heart, others you wanted to slap for their indifferent selfishness.
We all knew what was coming: the biggest recoded storm in American history. 900 miles across, the newscasters said. They spoke in a biblical fashion about its destructive capabilities. Staid weather forecasters were deeply concerned by what they were seeing on the radar.
Since moving to this city I have lived through 9/11 and the Blackout and terrorist attacks and Hurricane Irene and now Hurricane Sandy. I know the stuff New Yorkers are made of. But this storm was different, it's sheer size and scope were staggering.
Even as we walked home from the shops the wind was up. It whipped around tall buildings and momentarily stopped us as we turned corners. Yellow leaves whirled and eddied in the gusts. In the packed launderettes people rushed to get their washing done. Rain had already started falling as they wheeled their carts home.
I was on high alert, everyone was. The blackout I took in my stride but this was different. Our building has views that stretch for miles, which means it's much more exposed to the elements. I knew that made us more vulnerable to the approaching storm.
On Monday afternoon Hurricane Sandy arrived. Looking out I could see umbrellas and construction sheets flying by my window like autumn leaves. All the assorted debris of suburbia made an appearance as it got caught between the rooftops or fell to the sidewalk or just stayed airborn. Sometimes a solitary yellow taxi or a crazy person in a saturated raincoat swept past on the road below. And at all times there was the high worrisome howling of the wind.
Then around six we reached the storm's eye and a deceptive silence descended. The sky turned black and it seemed that a deep stillness reigned. I knew better. Advancing cautiously to the window I looked out and saw the sky still filled with storm debris. That was the moment when my building first began to shake as great buffeting 90 mile an hour gusts shook us to our foundations.
This was unlike anything I have ever lived through. Hearing the roar and crash of an uprooting tree it became clear to me in a moment just how dangerous this storm was. It was frightening just to stand at your own window so what must it be like outside?
In moments of extreme worry the Irish have particular coping mechanisms. Some crack open the whiskey, some knit, some clean the house, some - like me - cook or bake. Madly, I decided it was the perfect time to bake a wheat scone and cook an Irish Stew. The work kept me busy in the kitchen and it also kept my mind of the horrors unfolding outside.
By this time I had already heard that NYU Hospital's backup generator had failed and that infants in critical care were being evacuated from a flooding nine story building in the dark. I had also already heard that the subway tunnels had filled with water, like a scene from a disaster film. It was a disaster, but it wasn't a film.
The hurricane was making my familiar streets and tunnels look threatening, even deadly. It changed their character in a moment. That's the awesome power of nature and that power should never be underestimated. What is familiar is made strange and you suddenly dare not trust it.
Outside it had gotten even quieter, which unnerved me more than the howling wind had. My previous experience of hurricanes had taught me the worst tended to happen when it was quiet out. Sure enough, on Facebook my friends had started posting about the devastation they were witnessing: flooded streets, downed trees, generator explosions and even fires. Looking out the windows I saw something new, half the city was in total darkness and the lights in huge swaths of Astoria had gone out too.
It occurred to me that climate change deniers that live at Fox News for the past decade would have quite a job to contradict the evidence of their own eyes now. This was the worst storm in American history, and it had gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters, and the storm surge that came with it was worsened by a century of sea level rise.
So who still thinks Al Gore is a fatuous Chicken Little? Science and climatology are harder to refute when its your own house that's being demolished by a record breaking storm. It's much harder to scoff at Mother Nature when she's scaring the crap out of you, isn't it?
I also thought of Mitt Romney and his epic short sightedness. Romney's call to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and hand it back to the states and even the private sector was so foolish it beggared belief. Where were the private sector on the morning after Sandy hit? What did he imagine they were going to do, then or ever?
It's not time for politics now, though. It's time to walk our own streets and check in on our friends and neighbors. So along the way to doing that yesterday I stopped counting all the felled trees, it became too depressing. Some people brought cameras or cell phones and photographed the devastation but I found I didn't have the inclination to record any of it.
Enough for me to know that me and mine had all survived. In the days ahead I'll want to know why some politicians can look all of this devastation in the face and shrug it off whilst others understand there are clear and important steps we can all take as a nation to prevent it.
After Hurricane Sandy, I'll want to be on the latter team.