19 September 2017

Feature: Word From the U.S

“It’s Just a Hurricane”

Before I moved to the US the closest I had come to experiencing a natural disaster was severe windstorms in France and England, and an earthquake in Israel in 2004. The only reason I felt the latter was because my chair rolled from one end of the room to the other and back again while I was sitting on it - otherwise I probably wouldn’t have known! Right after the 2004 South East Asian Tsunami I worked over the weekend helping to provide rush translations to the Red Cross (I cannot thank the people at the BBC World Service enough for their help getting the documents translated into Sinhalese), watching the scenes on the news with disbelief at the sheer power of nature. I moved to New York in June 2005, and a few months later found myself watching the news with baited breath as Hurricane Katrina created a path of destruction across the Gulf of Mexico, slamming into Louisiana and literally destroying the state. I remember feeling so hopeless, wishing I could fly down there and DO something. It was at that point that I started taking some interest in hurricanes, and how unpredictable they are. I saw some mega blizzards in NYC, the biggest one in December 2010 just after Christmas, where so much snow fell from the sky that buses and cars were stuck in the streets and I was snowed in to my apartment building. When someone finally dug us out I waded through snow up to my thighs. Earlier that year I saw my first (and last) real-life tornado, from the 40th floor window of a Manhattan high-rise, travelling over the lower end of the island straight towards Brooklyn. The abandoned building on my street corner was destroyed in it; its front façade ripped off, exposing dusty rooms and boarded up bathrooms. That office window was always wonderful for sunrises and sunsets, fireworks displays, watching pilots do emergency landings on the Hudson River, and lightning strikes.

But I honestly never thought I would actually live through an earthquake or a hurricane in the city. NYC… One of the biggest cities in the world! 2011 was the last year that I worked in the high rise, but also the year of THE earthquake and my first real hurricane. I was sitting at my desk, working during my lunch hour, when suddenly the building started swaying and my chair rolled over to another desk and back, my stomach rose and fell, rollercoaster style. Then it was over. We all looked around, wondering if we had all felt the same thing. A 5.8 earthquake in Virginia, not far from Washington DC, which was felt all the way up the coast. On paper 5.8 seems like small fry compared to the 8.1 that Mexico just experienced, or even the earthquakes that California expects (generally hovering between 5.1 and 8). A few weeks later Hurricane Irene brewed far away in the Antilles, gaining momentum until it looked like she was heading straight for NYC. We stocked up on food, made a huge pot of pasta “just in case”, filled the bathtub with water, and made sure we had enough batteries, candles, and flashlights for a few days. It was exciting, exhilarating. The winds whipped up and howled around us, and the tropical storm rain pounded on our windows. It was so warm, and humid, and grey. Irene actually DID make landfall in Brooklyn, but the city was spared.

We strolled through Manhattan after Irene, laughing, taking pictures of a fallen branch and exclaiming “that was it?!”. We were so full of ourselves, not even considering that just outside of the city borders houses were floating down streets and people were without power for days. Lucky us, Irene bypassed NYC and instead ravaged parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, and of course places like South Carolina (not even mentioning the other countries she hit). We didn’t realize how lucky we had been that year. We didn’t even think to look a little further outside and see what damage she had caused. We had survived a hurricane! In retrospect I wish I had listened to my friends who HAD actually survived hurricanes (like Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that devastated Florida). And thought more about those who were sitting in their homes with no electricity, waiting for the flood waters to recede. Irene was a monster.

We learnt what it was like to get through a hurricane the following year.

On Sunday October 28th 2012 I was working a double, bartending in a restaurant in Manhattan when we were told that all public transport would be shut down that evening, and that we should all go home and prepare for the storm. Of course I shut the restaurant up with my coworkers and went to my other place of work next door, an Irish pub, and proceeded to get drunk. What else were we going to do on this sudden evening off?! The streets were dead, it wasn’t cold out, and there didn’t really seem like any imminent threat, apart from a bit of wind blowing through the grid. I went home, slept, and prepped for the storm in the same way as we had prepped for Irene, by buying a ton of snacks, filling the bathtub with water and making sure my windows were sealed (Irene actually cause some leak damage to all of the windows in our apartment building). My roommate, her boyfriend, me, and our good friend hunkered down to weather the storm, and for some reason I decided to stay sober, “just in case”. Still, I was the one who decided that it would be a good idea to go up on the roof when the winds picked up, holding onto the barrier for dear life, until I realized that maybe it was a little dangerous… This wasn’t Irene passing us by. This was Sandy and she was hitting us with all she had left, and it was a LOT. We all huddled down in our living room, watching the news when we saw sparks flying in the distance from our window, and suddenly, from what we could see from Brooklyn, the power went out in Manhattan. I had been texting friends there and all of a sudden we stopped, not sure when the power would be restored. Other friends updated Facebook with statuses of water flooding the streets and terrible winds battering their homes, and we all calmed down a little, wishing for the howling to stop and the world to feel safe again. 

It wasn’t so funny anymore. The next day, we woke up to a new day, grey but warm, and still had power at home. My friend and I decided to walk over the bridge into Manhattan to see if our friends and workplaces were OK. There was no power for 40 blocks. Streets were flooded, subway tunnels were flooded, trees were down, old and disabled people were stuck in tall buildings, and there was no hot water. There was also no cell service for 40 blocks, so we walked around the Lower East Side and West Village, hoping to bump into people we knew, headed up to Times Square and BAM the lights were on up there (and we walked into a random Irish pub and bumped into all of our friends, that’s NYC for you).

The power didn’t come back on for a week. I was lucky from a living standpoint, as my home wasn’t affected. Both of my places of work remained closed for a week, meaning that I went without pay for as long as the power was out, and my bosses’ second restaurant on the other side of the Hudson was flooded up to the ceiling (we didn’t reopen until May of the following year the damage was so bad). Friends lost their apartments due to flooding, and entire neighborhoods along the NYC beaches lost EVERYTHING. Homes, schools, shops were destroyed, peoples’ entire lives gone, just like that, into the storm surge. Me losing a week’s wages and tips seemed like nothing compared to what other people were going through. Public transport remained down for days, and petrol ran out in many of the petrol stations, a lonely tanker appearing now and then when they were able to get through to the city. People would line up at 2am and sleep in their cars, hoping that there would be enough petrol to fill their tanks. I walked around the West Village at 9pm, completely lost, uncomfortable in the eeriness of complete darkness, relying on car lights and torches to guide my way. My amazing roommate and one of my favorite people on earth worked tirelessly over in the Rockaways and Red Hook, clearing homes and beaches. Our city beaches were gone; dunes disappeared into the relentless ocean.

I learnt that the winds may not always cause the most damage in a hurricane. When you live by the coast (don’t forget, Manhattan is an island, and NYC is literally on the coast), storm surges are the most dangerous part. When water floods through your underground subway system, into the streets where you walk every day it really helps you understand that hurricanes are tremendously powerful. And by the time she reached NYC Sandy had been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone. I can’t even begin to imagine what more devastation she could have done at a Category 1 or higher.

Today my heart goes out to the people who have gone through Harvey and Irma, those who live on islands and who could not evacuate, those who did not have the resources to evacuate. I will never again say “that was it?!”, I will never again think “oh, it’s JUST a hurricane”. I’ve lived through many a gale force wind, but I honestly hope I never have to witness a hurricane again. The devastation is unreal. New York City went silent, powerless, for a week. Can you even imagine what a hurricane does to places with different infrastructures?

Mother Nature doesn’t care about status, wealth, race, gender or anything else. But unfortunately humans do – our ability to pick ourselves up from the devastation a hurricane or other natural disaster depends on the empathy, compassion and aid of others. I feel like I was too involved in my own wellbeing in the Sandy aftermath, wide-eyed in how surreal it all seemed, so this year I am doing what I can to help those who have lost everything in a natural disaster. This doesn’t mean you need to be rich – clothes, breast milk, diapers, sanitary products can be collected and sent to different charities/donated in specific locations (I use Charity Navigator to see which charities are above water). And if I have to read another comment saying “why didn’t they just LEAVE”… Well some people have nowhere to go and no extra money to pay for petrol and hotels and flights. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

An overview of what Sandy did to the city and surrounding area I lived in at the time. One street may have been spared and the other destroyed. It still feels surreal looking at these pictures, but it was very, very real.

Written by Jade 

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