Living Through Hurricane Sandy

Since Hurricane Sandy there’s been a presidential election and a couple of CIA sex scandals. So I can’t fault Z net readers who’ve forgotten about those of New Yorkers still living without heat or elevators. In fact, I found it dangerously easy to forget my own neighbors every time I drove out of the blackout zone. That’s one of the most important things I learned from the storm.

The former Sri Lankan ambassador to Cuba happened to be staying in my Greenwich Village apartment when Hurricane Sandy hit. My husband and I had arranged to stay uptown so that our old friend could enjoy a vacation in lower Manhattan.   

On Monday, Madame K—she’s got one of those five syllable Sri Lankan names– phoned to say that the computer was making a strange sound. Then POP.  Neither phone, nor skype, nor cell, nor email now connected us. So we drove down to rescue our guest from the blackout zone. We took suitcases so we could also rescue the stuff in our freezer.         

The stairwell was dark but alive with neighbors carrying garbage down and water up. Those with flashlights shared their beams and the able bodied helped the decrepit. When we opened our apartment door we found the ambassador in bed.

“I didn’t know where else to go once it got dark,…Uhm Barbara” she cautioned as I neared the bathroom, “I couldn’t flush.”          

“We should have warned you to store water in the tub,” I apologized. K absolved me of personal responsibility but wondered why no one from the building had come around to check on her storm preparations and make sure that my visitor had up-to-date evacuation information. [Hmmm. Do I really want a tenants’ committee that knows when a Sri Lanken Fidelista is using my apartment?]                                            

“Rats deserting the ship,” an habitually negative neighbor said gesturing at a car driving away. K and I were now waiting at the main entrance for Frank to pull our car around. Maybe the woman hadn’t noticed our suitcases.

As we drove cautiously up town—with traffic lights out, every corner had to be negotiated as if it had four way stop signs–I kept seeing the old ladies resentful chin. The concentration of nastiness and craziness in the building was bound to rise, I thought, as the people with friends and relatives in the lighted zone move out.

The next day Frank and I returned on a more formal rescue mission. The lobby was dark, of course, but we recognized a building employee surrounded by a circle of flashlights. The crowd around him sounded like those people from the projects they show on television demanding services from the mayor. But when I peered past the flashlight glare, I recognized my normal neighbors asking if the trains were running: when the schools would open: was the heat off all over the building? “How ignorant they are down here,” I thought.     

“We have a car to drive people uptown,” I reported to the building man “and a cell phone that works in the black out zone.”   

“You’re good people” he answered and turned back to the besiegers.

We continued searching for someone in authority, some man or woman with a clipboard who could enter requests for help in one column and the offers of aid in another and pair them up, or at least promise to pass the information along. But there was no one even pretending to do that job.  

So we began asking around ourselves. “Know anyone who needs a ride?”

Frank finally found an elderly woman preparing to take the bus to her relatives in Harlem. “Maybe you should save the car for someone really immobile,” she demurred. She had no idea how infrequently the busses were running. He also found a young woman headed to midtown. “I can walk if I have to,” she said. But we were grateful to fill another seat in the rescue-mobile.          

While Frank drove them uptown I planted myself on a bench near the entrance where I could make our special cell-phone available.  I also assigned myself the task of telling everyone who passed that the management had scheduled a meeting in the community room at 4:30. I was surprised how many weren’t interested.   

(In the course of the afternoon I managed to find two people to use our cell phone. A man reached his sister to say he was fine but cold — that was my main discomfort also.  A woman called her office and was relieved to get no answer. “Good, nobody else could get in either,” she said.)

(The ex-wife of a very large man rushed into the building to report that he was trapped upstairs. “He’ll have to be taken down by stretcher,” someone said.  I happened to have seen the man leave on his own feet with help from a building guard and another tenant. The police were called anyway and showed up pretty quickly, I must say.  They confirmed that there was no emergency and moved on.)      

From time to time a city social worker sat down with me and couple of the other sensible gray haired tenants to piece together a list of old people who might be stuck in their apartments. Was there really no such list already? 

Over the years K and I have had our disagreements about Cuba. But at that point in Hurricane Sandy I’d have welcomed a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution that kept track of even the nastiest old lady.

Just as I was beginning to worry–Frank had been gone over three hours–he called to say that he was driving on empty and couldn’t find gas. (Some rescuers! We hadn’t even thought to fill the tank first.) We decided that he should park immediately and stay up town. I’d stay until 4:30 to see what the building director had to say.

“This is storm of the century,” he said, opening with the cliché of the century. The moon was full, the tide was high, the surge was enormous, and to top it all off there was an explosion in the power substation on 13th Street.  

Even if Con Edison managed to get power into lower Manhattan in four or five days, as they now estimated, the building wouldn’t dare turn on our electricity until we’d pumped the basement completely dry and wiped down all the salt. Multiple pumps were already working toward that end.  But tenants must understand that the flooding had been profound. The water marks in the basement were over his head. Washing machines in the laundry room had floated up and now lay sprawled across each other at odd angles like bodies after making love. (He didn’t say that last part.) As far as heat, the boilers may be unsalvageable. The director spoke in great detail about his staff’s problems locating equipment vendors during a crisis.         

“How many times are we going to go through this same thing?” a tenant demanded. He wasn’t buying the “storm of the century” line. With global warming the once in a lifetime storm would happen every couple of years.  The only reasonable solution, he declared, was to move the electrical and heating control systems out of the basement and up to a higher floor.

“This is an emergency!” the manager cut him off.  Tenants agreed volubly.  Climate- change architecture could wait. They wanted to know how long we’d have to keep living in the dark and cold without water or elevators.           

As the non-attending tenants suspected, the management gave us little practical information. But a few brave tenants had ventured forth to scout out restaurants that were open and stores where they’d let you charge cell phones. One man reported that a hamburger joint was giving away free burgers before the meat went bad. “I just had two. Seek and ye shall find.”

I don’t want to give the wrong impression to folks outside of New York. By the middle of the week churches, unions, political clubs, fire houses, block associations, restaurants, stores and Occupy Wall Street committees swung into action.  Occupy was actually first on the scene in a couple of the worst hit areas.  When the police arrived at one blacked-out coastal community with a truck full of candles left over from the canceled Halloween parade, they found no organization to turn them over to but their arch enemies from Zuccoti Plaza.  So they did.

Unlike FEMA or my own building management, OCCUPY distributed not only blankets and candles but all the information they had. They aimed to pass along the skills, habits and confidence needed for organizing one’s self the next time.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could come out of future disasters with a growing network of organized left leaning community groups?    

Unlike OCCUPY, FEMA tended to hoard their store of information and skills. They approach the devastated as charity recipients.  But in addition to blankets they can pass around sign up sheets for eventual compensation in hard cash.  Money is a constituency building asset we lack.            

One reason Occupiers were so quick to the rescue was their recent experience distributing food and blankets in occupied parks.  As members of an on going and participatory organization Occupy individuals had the contacts and confidence needed to set up shop before they were officially mobilized.

 It made me realize how important permanent organization is to a left contending for influence and—dare I say it—power.  Our right wing opponents certainly believe that. That’s why they go after not only unions, but organizations as small as ACORN, while they’ll let individuals like me keep spouting online forever.   

As it happens my building has an ongoing tenants’ committee. (We have to be vigilant to protect 373 low-rent apartments when homes in the surrounding buildings sell for upward of ten million dollars.) Our self-organization may have been a bit slow to kick in because the head of the tenants committee was off canvassing for Obama when the hurricane started. But in a few days we had floor captains and a heroic bucket brigade that carried water to all fifteen floors.

(The committee eventually put together a fairly comprehensive list of those who stayed in their apartments and those, like me, who left. It was important to know who was gone so that Good Samaritans would stop breaking down their neighbor’s door on the suspicion that he or she was inside, dead.)   

If no one was in charge on day one, by day three, half the population of New York City felt empowered to coordinate the relief of the other half. The spirit of volunteerism that impressed de Tocqueville when he visited American still lives in the Greater Metropolitan Area.

But the account of our sorry first day as rescuers didn’t impress Madame K. To defend the American can-do ethic, I showed her an email from another friend who’s the managing editor of a weekly trade journal headquartered in the blackout zone.

“Our owner was intent on getting out the issue, which is supposed to close today, and he finally found temporary office space in midtown, which is where I am right now…. Our IT guy had to bring two servers from our office, walking down 16 flights of stairs!”

Was that IT guy any less heroic than the nurses at NYU Hospital who carried pre-mature babies in their arms down nine flights of stairs while keeping their respirators going by hand? If the IT guy had failed, the magazine would have had to return the entire week’s advertising revenue.  

“But who determines which magazines get temporary office space?” my Fidelista friend demanded—“or that magazines get priority over other displaced enterprises?”

I countered that the total amount of spontaneous ingenuity unleashed from the working class during the crisis was in no way diminished just because it was commandeered for profit making purposes.      

“Besides,” I argued, “a social priority list operates here too. There’s no way those babies would ever have been left in the hospital. This is New York, not New Orleans!”

But in the weeks since the storm it’s been harder to convince myself that we don’t leave anyone behind.        

What scared me most about Hurricane Sandy were my own reactions. How quickly the people I left in the blackout zone came to seem like the ones who don’t plan, the ones who don’t have friends—the losers. Once I got above 29th Street my downtown neighbors became Romney’s 47%. Those, as you remember, are the people you don’t have to think about.

I, of course, know that it’s morally wrong to forget the folks still living without heat. So from time to time, I’d step out on the balcony of my uptown refuge and force myself to stay there for a full minute. But it’s getting colder, so I do that less often. Now, even as I write about them, I only occasionally “feel their pain.”     

The oceans are rising and storms will be more frequent. It may be feasible to elevate power systems as that fellow at the meeting suggested, at least in luxury buildings—at least for a while. But gradually more humans will wind up living in the world’s blackout zones. And as I’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy, those losers are frighteningly easy to forget. That makes it dangerous to ameliorate the effects of Global Warming with a fix that allows some of us to dwell above the flood.     

Barbara Garson’s book “Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession” will be published in the spring by Doubleday. 

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