5 Days In The Dark: The Hurricane Diaries
Our power went out on Monday night, about ten minutes after the sky flashed emerald green. We were plunged into darkness, & quickly set about gathering up candles, matches & torches. Over the next few days, I would silently thank myself for being such a candle hoarder: we burned candy-fragranced candles from Laduree, candles that smelled like French vanilla, candles that had been pressed with petals & anointed with oils, & tea-lights in pink glittered cups. We may have been in survival mode, but we were, at least, sweetly-scented.
Mike & I stood at the windows, watching the scene in the street. The wind didn’t last long, but it turns out that wasn’t really the problem. Once the power went out, people started whooping & cheering excitedly, but that slowly gave way to a rising sense of panic. Water started rushing into the street, & we saw waves in the road, illuminated by the headlights of cars. People were moving their cars every five minutes, trying to escape the rising tide. Mike got anxious about the garage up the road where he keeps a bunch of stuff, & decided to go out & see if there was anything he could do.
Halfway up the block, people started to say he shouldn’t go any further, & that’s when he discovered that if he wanted to press on, he’d be wading through waist-deep water. He walked on, anyway. Everyone in the neighbourhood was in a state of shock: Zone A, which had been subject to mandatory evacuations, wasn’t too badly affected. Zone B, aka “the safe zone”, where we lived, was completely flooded.
On Tuesday, I stayed inside. I didn’t know what else to do, & it was freezing cold. I’d heard that we’d get power back in 2-4 days, & as an eternal optimist, had my sights set on the 2 day side.
I cleaned my closet for hours, listening to music on my laptop as I went, running the battery down to nothing. Mike spent the day at the garage, helping people clean up. That night, Mike made us grilled cheese sandwiches by candlelight. Thankfully, we have a gas stove.
Shortly afterwards, Mike headed north to see his cousin. We’d heard that above 39th Street, it was like nothing had ever happened. When he came back, he confirmed the rumours. Buildings on 39th Street were blacked out, while their neighbours on 40th Street had lights, power, heat & television sets blaring.
At his cousin’s apartment, Mike was able to charge my laptop & both our phones. Our phones soon became a vital lifeline, & were one of our only ways of getting information. We had no television, & we were constantly hearing conflicting information from the people around us. I subscribed to get text updates from Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter account, & every time I turned my phone on, I was hit with a wave of messages:
Starting today at 3pm, we will begin distributing bottles of water & thousands of pre-prepared meals at locations in hard-hit areas.
NYC tap water is absolutely safe to drink.
There are about 6,300 people in our 76 evacuation shelters. In days ahead, we’ll begin consolidating the number of shelters.
The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade has been postponed until a later date to be determined.
On Wednesday morning, I washed my hair in the sink. By this time, we’d realised we were in for the long haul, & would need more supplies. Thankfully, we were able to coordinate with some friends from Brooklyn, who drove into the city & picked us up. I camped out at their house, getting some work done & staying warm while Mike went out to pick up supplies, groceries & dog food. When we got back to Manhattan he showed me what he’d bought: in addition to the necessities, he’d also acquired hot pink religious candles & several blocks of chocolate. What a keeper!
I can’t adequately describe the weirdness of going from Brooklyn — where all the shops were open, & people were drinking in bars or sitting in their living rooms watching Netflix — to touching down on Delancey Street, where the traffic lights were out. Cars were being directed by cops in reflective vests, people were gathered in small groups around radios on stoops, & everything was closed.
As we headed back into the city, I received a text message saying that Mayor Bloomberg was closing down all bridges to cars that had less than 3 people in them. I was so glad that we’d been able to get over there & back. We were also starting to hear rumblings about the lack of gasoline. By the end of the week, officials would declare that there was no fuel left in the city.
A day before the storm, an enormous crack was discovered in the boiler in the basement. After two days of toxic oil fumes coming up through the drain, we decided we needed to crack open the windows. We couldn’t keep breathing it in; we felt like we were being poisoned. It was bitterly cold, so we slept with two blankets on our bed, the dogs nestled in beside us, acting as impromptu heaters.
To remedy the no hot water situation, Mike devised a showering system, as follows: Boil 4 pots of water on gas-powered stove. Carry pots into bathroom. Light candles & hang battery-powered lantern on towel-hook. Stand in tub. Fill aluminium bowl 1/2 with cold water from the tap, 1/2 with hot water from the pot. Pour over self. Soap up. Repeat. It felt extremely Swiss Family Robinson, but it worked, & most importantly, made us feel human again: a big ask in those fairly trying times.
Most of the people in our building had left by this point, fleeing the Lower East Side to stay with their friends or family uptown or in Brooklyn. Though we’d had offers to sleep at other people’s houses, there was no way we were going to leave Hank & Dolly in our apartment by themselves. We were staying put.
Whenever we saw the superintendent of our building — he lives in the apartment above us — we’d ask him for updates on what was happening. He said he had gotten into a fight with the landlord, who, when told that most of the tenants had left, said that was good, & so maybe the oil leaking from the burner, & inevitable lack of heat & hot water even once the power was restored, wasn’t such a big deal. Our super shoved our landlord up against the wall, yelling, “What about the people that can’t leave? What about those of us who have nowhere to go?”
I spent Thursday in bed, reading The Game, which — hurricane aside — was completely fascinating, & a much-needed escape from reality.
Every hour or so, I’d get up, pace around the apartment & look out the windows. The residents of the public housing nearby were so much worse off than us: in addition to a lack of power, they’d had their water turned off, too. People were lined up at the fire hydrant, filling their buckets with freezing water.
Later in the day, Mike went out & came back with some bad news. “I just spoke to Bear,” he said. Bear is a friend of ours who is an engineer. “He talked to the ConEd people & they said we wouldn’t get power back for another week.”
“A WEEK?!” I exclaimed. This was my breaking point. Since Monday night, we’d been told 2-4 days. I absolutely couldn’t imagine doing this for another week: surviving in the freezing cold, with our windows open to try to get rid of extremely potent oil fumes, no hot water & no lights. Worse than that, there was nothing to do. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t go anywhere, & I felt like I was starting to crack.
Mike decided I needed to get out of the house. The subways were full of water & absolutely out of commission, so we went for a walk. We blew out the candles & headed up to Union Square, where I had heard that Wholefoods was giving away food. We didn’t need free food, but we did need a supermarket, & that seemed as good an indication as any that it would be open.
On our walk we passed C Squat having a free barbeque, an RV with people crowded around it charging their phones, & plenty of guys selling hot dogs from carts. Other than that, & the lights of oncoming cards, the streets were totally dark. The buildings were black. There was no illumination on the street. It was one of the eeriest things I’d ever seen. We passed so many enormous apartment buildings, windows barely brightened by flickering candles. Nearly a million people were without power.
At Wholefoods, all the perishable items, like fresh bread, were gone. Downstairs, a man sat among the seasonal vegetables, his iPhone plugged into an available outlet. Mike & I grabbed a basket & stocked up with cans of soup, pasta, oatmeal, seaweed crackers (my idea) & beer (his).
On our way home, we stopped at a little restaurant in our neighbourhood: a solitary beacon in a jet-black city. They were running a generator outside, & the inside was warm & cozy. When we’d passed it on our way up to Union Square, there was only one couple seated, but by the time we came back, word must have spread, & we got one of the last free tables. I asked for a glass of white wine & the owner brought over a bottle, saying, “I’m not even going to tell you what this is, just try it.” He poured me a slug & I knocked it back. It was exactly what I needed.
We were feeling the need to eat some greens, so we split a salad, then had a bowl of pasta each. It was served to us on plastic plates, but it was delicious, warm & hearty, & we ate it ravenously.
The people at the table beside us started to grumble because their food hadn’t come out promptly, & we couldn’t believe it. Who can complain about slow table service when the restaurant is running on a generator?! Shortly afterwards, the same couple started to loudly discuss their prostate & bladder problems, & the whole scene — combined with the giddyness I’d acquired from the wine — was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help laughing.
After we paid & walked over to the coat rack, the lights flickered & then died. We had clearly gotten in & out at the right time! Thankfully for the remaining patrons, by the time we crossed the street, the generator had been fired back up again, & it was business as usual. Well, almost usual.
I was completely over it by Friday. I was resigned to my fate as a powerless pioneer woman, stuck eating ravioli by candlelight & going to bed at 9pm because it was so dark there was nothing else to do.
I woke up to the sound of a truck outside, which was mercifully draining the oil from the boiler in the basement. The smell of fuel slowly disappeared from our building. We were finally able to close the windows that afternoon.
After taking a “shower” — the old pots of boiling water/aluminium bowl routine — I went for a walk around the neighbourhood to see what I could see. People were wandering around like me, doing nothing, in a mixture of boredom & shock. The streets were littered with ruined furniture & personal possessions.
A woman yelled out her window that she had just heard that Lower Manhattan would have power back that afternoon. I felt a glimmer of optimism, but suppressed it: I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. A local deli was selling coffee, but I didn’t have any cash, so I went without.
I walked home again, crawled into bed & finished reading The Game. When I was done reading, I snuggled further under the covers & had a nap.
I was woken up a couple of hours later by yammering coming from my living room, & whoops & applause on the street. We had power! The relief was enormous. The yammering I’d heard was from the television turning itself back on. I flicked the lights on & grinned out the window at everyone in our street who was yelling & celebrating.
We had lights & electricity, & we were so thankful. We did not, unfortunately, have heat or hot water, thanks to the problems with our boiler. An extremely kind friend let us use his shower that night.
We still had no heat or hot water on Saturday, but I started to feel bad for grizzling about it. A quick glance at the news showed so much devastation in the rest of New York City that it made my heart hurt. Until we really had a chance to get caught up, we’d thought maybe the East Village had gotten the worst of it. We were so wrong.
Some parts of Far Rockaway have been literally wiped off the map. Staten Island has to be seen to be believed. More than 40 people had lost their lives & the despair was overwhelming.
The final straw for me came when we were walking the dogs on Saturday night. We passed a church whose pantry had flooded; all their food had been put out on the street with signs that said, “Contaminated, do not eat”. The flooding wasn’t just rain water — it was mixed with sewage. The stacks were surrounded by people who were quickly filling their carts with this contaminated food. People were so hungry & desperate that they were willing to take the risk.
I’d had my fill of horrifying news reports, so on Sunday I went out to see how I could help. I’d looked at the opportunities online & was amazed to see most of the organisations said they no longer needed help: they had enough volunteers. Regardless, I wanted to scope it out.
The contrasts around the city were enormous. It was shocking to see people waiting for brunch tables while around them, people were dressed in their most utilitarian outfits, organised in groups, packing up trucks, sorting supplies, & doing what they could to help.
I made donations of food, batteries, and money, but everywhere I went, I was told the same thing: that people needed warm clothes & blankets. I sent out tweets to try to encourage people to donate to the Lower Eastside Girls’ Club (which is going to be accepting & delivering supplies all week).
I left a bag of supplies at a vintage clothing store called Grey Era which was collecting donations. Their goal was to take it all out to Staten Island today. This morning they tweeted, saying the Zipcar they’d rented didn’t even have enough gas in it to get them to a gas station. Everyone has good intentions, but the lack of fuel is a major problem.
It’s Monday. We still don’t have heat or hot water. I’ve been going to my friends’ places for showers, & pointing a heater at my knees. (It is 4°C, or 39°F, & we live in an old, drafty tenement building.) But I am so thankful to be able to get on with my life.
My husband & I have been so lucky. Many people have lost absolutely everything.
The most amazing thing about this whole event is watching people jump in with both feet & really do everything they can to help. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that those of us who got through this relatively unscathed feel enormous amounts of guilt. We want to do anything we can to help, & watching the news makes us feel sick.
Incredibly, it appears that the majority of assistance isn’t coming from the Red Cross or FEMA. Both organisations have been massively criticised for their slow response. The real help has been coming from Occupy Wall Street, whose Occupy Sandy movement is mind-blowing & magnificent. They are taking out huge groups of volunteers, serving meals, providing space for people to talk out what they’ve just experienced. This article spells it all out.
If you want to help out, here are some excellent ways to do it: Donate blood or money. Supplies are great but from what I’m reading, sometimes create more problems than they solve. Money, on the other hand, can be used for any number of things.
You could donate to the Ali Forney Center, the city’s most valuable resource for LGBT homeless youth, which was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. A lot of displaced animals need new homes, too. Here are more ways to help.
For me, this has been such an enormous reminder that when it comes to disasters, there are no guarantees. We are all teeny-tiny players in a world that is so much bigger than us.
Please keep everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy in your thoughts.
I NY more than ever,