Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Well, now that I am back in my dorm with power, heat, and running water, and things seem to be slowly winding back down to the normal grind of routine life, I thought it would be a good time to write about the past week.

A few days before Hurricane Sandy hit this area, I was one of many who were barely thinking that anything serious would happen. There have been lots of hurricanes before, and they all ended up being weak incarnations of gross overestimations of destruction. So no one, including myself, was expecting the "stock up" warnings to be necessary in the long run.

The clouds were dark and overcast on Sunday, October 28th, and the wind and rain were picking up momentum. Class was cancelled, at first just for Monday but then for the entire week, which gave us students a euphoria that now seems terribly inappropriate in the wake of the storm. How could one grateful for a natural disaster? The power went out on Monday and the night was, I daresay, quite enjoyable. There was a strong sense of camaraderie that took hold of everyone on our floor. New friends were made and older friends became closer. The storm strengthened a lot of ties in some of the sweetest, most heartwarming ways—but I don't want to talk about that.
An uprooted tree.

It was soon announced that due to the widespread power outage (a transformer had exploded on 14th Street, a video of which can be seen here), we would have to evacuate to one of the few NYU buildings that has back-up power. The subways were completely shut down—flooded, with no estimated time of recovery. There was no way for me to even go home in the event that I wanted to go home. I didn't, though. I wanted to stay here and ride out the storm and its aftermath like those too who were stranded here.

Two friends and I decided to walk down to the Lower East Side. Swarms of people crowded around various fire hydrants, gripping buckets, jugs, water bottles—anything that could hold clean water for the thousands of people who had none of it. One woman was drying her hair with a towel as she leaned against her car, conversing with two others. I could only assume she had plunged her head under the freezing cold water to maintain some sort of hygiene. Not only was there no power or water, there was no heat, and with the constant, icy winds, it felt like a winter that could not be abated, even though autumn still has almost two months left in its arsenal. Winter, with its guerrilla warfare, had crept up and taken hold of a city just when the city was at its most vulnerable.

A woman with a radio, dancing alone in front of her home.
Yet despite everything, kids played ball in a playground, forced to retrieve their football every so often from a large, invasive puddle of water that, in its size, resembled more so a lake. One middle-aged woman stood all alone in front of her apartment complex, holding a small radio on her shoulder. As the music played, she swayed slowly with her eyes closed, and when she saw us with our cameras in her direction, she beamed. "Oh, me?" She continued smiling as she danced. One man walked his dogs at the same leisurely pace that almost everyone seemed to have. Strangers talked to strangers. There was no work to go to tomorrow, or the day after, so what's the rush? Trader Joe's offered free pumpkins outside their store to keep them from going to waste. Two men had set up a small grill near a church and were barbecuing. A Fourth of July celebration at the close of a cold October.

We walked by the power transformer that had exploded two nights prior, the source of the massive power outage in downtown Manhattan. We snuck into a subway station (the L) and plunged into the jet-black depths of the platform, using the intermittent, focused glare of camera flash bulbs as guiding lights. No need for Metrocards, no need to go through the turnstile, no need to even avoid the emergency door because no alarm sounded when we pushed it open. This particular station had not been flooded, but to see a place normally swamped with people and illuminated by harsh fluorescent lighting, now left in a state of dead blackness—it felt apocalyptic. And as we made our way back to home base—the crowded NYU building—we came across a car on the side of the road.

A wrecked car filled with debris.
It was perpendicular to all the other parked cars, and had actually collided into an adjacent vehicle, probably from being washed up by flooding. It looked like a photograph of a collision more so than a remnant of history: the front sides of the cars were smushed together, and a log stuck out of one of the backseat window of one of the cars. It was like a carefully-constructed display of tragedy, except this was no museum: it was cruel reality. The doors were unlocked, and branches, leaves, and dirt were scattered inside. A small bottle of hand sanitizer sat mockingly on the driver's seat, while the floor of the car glistened with several inches of still water. It was perhaps the strongest embodiment of all the destruction that the city had faced, and a chilling reminder that while there was so much tragedy that had been seen, both on the news and in real life, there was an entirely different realm whose ruination was unseen, and could possibly remain that way forever. This was someone's car. I wondered—and still wonder—if that person had even known of the demise of his/her car before my camera did. Complete strangers finding out that your car has been destroyed before you yourself even care to know. How many nighttime joyrides had this car been through? Drives to the movie theater with a dating couple, or a married couple, maybe some kids in the backseat where now a log sat indecently, half of it angled out the window? But even more frightening was that this was only a small fragment of a network of lives that had been changed. One small facet exposed to me, among thousands of others that I had not seen and probably will never be able to see.
Closed-off subway station, lit by camera flash. 

I couldn't believe that less than a week before, Hurricane Sandy was a distant joke. We've had lots of rain and strong winds, why would this be any different? But it was different, and it still is.

My friend Sandy (no jokes, please, she's gotten her fair share of them already) and I ended up taking a bus uptown to stay with a friend at his apartment. We boarded the bus just before sunset, and thus just before the dark night settled in—and I really mean dark. Downtown NYC was devoid of streetlights or traffic lights, and only the rare car headlights could illuminate the streets. The city had been tossed into a state of complete darkness, a darkness whose plenitude was one I never imagined could fall on a place that was prized for its sleepless, eternal brilliance. New York City without lights? It's the stuff of nightmares, maybe, but it had never been a reality until then.

The luxuriously unscathed stores of uptown.
We boarded the bus and it took a glacial three hours just to get to 42nd Street—a trip that would normally take fifteen or twenty minutes. We still had thirty blocks ahead of us, though, and so, suitcases, bags, pillow, and blanket in hand, we got off the bus and walked the remainder of our journey uptown. I had never seen traffic so stagnant. And yet when we stepped off the bus, everything around us seemed—well, quite normal, actually. The power was out everywhere below 39th Street, but everything above 39th Street was untouched. Everything we had seen downtown was barely a whisper up here. No stores were barred closed, lights glared in their fluorescence, crowds of people flowed in and out of restaurants and bars. The typical buzz of life was as vibrant as ever. A group of children in Halloween princess costumes sat at a table by the window in a McDonald's. I wondered, as they ate their French fries, if they even knew what it was like several blocks below. Worse still, I wondered if anyone would even care if they did know. A stranger looked at me and her eyes moved to my blanket and pillow hanging roughly out the top of a big bag that I held tightly. She smiled at me, almost pityingly, as if in acknowledgement of what my situation was, or perhaps grossly overestimating my vagabondage.

Downtown Manhattan was shut down, but uptown was dry, unscathed, unaffected. Power, heat, running water. Open movie theaters, late night diners, everything was functional and operational and alive and breathing. How could I blame people here for not caring as much about downtown when I too was quickly swept up by the ease with which uptown was still running? Nevertheless, after two nights, Sandy and I decided to head back downtown. I would have given anything to be able to fly (despite my fear of heights), just so I could've seen how starkly the bright lights of the city ended at a divide between the two halves. The city was a creature that had been slain in half, one side cripplingly harmed and envious of the other side that continued to survive without struggle.

On our way back to NYU, Sandy pointed at our feet, where on the sidewalk in big chalk letters was written: "Free food straight ahead, provided by JetBlue." We walked half a block and saw three food trucks—waffles, dumplings, and Lebanese cuisine—and indeed, it was free for anyone and everyone. Sure, it was promotion for an airline company, but that sort of commercialism didn't matter at that point. I don't think I've ever been as touched or moved by an act of generosity as I was at that moment. I shuffled my bags to hold on to the food that warmed my frozen hands and looked around at how happy everyone seemed to be. One man exclaimed loudly: "See, we don't have to pay for shit right now! This is New York!" Everyone smiled. I ate the most delicious waffle I have ever had in my life—warm, soft, with chopped fresh strawberries, a liberal drizzle of melted Nutella, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. A gift of luxury at a time of austerity.

Washington Square Park, closed-off and empty.
After returning to the NYU building, I spread my blanket on the floor and surrounded myself with the bags and belongings I had with me. I called my family in New Jersey and they told me that, by some miraculous stroke of luck, the power had returned to my hometown. If I had wanted to, I could've taken a bus home, since the buses were starting to run again. It would've been an arduous hassle to attempt interstate transportation at that time, but it could've been done. I chose not to, though, and that night, I ended up sleeping on the floor with my laptop and cell phone charging as I drifted off into a rough sleep. Sleeping electronics beside a sleeping vagrant. I was relieved to have the privilege of this technological connectedness, yet at the same time so blatantly aware of how even at the depths of my nomadism, I was a million times luckier and more privileged than even the wealthiest of the stocks of homeless people wandering about the streets. Little water, little food, no warmth, no permanent home. I was grateful but disgusted at the same time. (I still am, and it is one of the greatest stuggles I have always dealt with, and it was during this experience that this inner turmoil for me reached its climax.)

I was sore when I woke up, but the sun poured in through the large windows with the greatest abundance of light I had seen in over a week. And an e-mail informed me that all NYU residence halls were open once again, with power and heat and running water.

I am now sitting on my bed, wrapped in a blanket, my hair wet from a fresh shower. The sun still continues to shine in so brightly through my window. My window. My room. With power, light, heat, internet, water. I have food. It's been nonstop, cold rainy gloom for over a week, and I swear I've never seen the sun shine this brightly before. I'm typing this as the burning sun illuminates my fingers on the keys. I can see all the dust on my screen. I don't even care about the glare that is reflecting back into my eyes. I would normally close the blinds on any other day, but not today.

I had the chance to go home last night. I really did. But I stayed, and I have never been so humbled by any experience as much as this past week. Power and water and heat and internet were always essentials and I, along with countless others, dismissed their existence as privilege and took them as requisites. But now I can't stop smiling at having everything that I took for granted for so long. So what if I slept on the floor for a night? So what if I carried my heavy backpack, cameras, pillow, comforter, and blanket uptown and downtown for so many blocks? So what if my shoulders are a little chafed from the weight of my belongings? So what if I was a vagabond for a brief period of time? There are so many others who went through the same thing, and there are countless more who have experienced and continue to experience so much worse. Hurricane Sandy was truly unprecedented, and it will still take some time before everything is back to "normal." But what is normal anyway? Me having power? Is that normal, or a privilege? It is without a doubt the greatest privilege of all. I have never been so grateful for everything in my life until now. It pains me to hear people exclaiming "Starbucks is open now!" or "I'm so glad we didn't have class, I had so much fun!" with utmost sincerity, as if nothing happened and as if no one was harmed by the storm. For me, this week has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I lived first-hand through the hurricane and its aftermath, exploring all its different facets, shiny and dull, good and bad, clean and scratched—all of it.

I just saw some friends who live on my floor and in my suite, and it feels like we haven't seen each other in weeks, though it has only been three days at most. I know how cliché it can be to ramble about how humbled and grateful I am by everything that has happened, but I don't care, because it is all true. I live for these moments, I live for these experiences, and they are indeed life-changing.

More photos below.

A street completely empty, without any traffic or street lights.

Sandy using flash to take photos in the dark and deserted subway station.

Last night, power was restored to almost every place that has dealt with power outages. And today for the first day in over a week, the sun came out.