Looking Back at Superstorm Sandy

CC BY-ND 2.0. Lena Nicholson

TreeHugger Emeritus Mat McDermott describes his experience of living through Sandy.

Two years ago this day I was in the midst of what ultimately, I would learn, was getting off easy.

Two days previously I had been quickly filling as many containers as I could with water. My wife, in her last few days of maternity leave was watching our 10-week old son as I gathered up metal canteens, growlers, old wine bottles and anything else I could find, she disbelieving that it would be that bad. Last time there was hurricane hype in the city we coasted through the ensuing storm with a few downed branches. I, on the other hand, had been following all the reports with a close eye—it being my job, writing full time for this site at the time. Everything was pointing to the worst.

That evening the storm arrived. As the night went on, watching online the tide gauges cresting, I remember thinking, in astonishment, that it looked as though we’d made it through the worst without losing power. Within minutes, though, a loud explosion and flash of light resonated throughout the neighborhood. Voices from the street screamed out. (There were people still out walking around in this?) I intuited that it must be from the ConEd plant. I was proven right as the lights went down within seconds of the blast.

We woke to silence the next morning. An amazing quiet had come over the neighborhood. The storm had passed. All the background machinery, compressors, and refrigerators were silent. For such a noisy place it was extraordinary.

We had no idea if the power was out just in our neighborhood or if it was all of Manhattan. We had no idea of the damage. Only later would we discover the devastation in Rockaway, in New Jersey. The East Village took a hit but it was a glancing blow compared to elsewhere.

That day, as I tried assess our situation, several things stuck out: The bodegas selling stock as quickly as possible to avoid it spoiling, empty by midday; people just wandering around, their gazes far away revealing their thoughts, ‘what to do next?’ Just a few blocks north from me the entire street had been flooded. This was where cars were floating in the road, all jumbled up by the advancing water. People had already started to empty out their flooded basements. Their belongings began being piled on the sidewalks, on top of the mud and debris. It smelled of water and damp basement.

Back home everyone in the building came together, determining who would stay on to oversee things and protect the space from looters (who never, thankfully, materialized in our neighborhood). We were in no situation to stay in an unheated apartment at the start of November with a newborn baby, so as soon as we were able we decamped to my sister-in-laws apartment in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, which still had power.

Electricity was restored at home something like 10 days later. Our building’s ancient boiler took several more days to be fixed. In total we were displaced for two weeks. What we went through was a minor, mild, inconvenience compared to what others in the city went through, losing homes entirely, facing months and months of uncertainty, deprivation, and bureaucracy.

“Being without electricity, running water, modern plumbing is the normal state of affairs for a shockingly high proportion of the world’s people,” I wrote here on November 1st, 2012. “What is extraordinary, headline grabbing, in Manhattan, is ordinary and overlooked elsewhere. We will live here, in these conditions, for a few days. Our homeless population lives in it every day here. And it is an entire life elsewhere.”

In the past two years much as been done to rebuild the damaged areas of this city—following the appalling slowness and the failure of the major aid agencies, shamed by members of the Occupy movement and many other ordinary, compassionately selfless people helping out day after day for weeks and weeks.

In the response to Sandy, both from what I saw in my neighborhood and what was reported elsewhere, it’s clear that we can come together in times of acute crisis to help one another. What we now need to do is come together when the crisis is less apparent on a day to day basis, when it’s less dramatic but no less life threatening.

Is it possible to move back from our shores in a fair, humane, and speedy way? Can we come together, with force of conviction and willpower, every one of us, to make the sort of political, technical, and lifestyle changes that can soften future blows from climate disasters like this, before they land?