Friday, November 02, 2012

Surviving Sandy

My apologies for all the errors in the post on the color "blue"! I wrote it after a long, busy teaching day, and only noted well afterwards how garbled it was. It should be less so now. There are no solid sheets of blue above us today, nor have there been for the last few days. Instead, it's been shades of gray, gray clouds, gray sky, all auguring what we're being told is the worst storm to hit this area in a year. I wasn't here last October when Hurricane Irene struck, but Hurricane Sandy, or the Frankenstorm, which blew through the Caribbean, leaving 60 dead and widespread damage, has begun barreling towards barreled onto the shore, exacerbated by a full moon's high tides, and preceded by terrifying winds, some as high as 90 mph, and one of the lowest recorded pressures in decades at 940 milibars.
UPDATED (The storm terminated my original post on Monday.)
The storm subsumed swaths of the Eastern seaboard from North Carolina north to Connecticut, battering coastal New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, where it touched down in devastating fashion. Whole shore towns, as well as inland cities along rivers, were underwater, yet even communities farther away from watercourses suffered flooding and sewer backups. Atlantic City, which finds itself near the eye of the storm, has suffered flooding all along its boardwalk and beaches, and other littoral towns are also drowning. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of low-lying coastal neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, calling those who could not or refused to leave "selfish," and many of those areas, like Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Bay Terrace in Staten Island, New York City, ended up underwater. The MTA was shut down, as was the PATH and NJ Transit, the airports in Newark and Queens, and many major roads; subway tunnels flooded, the PATH line from the World Trade Center also turned into a swimming pool, and many train lines suffered damage or blockage from downed trees, strewn vehicles, and, in several cases, boats hurled up onto their tracks.  Lower Manhattan experienced a transformer explosion, which extinguished almost all of its power (save that of Goldman Sachs), and the NYU Medical Center had to be evacuated. So far more than 30 people are confirmed dead, and there are others whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Closer to home, the storm's anticipated and current destruction led to flooding all along the Jersey City waterfront, and nearby Hoboken was plunged almost completely underwater. Newark also suffered such extensive damage and flooding that the university was shut down until Monday.  Thankfully we suffered no flooding and no damage to the house or cars, but the storm stripped the siding off many nearby houses; knocked a huge limb into a neighbor's front yard, damaging one of their eaves; peeled the roof of an apartment building off like a sardine can; and removed an awning as if it were a baseball cap. Electricity went out around 7 pm Monday. As of today, Friday, November 2, four and a half days after the shutdown, we are still without electricity, though we thankfully do have gas in the car (and gasoline is scarce all over the bi-state area, not just in our city), hot water (because of a gas-powered water heater installed a few years ago), enough funds to get by, and non-perishable food. Because we did keep an analog phone and an old battery-powered radio we are able to maintain contact with the outside world. Because we had candles, batteries and flashlights in the house, we have light; because we own a cooler, we can keep food outside in the cold weather. Parts of Jersey City's downtown, especially where the financial firms are located, do have power, but large sections of the city do not, nor do large portions of the neighboring cities and towns of Bayonne, North Bergen, Union City, Harrison, Secaucus, Hoboken, and Kearney.
Driving around feels at times like being in a J. G. Ballard (The Drowned World) or Octavia Butler (The Parable of the Sower; The Parable of the Talents) novel. (Or my own novel set in 1804, Palimpsests!) As I said, gasoline is scarce, and many stations that have it cannot meet demand or lack the electricity to pump it. Meanwhile rumors circulate about where one can find it. The cash machines are mostly empty of cash, and since the electricity is still down in many places, stores cannot guarantee that they can accept debit cards. Unless you have access to analog devices, you may not be able even to contact the police or any authorities if something goes wrong. Streetlights remain out, and there are pockets of police in place, but in other areas, only a think veneer separates one from lawlessness. One neighbor confessed to feeling rage and desperation at the lack of contact with authorities, the lack of updates, and the failure of almost every system. She did fortunately have gas in her car and some cash on her, so she and her sons weren't stranded, but her husband and his brother are stuck somewhere and remained unreachable. A friend has lost his car and had to shelter his landlord, whose home was flooded. He is now living with his mother, who lives in a neighboring town, reaching her by walking to her home. Another friend, who teaches at Rutgers-New Brunswick, mentioned the Darwinian air now taking hold in Greenwich Village and other parts of lower Manhattan. Yet another colleague was fortunate to find a train now running to take him and visit his elderly mother who had taken ill while finding herself in the dark down in the middle of the state. And these are only a few of the stories I have heard.
Our light since the storm
What this storm has underlined for me is not just the urge to non-theological providence and prudence that my Depression-era late grandfather always urged, but also a rethinking of so much of my acceptance and internalization of the contemporary shift to the digital, to the electric and electronic, and to any credence I have placed in private companies, especially the large ones like AT&T and PSE&G, on whom so many lives depend, without a healthy dose of skepticism. As of today we continue to have spotty cell phone service, and the power company has been dismal about letting us know with anything approaching a reasonable estimate. Originally we were told that we would get service by next Monday, but as of yesterday the automated response was saying next Friday, November 9! Our voting station is nearby, at a local eldercare center, so will that be operative by Tuesday? Or are there other provisions that are being taken to ensure that we have electricity in this area and will be able to vote? Their actions make one of the best cases for active government regulation. So much of the local and regional infrastructure went kaput, despite assurances that it could withstand such a storm, and despite the prior warnings and the example of last year's Hurricane Irene, previous snowstorms, the 2003 Blackout, and the attacks of September 11, 2001. It seems that instead of taking into account the best science and spending the money to ensure future viability, corporate executives, unless forced to, stuff the money into their pockets. These are the people we are told daily we're supposed to extol. No thanks!
The local officials have been mostly decent; our governor, Republican Chris Christie, was on the air communicating with citizens proactively and has been visible since, even appearing with and praising President Barack Obama, who came to New Jersey to view the wreckage, on Wednesday. (Based on information that hasn't been shared with us, Obama said we would have electricity by yesterday, but so far, that hasn't panned out.) New York's Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, also displayed real leadership as the storm was approaching, and both also have spoken out about the need for the US to address the reality of global warming and climate change, an anathema subject among the GOP and many Democrats, and a topic about which the president has grown silent in recent years. Newark's mayor, Cory Booker, already a superhero in the eyes of many, not only was responding directly to requests his constituents tweeted to him, but even opened his home to feed neighbors and provide them a charging station.

Jersey City's mayor, Jerramiah Healy, has appeared to go missing, issuing evacuation orders and the curfew, but otherwise invisible. I have not heard him on the radio even once; his name appears only intermittently, except to be denounced, on online sites focusing on local news. Some downtown residents have even posted signs asking where "Waldo Healy Is?" and labeling the city "All On Our Own Again." He has waltzed into office each time he's run, so perhaps voters will get past the D (for "Developers'-Best-Friend"?) next to his name and give a challenger, a more progressive Democrat or a moderate, a chance. Whatever happens, I just hope the electricity returns sooner rather than later. C, I and the cats are holding up, but a cold house is a cold house. I'm not so ready to be off the grid--yet--but even if I were, I also know now what I've always been urged: be prepared.

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