Monday, November 5, 2012

Surviving Sandy: Powerless

The forecasters got it right this time. This storm would be one for the books. At 943 millibars, the barometer registered lower than in 1938, when the previous worst storm hit the Northeast.
The Northeast? . . . where once a decade a hurricane actually made it ashore and caused a few hours of power outage and eroded a few beaches? Big storms like Iniki in Hawai‘i in1992 and Katrina in 2005 hit the warmer latitudes. Wouldn’t Sandy be just another media event like Irene a year ago, when warnings proved exaggerated in the Northeast? Well, actually, the coast might not have suffered greatly, but tell the flooded-out citizens of Prattsville, Margaretville, and Binghamton the forecasts were overblown.
This time the forecasters were right, and by Monday night power was out for over 6 million homeowners in the Northeast. I was one of the lucky ones who live in “Lower Manhattan,” the term that the media used for everyone—about 220,000 people—living below 30th Street who would have no power till Saturday.
What’s it like to live without electricity in 2012? It means living in the dark from 6 pm till after 7 am. And it means a long series of negatives: no heat or hot water, no use of appliances like refrigerators, TV’s, or coffee-makers, no recharging of batteries for phones or shavers, no computer for online services like banking and bill-paying, no landline phone service, no postal service, no reliable mobile-phone service, no ATM’s. And no public transit.
All of this is mere inconvenience, however. For those whose homes suffered damage from high wind and falling trees or from flooding, the negatives are still irritating but secondary. And how about the dozens of New Yorkers dead from Sandy?
The testimony of callers to local radio stations tells the story of true powerlessness: houses no longer standing or otherwise unlivable, doubling up with friends or relative who themselves have no power but do have a dry house to sleep in, waiting 13 hours to find gasoline for the car, seeing no utility workers in the area to make needed repairs, and receiving estimates of restoration of power as late as mid-November.
Briefly, here’s how a Lower Manhattanite coped. On Tuesday, after the first night without power, my wife and I walked north to 28th Street on 6th Avenue, where we found a fast-food restaurant open and she could buy her daily cup of black coffee. Sponge-bathing by adding hot water—the gas stove still worked—to the icy cold water from the tap reminded me of similar cleaning rituals with only cold water in Paris and Amsterdam as a budget traveler in my 30’s. On Wednesday through the courtesy of a friend I was able to take a shower and wash my hair at his private club, and while uptown, my wife and I ate a hot meal at the self-service eatery on the ground floor of Rockefeller Center. Hot food was a welcome change from the tinned tuna fish and sardines on which we’d been subsisting.
But even as I write on Saturday, when our power was restored, more than a million people in New Jersey, New York City, and Long Island remain without power. They are cold, hungry, thirsty, and need sleep and a shower. They need warm clothes as the nighttime temperature falls toward freezing, and many need cars.
And they continue to testify by phone on our local 24-hour radio stations, particularly WFAN, sports-talk radio, and WCBS, all-news radio.These are the two stations I listened to through the dark nights on my black Panasonic transistor radio the size and shape of a thick smart phone, but smarter because its AA batteries lasted throughout the blackout, while I had to walk uptown to recharge my android once a day.
Finally, the fallout of a powerful storm reminds me of the role of chance in our lives: my luck living only 15 blocks south of where electricity still flowed and being able to walk there and back, the bad luck of the two boys in a car that a falling tree crushed, killing them.
Beyond “finally” is the resolve to rebuild wisely and strengthen our infrastructure to withstand the rising tide and ferocity of Gaia, Mother Earth, whom we’ve abused for too long and whom we must take into account as we fashion a new, sustainable way of life.

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