Scotland on Sunday, 4 November 2012
ON THE corner of Avenue D and 9th Street, an area that New York real estate agents refer to as “up and coming”, men, women and children are queuing up with buckets, pots and pans to collect water from an opened fire hydrant.
Once their containers are full, they begin the slow walk home to their apartment blocks, taking care not to spill a drop. There, armed with torches and candles, they climb up the pitch-dark internal stairwells to homes as many as 20 storeys above the ground. Those who are too elderly or infirm to make the climb are reliant on the kindness of neighbours. Across the street, a man has set up a makeshift stall selling bread and eggs, at several times their usual price.
Here in lower Manhattan, the shops are still in darkness, their refrigerators, normally groaning with milk, cheese and other produce are stripped bare or full of decomposing food. In apartment blocks without water or electricity, dirty dishes pile up in sinks and toilet bowls overflow with human waste. Petrol is running out and fist fights are breaking out at the pumps over the dwindling supply that remains. After it is announced that the local branch of Whole Foods is handing out free food, by dawn the queue stretches all the way down the street.
This is the heart of one of the wealthiest cities in the world, less than three miles from Wall Street, the epicentre of American capitalism – but the scenes are straight out of the developing world.
This is what happens when an elemental force smashes into a complex modern city. When Hurricane Sandy struck the island of Manhattan on its devastating path across the East Coast early last week it snapped the city into two halves. Above 25th street, most of the shops are open, office buildings are lit and warm, and many subway lines are operating again. Below 25th, New York has been reduced to a wasteland, a place where street lights have sat uselessly dark for most of the week, where the transport system does not function and where the ATMs, phone system and electricity were still not working until this weekend. And in that lower city, there are pockets of real anxiety, anger and desperation.
Just a week ago many New Yorkers greeted the warning of the impending hurricane with jocular disdain. In Soho and the East Village, bars offered Hurricane Specials and cut-price cocktail nights for those who wanted to weather the storm with a drink in their hands. Some, remembering the compulsory evacuations and panic buying of water which greeted the arrival of Hurricane Irene in late August 2011, decided that Sandy too would be a non-event and decided to ignore advice to evacuate or stock up on essentials.
We decided to play it safe. We stocked up on pasta, milk and bread, filled buckets with water and holed up in our fifth- floor Lower East Side apartment until the storm passed.
With local TV stations giving Sandy non-stop coverage, and sending reporters out to coastal areas to monitor the storm’s approach, we stayed up to date with the storm’s progress and tried to keep our two-year-old son entertained. On Monday night, as angry torrents of rain lashed the windows of our apartment, we watched as a sheet of light flashed across the sky to the north and east, illuminating the tall buildings against a sulphurous yellow sky. Assuming it was a lightning strike, we moved closer to the window for a better view. It looked like it was coming from the East River, a dozen or so blocks from where we were. Moments later there was another flash and a loud thud.
The lights went out. From our window as far as the eye could see Manhattan had been thrown into complete darkness. Our decision not to stock up on candles and torches suddenly seemed foolish. We reached for our mobile phones to let family and friends know we were safe. But the phones were down. Soon the hot water ran out. The lightning strike was actually transformers exploding in the nearby power substation on 14th street and Avenue C. We did the only thing we could: we went to bed and lay awake as the wind howled and rain battered the windows. The only other sound was the wail of sirens in the distance as the emergency services rushed through the storm-lashed streets.
Curiosity and a hunger for news drove us outside on Tuesday morning to extraordinary scenes. To get out into the street we had to carry our son and his pushchair along pitch-black corridors and down cavernously dark stairwells. Outside, the streets surrounding our apartment, normally a lively 24/7 blur of hipster bars, all-night delis and trendy restaurants, were eerily quiet. The empty stores and launderettes still had handwritten signs in their windows promising that they would reopen at noon on Tuesday, but it was clear that deadline was now hopelessly out of date.
Because the cellphone masts were down we had no phone coverage or internet access. While the world was seeing images of the devastation from New York we wandered around oblivious to the bigger picture. It took days for us to see what the world was seeing from New York and across the Hudson River in New Jersey: homes torn apart by the savage winds, cars and trucks scooped up by 10-foot tall storm surges, the flooded subway system and the empty, evacuated hospitals. Yellow police tape seemed suddenly to envelope the city, strung across entrances to subway stations and around fallen trees and damaged buildings as a warning to people to stay back. Sandbags lay piled up at doorways in a sodden, scattered heap.
We did what every other inhabitant of lower Manhattan who could did and began walking blindly uptown, in search of electricity and civilisation. The pavements were busy and the atmosphere was jaunty, as though everyone had just had a lucky escape. Two bearded hipsters plugged their iPhones into an electrical socket hanging loose below scaffolding. But there were sobering sights too. In Chelsea, a crowd gathered on the pavement, along with television crews, to gaze in slack-jawed amazement at a three-storey apartment building which had been ripped open by the storm. Its frontage lay in rubble on the sidewalk and the contents of an apartment were opened to the street, like a doll’s house. The bed was still neatly made, the flat-screen television and radiator stood upright against what used to be a wall. Miraculously no-one was hurt here, but in other parts of the city 40 people lost their lives, 19 in Staten Island alone, and more still in New Jersey.
There were also clear scenes of the power of the storm which had passed just hours before. Up the side of Manhattan, along the Hudson River Parkway, slabs of concrete had been lifted and cracked by the 80mph winds, and a huge drowned rat lay in the middle of the pavement, bloated by the storm water.
We came back to the apartment, cooked some pasta and spent our second night in darkness. When, around 9pm, we discovered a long-forgotten stash of tealights at the back of a cupboard, we whooped with joy. Looking out at the 20-storey apartment block opposite ours, we could see flickers of light in only four of the mass of windows. From one, someone shone a powerful flashlight back and forward, sweeping the darkened street with a narrow beam. It was the only light to be seen at street level.
On the doorstep outside our apartment building the next morning, a small crowd gathered to swap storm stories and scraps of information. Estimates varied on how long the blackout would last. Some said two days, others four. A middle-aged Hispanic man said he’d heard it could last two weeks. A young black man said: “My grandmother’s got Alzheimer’s. She keeps trying to switch the lights on. She’s so confused and scared.”
With land lines and mobile phone services down, a queue began forming at the phone box across the street, a rare sight in a city in which everyone is normally glued to their smartphones. “How do you use one of these things?,” asked one young student, who was desperate to reach her parents in Iowa to let them know she was safe. A middle-aged woman in the queue behind her demonstrated how to use the 20th-century technology.
As the hours and days passed after the storm, heartbreaking stories began to emerge: of the hospital ward of premature babies which had to be evacuated, the babies kept alive by oxygen hand-pumped by staff. Of the bedridden hospital patient who had recently had a triple bypass who had to walk down ten flights of stairs to get to safety. Of a group of mentally ill patients who spoke no English, evacuated from a care facility without their medical notes.
In the high-rise public housing estate by the East River, many had ignored the city’s call to evacuate. Now they were more than 20 floors up without electricity or power. There were old people up there, ill people, people who were isolated even when the city was running normally.
It is estimated that the storm will cost New York and other affected parts of the North-East around $60 billion in damage and lost business. Now the immediate effects of the storm have passed but the slow clean-up has created its own problems.
As the working week drew to a close, the city was in the grip of a full-blown fuel crisis. On Friday, the Taxi Commission began scaling back the number of yellow taxi cabs on the streets which have been a lifeline for many, packed with New Yorkers sharing fares. Priority for fuel, the city announced, would be given to the emergency services and to the parks department vehicles which were removing fallen trees.
Buses have started up again and there is a limited subway service operating from midtown upwards. The bridges leading into the city are now open again. Those leading into lower Manhattan were still in darkness when rush-hour began, so commuters on foot and on bikes carried torches.
In a country gripped with election fever, the President was quick to show himself in charge. He visited sites ravaged by the storm in New Jersey and promised to get federal aid out to begin the long rebuilding process.
New Yorkers are famously tough. While there have been occasional reports of looting and burglaries, the community spirit which got the city back on its feet after 9/11 has been more apparent than opportunism. Neighbours are looking out for one another, taking food to vulnerable members of the community and going to collect medication and other essential supplies for those that can’t get out themselves. Something like a Blitz spirit prevails.
In some parts of lower Manhattan, and other hard-hit areas such as Coney Island, Red Hook and Staten Island, normal service will not be resumed perhaps until as late as 11 November. We quit the Lower East Side after three days without electricity and water and went to stay with friends. For me, the compelling message of this storm is that even the most prosperous, populous, powerful 21st-century city can be flipped into chaos by a cataclysmic force of nature. And that even the most secure human society in the world is held together by the thinnest of threads. When they break, what is left is the food line and the lonely old people stuck on the 20th floor.