David Sharps felt the storm before he saw it. He felt it in the morning tide that ripped in from the Upper Bay and slapped angrily against the large rocks at the foot of Conover Street. He felt it in the heavy air and the warning cries of the gulls. He’d spent much of his life at sea, first as a cruise-ship entertainer and now as the proprietor of the Waterfront Museum, an antique barge he’d bought for a buck back in 1985 and restored by hand. He knew the damage water could do. But he could not bear to leave his boat, and so that Monday afternoon Sharps stood on the aft dock and watched the water rise. The first tidal surge carried the barge up with it, until the ropes that hold it to land were creaking and the wood underfoot was slippery and black. “The ocean, in Red Hook, it’s our greatest asset,” Sharps would say later. “And here it was, roaring up to get us.”
Sandy Serrano heard the power go. A sucking sound, then a high-pitched whine, then click—the entire apartment was thrown into darkness. She was in her home on the fifth floor of 22 Mill Street, a brick cube in the heart of the Red Hook Houses, the largest public-housing project in the borough of Brooklyn and the second largest in New York City. The place, cramped on the best days, was chock-full: There was Serrano, and her husband, and her 82-year-old mother-in-law, and her 12-year-old daughter, and her 25-year-old daughter, and her 5-year-old grandson. In the hallway, Serrano saw light under her neighbor’s door. There was no logic to it, but the guy still had electricity—would he mind if she ran an extension cord from his place to hers? “No problem,” he said. An hour later, his power went out too.
Omar Chavez was worried about his dog. The water, a trickle at first, had busted in the windows and was gushing into the ground-floor apartment he shared with his brother, nephew, and pit bull. The dog was going nuts, bounding up on the furniture, his ears flat against his pile-driver skull. Chavez, an amateur boxer and a counterman at F&M Bagels on Van Brunt Street, considered evacuating, but how? Red Hook was at this hour an island separated from the rest of the city by the surging sea. Then the doors above him were swinging wide, first one apartment and then another—strangers welcoming the whole crew inside, pit bull and all.
St. John Frizell recognized the smell of grease. Tuesday was grease day, the day the crews came to haul away spent oil from Frizell’s restaurant, Fort Defiance. But no grease truck was coming today—Sandy had spilled all the grease out of the traps and onto the floor. Frizell and his girlfriend, Jen Watson, spent a good few hours on their hands and knees, side by side, scouring the wood with wire pads. “There’s too much to do,” Frizell said finally. “We need a plan.”
Red Hook has always been a place apart. Before the BQE went up in the fifties, all but sealing it off from the rest of Brooklyn, the neighborhood was a clamorous port town, more than a little rough around the edges. Al Capone became “Scarface” in Red Hook, thanks to a wound he received in a local brawl. Dockworkers occupied rowhouses built atop former marshland filled in by Irish and Italian immigrants; a shantytown sat where the projects now rise. Gentrification brought a Fairway and an Ikea and artist studios and hipster commissaries but did not change the sense that this is a place for iconoclasts. It feels fitting that one of the main thoroughfares is called Pioneer Street. In Red Hook, you can feel like you’re on the frontier, for better and worse.
The muggers—Frizell could still remember the attack clearly, though it had happened back in August—stopped him before he could cross to the other side of the block. One of the kids had a gun, and it shook in his hand as he waved it at Frizell. Not long after, Watson was also held up; over a two-week period, there were seven muggings in the same area around Van Brunt. The police suspected spillover from a raid on the Houses: Deprived of drug income, the theory went, gangs had turned to other enterprises. The crimes set nerves on edge and exposed divisions. But on this morning, in the wake of the storm, neighbors were zipping up and down those same blocks armed with shovels and rakes and bottles of bleach, pitching in where they could, nodding grimly when they couldn’t, hugging, shaking hands. The coming days were going to be shitty, Frizell thought as he watched his employees haul debris from the basement, but at least they were wading through the shit together.