Stories of the Storm: Sixteen Sad, Crazy, and Uplifting Tales From Sandy

Photo: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images, TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images, and Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The record-breaking super-storm Sandy hit every corner of New York in ways big and small. Dozens along its path lost their lives; thousands lost possessions; millions lost power. We’re still learning about what happened, and what it will mean for the city’s future, but here are a few snapshots from around the city of what it was like to live though Sandy and the aftermath.

Monday Night

LOWER EAST SIDE — I was on the phone with a friend in New Orleans when the storm got bad. “Everyone here at the bar is laughing at you,” the friend said. “It’s just a category one.” I was smoking on the back patio at Boss Tweed’s, one of the few Lower East Side bars brave enough to open. I had been drinking there all day, watching as the fearless tavern dwellers danced atop the bar to the repeated spins of “Gangnam Style.” Up above the cigarette patio were four Lower East Side luxury hotels, the space between them creating a corridor to the ash-colored sky. “They think you guys don’t have the right to complain,” the friend in New Orleans said. Right at that moment, a glass windowpane from the fancy hotel got ripped from a suite and fell three stories, exploding right in front of my feet. “I have to go,” I told my friend. With that I walked through squalls, passing men holding grocery bags like babies, until I reached my apartment. Maybe it’s not Katrina, but Sandy and its flying glass sheets nearly killed me.  —  Nate Freeman

LOWER EAST SIDE — The water started flowing down Ave. C just before 8 p.m. on Monday. Keeping water out of our building was a lost cause, so we offered our third floor apartment as a refuge to neighbors on the first floor. Then came loud explosions and a green light in the sky – the ConEd transformer on 14th and C had blown, and we lost power for a good ten minutes after that. The local police station’s emergency lights kicked on, which kept the intersection of 8th Street and Avenue C illuminated. As the water level continued to rise, car alarms and lights turned on, then shorted out.  People were wading through waist-deep water. By midnight, most of the water had receded.  Then we lost mobile coverage.  — Kevin Barnett

CONEY ISLAND — Anita Ferguson and her kids — Romeo, 5, Samora, 9, Arabia, 12, and Tyshawn, 15 — live on the eleventh floor of the Surfside housing projects, squarely in Zone A, and they were too scared to go to sleep. ”It was a lot of wind and you could hear it moving around,” said Arabia. The family had stayed put because they couldn’t get transportation to relatives’ homes, and their mother, who’s four and a half months pregnant, didn’t want to spend the night in a shelter. When the building began to shake with the surge, their father, Jerome Currence, had them hunker down in one area. “We heard the ceiling cracking, right?” says Samara. “The whole building was creaking,” said Anita. Outside, they could hear people screaming for help, and the sound of transformers blowing. “You could see sparks coming from the lines that fell,” says Ferguson. Inside, they heard people in the hallway, but it was too dark to know who they were. “It was really scary down the hallway because it was black,” said Samara. “Like in a horror movie when the hallways never end. It was, like, totally scary.” When she needed to get from one end to the other, she’d close her eyes and try to think of happier places.  — Jada Yuan and Katie Van Syckle

WEST VILLAGE — With nothing to do in the house after the power went out, we ventured out into the storm. The streets were completely dark with just a few lone pedestrians walking quickly. The water had flooded the entire West Side Highway and was half up Morton street, less than 100 yards from our house. A small crowd stood at the top of the street watching the black water lap on the cobblestones at our feet. On our way back the wind was violent and we saw trees were down, a door to the archives building had been flung open, and an alarm was shrieking in the howling wind. We had to huddle in the corner for a second to avoid being blown down by a wind gust. When we got home, Colin looked out the window and saw our neighbor with her dog get hit by a giant piece of plywood that came barreling down the street at full force. She got up and ran back into her building screaming.  — Ry Russo-Young

VINEGAR HILL — When the lights went out in Lower Manhattan, my roommates and I climbed up to our roof to see what now couldn’t be seen. The Manhattan Bridge was a spindly black comb with a single horizontal line of lights; across the river, downtown Manhattan appeared dark and cold, except for two lonely buildings — less a sleeping giant than something left in a corner of a field to be forgotten for the winter. We took pictures of the skyline, all of which were black, gray, gold, and totally inscrutable. We couldn’t stop. “One more,” somebody said, and focused her camera on nothing.  — Nathan Heller

Tuesday Morning

BENSONHURST — Ten to fifteen men wielding handsaws and pickaxes awaited command on Bay 23rd Street, one block from the ocean. Their opponent: a fallen, termite-ridden, four-story-tall tree blocking the only entrance — and exit — to their dead-end cul-de-sac, trapping kids and a 90 year-old woman. “We called a hundred times: 311, 911. The cops won’t come,” said Gian Melito, a 20-something construction worker who’d risen as the block’s de facto leader when he started hacking away early Tuesday morning. Others joined in, but they made no headway until Melito spotted a friend of his, Khalil Fahie, who lives in Bay Ridge and works at Coney Island Hospital, and who just happened to be driving by in a 1987 Landrover Defender — a diesel-run, turbo-engine, Jeep-like truck used by the British Military. Soon Fahie’s truck was hitched to one of two giant branches and repeatedly reversing across Cropsey Avenue, halting traffic. (“You’re a fucking asshole and you’re old!” shouted one of the neighborhood guys directing traffic at someone who dared to honk.) Within the hour, the branches had broken off; they were heavy enough to require seven men to move them. Melito secured a promise of $40–$50 per household to thank Fahie for his efforts. The tree trunk stayed where it was, on top of a crushed Honda Accord, for insurance purposes.  — Jada Yuan

CHELSEA — It’s not the elevators or the climate control that makes a tall building unlivable in a blackout. Any building taller than six stories requires one thing to support ordinary life, and that’s a big pump. Water has to get up to the rooftop tank to be gravity-fed to the apartments below. Once the pump dies, the tank begins to empty, and you and your neighbors can share only its finite supply. (In my building, we had one overnight’s worth — about twelve hours. Newer buildings have backup generators for the pump, but ours did not.) After the tank has drained, the taps go dry, and toilets will flush only if one pours a bucket of water into them. When the buckets run out, an apartment gets pretty ripe pretty fast. The situation activates a set of moral questions: Should you be selfish, and bathe as soon as the power fails? Or selfless, and rigorously conserve? Fill buckets, a bathtub, a Brita pitcher? How obligated are you to live amid your own filth? If we all use too much, we invoke the tragedy of the commons, or at least the irritant of the commons. I tried to be a good citizen when I awoke on Tuesday morning, limiting myself to a 90-second shower, surrounded by pails and pots to catch the wastewater. That gave us three toilet flushes’ worth, enough to carry us through a day. Did we consume less than our share? More? We may have been bad neighbors, or good. We’ll never know.  — Chris Bonanos

Tuesday Afternoon

EAST VILLAGE — On the corner of 13th Street and Avenue A, sports bar Percy’s Tavern was more or less open for business, serving $8 shepherd’s pies and drinks. More importantly, they had a generator: right there on the sidewalk, rattling out exhaust, with cellphones and a few computers and iPads connected by a tangle of extension cords. Nobody knew what was going on exactly: Hearsay ruled. “Four more days of this, people will be buggin’,” declared one young man, bouncing on his toes while his Droid juiced up. Others showed pictures from the deluge along Avenue C: cars flooded up to their windowsills, pulled up onto the sidewalk by the tide. Some newer cars have a safety feature which opens the windows when water approaches the sill line; this, so the story goes, was an interesting thing to watch, car after car opening up to fill with water. The owner of Percy’s came out to shout on the sidewalk: “Anybody who can play the piano? Anybody who can gets to eat and drink for free.”  — Carl Swanson

CONEY ISLAND — On the Coney Island boardwalk, Raul Bautista, a Mexican immigrant who works as a waiter at a restaurant in Bay Ridge, could be seen carrying three 9-foot-long beams of wood on his shoulders. “I just walked around to see [what had happened],” he said, but then he spotted this treasure trove washed up on the beach. “It looks like really good lumber!” He lives nearby, on the third floor of a private apartment building, and didn’t suffer any flood damage. For him, the hurricane had actually turned into an opportunity for home improvement. “I’m going to build a closet,” he said.  —  Jada Yuan

CONEY ISLAND — A lone BobCat circled the muddy parking lot outside the Coney Island Aquarium. From within could be heard what sounded like stressed-out seals screaming. Eighteen-year-old Max Shalam from nearby Midwood and three of his friends from the neighborhood were taking a shortcut off the boardwalk when they spotted an open side door and entered the abandoned facility. “The tanks were very dirty. Flower pots were knocked over, and there was three inches of mud everywhere. We never saw anything like it. It reminded me of when I used to watch YouTube videos of New Orleans. But this is like ten percent of New Orleans,” he said. They stood inside the aquarium long enough to smoke some cigarettes. The murky tanks were filled with leaves, branches and other detritus, and the only fish they saw lay in the middle of the floor. It didn’t seem to be an aquarium specimen, but a poor creature dropped over the wall by the ocean. “It was covered with leaves,” says Shalam, “and we just saw the eye popping out. It looked like it was staring at us. It was orange, orange-pink, gray. It was a beautiful fish.”  — Katie Van Syckle

Tuesday Night

FORT GREENE — Luckily, my part of Brooklyn was mostly okay. After a day indoors working and waiting for my internet to come back on, I finally ventured out on Tuesday for a post-Sandy drink. Ft. Greene is known for being lousy with publishing people, and that night, they were all at Hot Bird. Was Bloomsbury working the next day? Nope. Penguin was flooded, and Eustace Tilly was sending out shuttles to retrieve marooned staffers. When I left at midnight, the bar was still full — “this is ridiculous,” remarked a friend on the preponderance of critics — and it seemed that in the aftermath of the storm, one island had found relief in another.  — Jessica Loudis

SHEEPSHEAD BAY — Fisherman Richie Knauer won’t touch the muck-caked inventory strewn across Stella Marris Bait & Tackle, his family’s 65-year old fishing supplies shop. “We called the insurance guys today. They never answered,” he sad. “So we have to wait. If they don’t answer the phone by tomorrow, I gotta start cleaning up so we can open.” The alleyway next to the shop is impassible, filled with giant, unidentifiable plastic things — the entire contents of the pier. Freezers bigger than the store have burnt out, spoiling imported bait and fish meant for wholesale; they found the ice machine in the street. Lost at sea are $65,000 worth of traps. (He’d try to go out and recover some of them, but the ocean’s too big now and the fish are too confused. “They’re gonna be more screwed up than us,” he says.) The dock out back is destroyed—anywhere from $300,000 to a couple million in total property damage, he estimated. Before the storm, Sheepshead Bay’s once-thriving commercial fishing industry had been whittled away to only a dozen commercial fishermen, Knauer included. “After this storm,” he says, “there will still be a dozen, because we’re survivors.” His business, though, “it may never get back to where it was. By the time you collect the money, I’ll be an old man.” He’ll call the insurance company again tomorrow. For now, there’s nothing to do but smoke a cigarette and drink a lukewarm Budweiser.  — Katie Van Syckle

Wednesday Morning

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Four days off was too much for the New York Stock Exchange. Before the opening bell on Wednesday, a row of shiny cars stood outside the building, where the Exchange had made an exception and allowed commuting traders to park. In their own fenced-off area nearby, the suits hovered over their phones: texting, talking, and holding their phones up in search of a signal. The generator that lit 18 Broad Street while the neighborhood slept could keep the computers running, but there was still no cell reception on the trading floor.  — Anonymous

HOBOKEN — The power went out on Monday night, and every street within sight of our apartment was covered in at least a foot of murky brown water. But my boyfriend and I didn’t start to panic until Tuesday night, when we heard the National Guard had been called in to evacuate. Our naive Wednesday morning plan was a cab through the Lincoln Tunnel, and after one Uber driver canceled our fare, a second called to confirm. “You’re my hero!” I shouted, to which he replied, “not exactly.” Apparently the entrance into Hoboken was “a war zone,” so the trip to my apartment that would usually take six minutes was looking more like 45. “And my meter is in and out,” he added, suggesting I bring cash. “At least $200.” Outside in the sewage and gasoline-tinged air, we heard stories of snarled traffic and defeated drivers who’d turned back after finding that the tunnel entrance line stretched two towns over into Union City. So we walked towards the tunnel, passing garden apartments flooded to street-level, people throwing away boxes of waterlogged papers, even an angry-faced guy taking apart his car engine piece by piece. As we passed a phone-charging party on a brownstone block, the second Uber driver inevitably canceled. It was then that I remembered Hoboken’s commuter ferry to Manhattan. There were ten people in line at the terminal, and forty more behind us by the time the boat arrived five minutes later. Luggage and a general air of desperation created an unmistakeable feel of refugee-flight, but ten minutes later we were at 42nd St. terminal on the west side.  — Helen Rosner

FLATBUSH AVENUE — Big Al normally provides transportation services to tour groups, high schools, casinos, or non-profits. In a post-Sandy New York, however, his eleven-passenger van is worth its weight in gold. And so a trip from Flatbush to Rockefeller Center, where his wife Janet works, quickly took on passengers — first a friend, then others flagging him down along Flatbush and willing to pay $10 per head. As the van took off for the Manhattan Bridge, a woman lamented that “those poor people waiting for the bus are never going to make it to work.” She continued, “I knew that everyone would show up for the new bus. I waited for the b41 [bus] yesterday, but there were a hundred people waiting just to get on. There was no way I was going to stand on that line today for three hours.” Upon arrival in Manhattan, Janet offered exiting passengers cards so they can call Big Al and schedule their trips. One woman asked Big Al, “you’ll pick me up right here at 4:30 PM?” “If you call me, I’ll be here,” he replied.  — Eric Goldwyn

Wednesday Night

GREENWICH VILLAGE — I have a 1-week-old son and a dog with diarrhea and I have mainly been sitting around a nice peaceful place in the Village dealing with feces by candlelight. The Empire State Building looms to the north like the brilliant gate to electric heaven; someone’s penthouse is offering a single smug pod of light high in the southern sky; NYU buildings are annoyingly bright and cozy; people near them are demonstrating a device that uses fire to charge your phone and make tea simultaneously; Zadie Smith is dressed as a witch and taking a little girl somewhere for Halloween; someone offered me $100 for my flashlight; the downtown callers-in to WNYC seem increasingly miffed about life uptown sounding totally normal; we’re surrounded by genuine hardcore devastation and death that we don’t have enough cell service or radio batteries to fully keep up with; I can’t be the only one fantasizing about a daisy-chain of extension cords and power strips from midtown to the sea; and you can tell when our son’s really waking up because he’ll raise one fist in the air, as if in solidarity with some Newborn Liberation Front. Which I suppose is exactly the kind of well-rehearsed patina-of-romance Story he’ll have to hear again and again every time the power goes out for the next eighteen years.  — Nitsuh Abebe


16 Sad, Crazy, and Uplifting Stories From Sandy