The City and the Storm

Photo: Iwan Baan/New York Magazine

The calm before the storm was much too calm, which should have been a clue. Forecasters had been talking about a potential Halloween hurricane—the Frankenstorm was its ­headline-ready name—for two weeks. They thought it might be bigger than the hurricane of 1938; its barometric pressure was already a few ticks lower. The twist about this one, endlessly dissected, was that it was actually going to be two storms: Sandy would head north and encounter another weather system coming down from the northeast, a bank shot that would send the storm directly at New Jersey and a surge straight into the harbor, which is a natural funnel—New York’s own perfect storm.

The subway was shut down early on Sunday night, more than 24 hours before expected landfall, and Mayor Bloomberg, a reborn weather alarmist after the 2010 blizzard, canceled school and told people to read a good book. Monday felt like Sunday on Seconal. For entertainment, we had breathless newscasters standing in puddles in their wet-weather gear, heralding the Storm of the Century that no one believed would really happen. “What preparations are you making?” asked an out-of-towner. “We have a lot of tea lights!” said the New Yorker, suggesting that anything more might be overkill. Outside, there was a gusting breeze, pulsing sheets of blowing spray. Inside was a flashlight, maybe some tuna and sardines, a disaster pantry left over, unused, from Irene.

And then it started. It hit New York first out in the boroughs, a fourteen-foot surge pushing into the swampy lowlands of Staten Island, floating houses off their foundations, flooding people’s cars before they realized they were in danger. At Breezy Point, a fire had started at seven with the tide rising. In Red Hook, the water had crested the bank that afternoon, making no exceptions, swamping the housing projects and the Fairway and the artisans’ studios with six feet of water.

Finally, Manhattan itself began to be submerged. Water poured over the esplanades that are one of Bloomberg’s most impressive legacies, swamping bodegas on the East Side, lapping the High Line on the West Side. At ground zero, 30 feet of water poured into the famous bathtub—submerging our last disaster. But that was only the beginning. Because then, the lights went out.

Well, some of the lights. The city was sharply divided, zones of dark and light, a whole new demarcation of haves and have-nots. The line ran diagonally across the city, from 39th Street on the East Side to roughly 26th on the West. North and South quickly became two separate cities, one rich in power, the other suddenly, stunningly impoverished. And within the lower half, there were further new divisions. Those with cars (and means) could leave, the rest were stuck; some had gas burners, the rest ate their food cold; those with water towers had at least a few days with running water, others had to make do with hydrants. The drama of unequal division uncannily defined the crisis, just as it had an election year that was finally coming to an end. While Manhattan seemed to occupy center stage for much of the time, Sandy’s real sufferers were in the boroughs and New Jersey—Breezy Point, Staten Island, City Island, the Rockaways, the kinds of blue-collar places where most of the first responders came from, too. This was one of the many ways in which the event couldn’t help but bring memories of 9/11 to mind. The first major symbol of the storm was the collapse of the crane atop One57, the very well-hyped 90-story tower that was poised to be the most expensive residential building in the city, with a $90 million penthouse. Comeuppance perhaps, but the omens were mixed. The generators at NYU’s hospital flooded and failed, leaving doctors and nurses to carry patients down the stairs in near darkness; but the Goldman Sachs tower was a supernatural beacon of light in the midst of the storm. Who did they have to pay? was the obvious thought. When power was restored, Manhattan got it first, leaving many of the city’s suburbs in the cold. And yet most of Kings County woke up after the storm to full power, and Internet and cell-phone service, where lower Manhattan would be dark for days, which was just another reminder of Brooklyn’s ascendancy.

For those without power, the days after Sandy were a strange interregnum, a kind of shadow life. It turned out that what we were waiting for right before the storm was … waiting, which was its own special kind of suffering. It was the calm after the storm, and calm is not why New Yorkers live here. Without electricity, the whole point of New York seemed to fray, then disappear. New Yorkers live with the illusion that you can do anything in the world that you might possibly want to do, even if in fact you may pass out on your couch. For the abruptly powerless, this faith was shaken—if a cup of coffee was a struggle, what else could you aspire to?

And the absence of phones and Internet further cut our ties. In New York, many of us live partly vicariously. We’re image processors, symbol manipulators. Things that happen elsewhere are evaluated and reworked and sent back out. After the gusts, there was a sense of airlessness, which was the absence of information. Cell phones drained to 45 percent, then 37, then 8, a metric that augured the end of connection itself. “It’s almost like you’re dead,” said a downtowner. “The people are trying to contact you, but you’re beyond all that now.”

With nowhere to go, the pace slowed down. Downtown was populated by walkers in groups of two to three, ambling like hayseeds—or extras in The Walking Dead—looking for an open deli, of which there were only a few, to be browsed in the dark with a flashlight. Suddenly, downtown was not the place to be.

Because life was going on elsewhere. Uptown, they had lights and cell phones and coffee and web service and delis and restaurants. They could live like New Yorkers, like human beings. Rumors filtered down from this paradise, rubbing it in. But making the trek uptown could be disappointing.

The borderland is not the most appealing of neighborhoods in the best of circumstances. But at the dividing line between darkness and light, residents of SoPo (newly coined, for South of Power) engaged in a hellish 10 a.m. scramble for coffee and bagels, or queued up in long lines for Korean-deli steam tables, as the morning patrons of Muldoon’s on Third Avenue had their smokes and watched. The most desperate search, of course, was for outlets to charge cell phones. A couple of days in, the always trendy Ace Hotel took pity on these poor refugees and ran power strips onto the sidewalk—attracting a kind of information breadline. In the West Village, people lined up with their phones on the waterfront, trying to catch a signal from New Jersey.

A bit gallingly, downtown’s most foresighted and well-heeled swells had already relocated uptown. Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour, among others, were said to have taken up residence at the Mark; a lot of the younger crowd, led by Emma Watson, were at the Carlyle. Uptown was the new downtown. On Halloween Night, Bemelmans was packed.

Lower Manhattan, rather than the ultimate destination, became a place to go through to get somewhere else, as the enormous traffic jams attested. Downtown was driveover country. At night, it seemed to be a natural landscape, a dark canyonland, gorgeous and lonely. As in all New York disasters, New Yorkers weren’t strangers anymore. Out surveying the damage with flashlights, people stopped to talk in tones of hushed amazement. Neighbors needed food and news. Just as with 9/11, the community of New York, always present, was brought into the open.

In some ways, Sandy confirmed our communitarian values, underlining the importance of a government that makes a point of helping out—and that global warming was a problem to be dealt with. (Chris Christie even precipitously switched presidential-candidate best friends.) But no New Yorker can stay a sentimentalist too long. It didn’t take much time before the complaints and bickering began, and everything turned darker as the real misery became more apparent. The death toll kept rising as searchers pushed into the worst-hit areas—it stood at 100 people as of Friday—and some lost everything, over 100 houses in Breezy Point alone. And the city was not exactly overwhelmed with rescue workers and Red Cross trucks. Fury mounted with every hour that electricity and heat and food failed to arrive. In Alphabet City, in Red Hook, out in Staten Island, there were people who needed to fill buckets from hydrants, or scrounge from Dumpsters. By the end of the week, it was clear who was suffering and who had been merely inconvenienced. The news from the outer-boroughs was especially grim; people were fighting over gasoline; scenes from The Road.

The images of water pouring into subways and banks, cars submerged on Avenue A, escalators that needed to be ridden with scuba equipment, brought to mind an apocalypse of a specific kind, another lost city—Atlantis. Was this what New York could become?

It’s hard to remember, a decade after 9/11, how fragile downtown seemed then, and how long it struggled. But one of the many differences between that event and this one is that, for all the struggle, no one doubted for a moment in the months after 9/11 that New York was at the center of the world, which was a consolation, reinforcing the amour-propre that is a city hallmark. Out-of-towners were solicitous for years afterward. Whereas by Thursday of last week, Los Angelenos were already complaining about not getting their calls returned.

One of the ways to look at a natural disaster is as a test, a challenge to be met, and by these measures, New York City was succeeding. By week’s end, normalcy was being returned—if not yet those L.A. phone calls. The arguing over the marathon was a healthy sign: not could we, but should we? The world should have such troubles.

But for hundreds of years, the harbor had given New York its power. In less than 24 hours, it took it away. As we are reminded more and more often these days, it doesn’t take long to turn everything on its head.

From Our Hurricane Sandy Special Issue
The Story Behind the Cover Photo and More Images From Iwan Baan’s Helicopter Shoot
A Portfolio: What We Saw When the Lights Went Off
Chris Christie’s Come-to-Jesus Moment
Waiting for Electricity on the Lower East Side
Goldman Sachs Has the Power
A Political Storm
How the City Could Live With the Sea Rather Than Fighting It
Inside the NYU Langone Medical Center Evacuation
Breezy Point, Trapped Between the Hurricane and the Flames
Foul-Weather Friends: Bloomberg and Cuomo, Bonded in Crisis
The Flooding of Art and Commerce
Adam Platt’s Search for Food in a Storm
A Do-It-Yourself Sandy Response in an Isolated Corner of Brooklyn
As Sandy Loomed, the Publishing Industry Panicked
A Deli That Never Closed
Thinking About the Future in the Darkness
A Letter From the Editor
Click Here for Continuing Coverage on Daily Intel

The City and the Storm