I met Sandy head-on on an unusually dark afternoon October 29, 2012. The Friday before I had hopped onto a Megabus ride from NYC to the great Boston, Mass. to meet up with friends at MIT celebrating a birthday in that town. The weekend had been lovely, full of pumpkin beer, fall bike rides along the water, and plenty of laughter with close friends. I had heard whispers about the hurricane, but wasn’t concerned enough to research the weather phenom until I was minutes away from boarding my return bus ride. The woman responsible of boarding ticket holders was filling empty seats for the 3:00 bus with those who had later departure times. This change in policy, she informed us, was caused by the safety concerns presented by an approaching hurricane. My ticket was for the 3:30 bus, so I had to step to the side and allow the others to pass by at first. I took this opportunity to learn whatever I could using my handy-dandy Blackberry phone. As most iPhone and Android users will undoubtedly expect, I learned very little. Nonetheless, I was beginning to get worried, and what’s more, my phone battery was getting low.
While on the bus I learned that NJ Transit was closing that evening. This knowledge gem meant that I had no way of leaving NYC that evening and would have to find a place to crash. “OK,” I thought, “no problem. I’ll just call my buddy and he’ll surely let me use his couch. Then I’ll just go home tomorrow afternoon when the trains are put back into operation.” Laughable in hindsight, but seemed totally logical at the time given my sparse information. I called up my buddy and he told me that the subways were closed, so I better just get a taxi to his place. I’m still terrible at flagging down those yellow cars, but I managed to get to his place in one piece. That evening was pleasantly laid-back and relaxed as we watched the football game and talked about how all the hype about the storm is probably misplaced given our experience with Irene the year before. My experience was rather dramatic for reasons unrelated to the danger presented by the storm, but he had been living in the city at the time and recalled that storm damage was minimal. And that’s how my Sunday Oct. 28 ended, pleasant conversation and football. I wasn’t all that worried any more now that I had had a chance to go online. My mother was still hysterical, though — but let’s be honest, no surprises there. 😛
I woke up the next morning to eggs prepared for me and weather news on the television. Every journalist, politician, and weatherman seemed to think Sandy should be taken seriously. It reminded me of the advice a woman from Philly gave me to always err on the side of caution when it comes to these sorts of storms. Needless to say, I started to worry again. I calmly began researching ways to get home. The fact that I didn’t own a car was making getting home and out of Manhattan quite difficult. After requesting the advice of my mother, I began calling my Jersey friends with cars hoping that they’d be willing to come pick me up. Mom convinced me that it wouldn’t hurt to ask and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about it. So I managed to get a hold of one of these guys. I had clearly woken him up, which immediately made me feel guilty. He’s a sweet person though, so he didn’t make me feel bad about it. He said he’d be willing to help me out if I could find a way for him to get there. He was under the impression that all the bridges were closed. You can imagine the roller-coaster of emotions I was going through for the duration of our conversation. First utter elation at the prospect of being safe in the comfort of my home, followed by feelings of defeat and loss of control. I kept an eye out for mentions of bridges to NJ on the news while going online to the official sites. Finally I learned that the bridges wouldn’t be closed before 2pm, while others would remain open until winds had reached a certain threshold. “Awesome!” — call up friend — “Bridge is open. Come soon!” — “Will do.” — “Sweet!”.
Now that I had found a way out of the danger zone, I was able to relax again. My friend and his roommate and roommate’s girlfriend and I started watching the 2004 apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow, which was quite appropriate given the situation. The windows started rattling in their penthouse apartment as the winds began picking up speed outside and the disasters began increasing in severity within the movie. A few minutes into the film, my ride was 5 minutes away and I sadly had to leave the party in NYC. I can say now that I would have enjoyed staying in the city a bit longer much more than going home that afternoon, but then I might not have gotten the opportunity to take advantage of kindnesses later that week. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
While I was waiting outside on Broadway just a block north of Houston, I was shocked at how empty the normally bustling road was mid-day on a Sunday. No taxis or traffic filling the road. No shoppers filling the sidewalks. Just locked store fronts and a forest worth of orange leaves blowing every-which-way. My buddy soon arrived and we had one hour to get over that bridge into the Jerz. Not a problem, given that there was an eerie lack of traffic. I couldn’t help compare the movie I had just left to the environment around me and get seriously creeped out.
It was lightly drizzling when we left the city. By the time we had arrived at the train stop to pick up my bike, it was raining pretty hard. I didn’t check the state of my bike, just disassembled it and threw it into his trunk. A few minutes later, we were at my garage. He helped me throw my stuff into the garage, and we said our goodbyes and good lucks. He was off to help another friend who needed a place to crash. Some people were already seeing flooding in their basements and needing to evacuate in and around the city.
But I was safe and my bike was in one piece (or three). And I was home again. I don’t remember what I did once I got home, but I’m sure it had something to do with eating and watching T.V. on Hulu+. Then around 6 or 8 pm my lights went out. I turned all the switches off, shutdown all my devices to conserve battery, and got myself a water bottle out of the fridge which was pitifully lacking food. I wasn’t very concerned because I had psychologically prepared myself for the the fact that I would lose my power. I had a headlamp which I had bought over the summer while visiting a friend in Pennsylvania where we had gone camping and cave exploring. At the time I was only trying to be like the others in my group, but now that I had lost my power, I was feeling pretty good about the purchase.
I milled about my apartment with my headlamp on for a while until I lost interest and fell asleep. Tuesday morning the sunrise woke me up. I called into work to see if the office was open — another day off. Chances were everyone would have the week off. I used the day to explore the damage while on my bike. My suburb’s center, or equivalent to a downtown, was completely out of power and all stores were closed. The Starbucks even had caution tape keeping people from getting close to their door. The neighborhood south of me was covered in fallen tree branches making it impossible to drive. Cones in the road indicated fallen live power lines. Trees completely uprooted was a common sight on lawns across my area. I saw a handful of trees which had fallen into homes or power lines, and more confused people than I could count dutifully cleaning up their property to the extent that they could. I didn’t see any trucks from the power company, which didn’t surprise me, but apparently frustrated quite a few. The town south of me reminded me of an otherwise completely unique experience visiting my maternal grandfather’s boyhood town in Wyoming. This town was on the order of an hour off of the highway and anything close to a major road. It had a sign noting it’s population of hundreds of citizens. The main road was lined with dilapidated buildings gathering dust from years of minimal use. The town in NJ was similarly empty and all the stores were closed, signs marking the lack of power covering many a door. Almost no one was out on the road, and even fewer were driving. The largest group of people I came across were part of a clean up crew and those in the grocery store.
The local grocery store had rented out a trailer-sized generator and was open for operation. Only the lights needed to see were turned on and all the produce was covered with cellophane to keep the cold air in. The shelves were mostly cleared of all dry food and bottled water. I felt a bit like I was in the Twilight Zone. Walking through that store was just so odd. I didn’t need anything from there, so I simply returned home.
Through my exploration I had discovered a general sense of mass confusion among the residents and a clear understanding that the damage from the winds was extremely widespread. As a result, I quickly posted online that I needed a place to stay with power hoping that at least one of my friends would have a connection I could take advantage of, then promptly turned off my phone. I had a sense that it would be at least a week before the area returned to “normal” and I hated the idea of being stuck at home alone. I didn’t want to waste battery waiting for a response, so I didn’t turn on my phone again until the next morning.
By Wednesday morning I had begun getting used to living without power. I had a routine of sleeping when the sun went down and rising just before it came up. I stayed warm next to my gas stove which I lit with my drawer full of matches (Holla if you’s a pyro!). My diet barely changed: oatmeal, tea, hot chocolate, soup, toast, noodles. Turns out it’s really easy to feed yourself using a stove top and just-add-water packets. During the day I read technical papers I had been wanting to read and my copy of this month’s IEEE Spectrum magazine. I managed to keep myself busy and fed, and didn’t have to worry about broken toilets or cold showers. Just as I was settling into my power-less new life style a la Sandy, I checked my phone to see if anyone had responded to my request for power. As luck would have it, a friend I met through a few mutual friends and had only recently gotten to know very well had a place for me. His parents live in the town East of me only a few minutes away and hadn’t lost power because their lines are underground. They had space for me and he would come pick me up. After a few texts back and forth, we planned for him to come to my place that evening. Night fell, and I started to worry that he hadn’t gotten my message. Cell phone coverage was spotty and I had been turning my phone on and off all day. By this point, I had drained all the power from my laptop and tablet for the benefit of my phone. I couldn’t spare to waste any more battery, so I decided to unlock my door so he could wake me when he arrived. I turned out the fire, blew out my candle, and fell asleep on my new couch.
An hour or so later, my friend showed up with his father. They had crazy stories about traffic in NYC and gas lines. Gas pumps were closed, and those that were open had limited supplies. Gas lines were hours long and no one was guaranteed to leave with gas as a result of how long the lines were. If your patience didn’t force you to leave the line, then the supply might be dried up before you got to it. Traffic in the city was nothing short of chaos with traffic lights out and taxis disregarding any semblance of traffic laws. My friend had spent six hours in the car driving to an from Manhattan and Brooklyn. He had dropped his father off in Manhattan and had to pick up his things from his apartment in Brooklyn in preparation for moving to San Francisco in the coming days. I was grateful he was willing to take a detour to come pick me up after all that driving and frustration.
We drove around looking for gas to no avail and finally arrived at his family home. Upon entering I found a warm home full of life. There was a young family with a baby staying with them as a result of the storm. Two of my friend’s siblings and his mother were also there. We walked into lively conversation in the kitchen where everyone was gathered. After being introduced, I enjoyed observing the new people around me and how they interacted. My friend’s mother was especially interesting. She was constantly wanting to take care of and feed everyone. She made me feel extremely comfortable. His father observed the conversation more than take part in it, but he was extremely kind as well. I also especially enjoyed seeing my friend interact with his youngest sibling. It gave me an opportunity to see a completely different side of his, which was quite endearing. I find that meeting a person’s family often provides a shortcut into their mind. It explains so much and develops their character in such a clear way separate from my own interactions with them, making it possible for the two to reinforce (or not) each other, which I find very cool and informative. But I digress.
We had dinner, and great conversation late into the night. His mother is a wonderful cook which made falling asleep an unusually simple task. However before closing my eyes, I took advantage of the new found electricity to charge my devices and check my mail using my work computer. All was well at work, the computer network I needed access to would be live the next day, and I had a charge number for this week. No problem, man.
Thursday morning I checked my personal mail and social feed, took a shower, and headed to the kitchen where breakfast was waiting. I was living like a queen in the midst of a disaster. How blessed I felt! Thank you Lord for watching over me! And thank you for my wonderful friends!During breakfast my buddy asked if I wanted to join him on a road trip to our college town. His company was sending him to do some interviews there and he managed to find the last car for rent in NJ. In other words, he offered me a free vacation to visit old friends from college and escape a disaster zone where people were stressing over lack of power, lack of gasoline, and broken infrastructure. I clearly could not refuse. An additional perk was that I have truly interesting conversations with him, so I was looking forward to the drive as well, not just the destination.
I tried to do work from their house that day, but the network at the office wasn’t working consistently. Eventually it came time to leave, and off we went. Eight hours later, around 11pm, we arrived to our final destination. We were staying in an apartment complex turned into a hotel, so our two bedroom suite was complete with a full living room, dining room, kitchen, and bath. Not bad! It was in one of my favorite neighborhoods in town and only a short walk from coffee and bagels. I was so happy to be out of the suburbs! It didn’t take long for us to find our beds and rest our eyes.
Friday morning my friend went into work and I did my thing at the hotel. I did as much work as I could remotely and then began organizing people to meet up with that night. I somehow managed to see a majority of the people I knew were still in town. I had lunch with one, dinner with another, and drinks with three others. I met my friend’s final sibling that night as well. Altogether a good day, and the weather cooperated as well!
My memory of Saturday has since become one with that of the day before, so let’s pretend Sunday follows Friday.
Sunday morning I got my friend and myself some breakfast. He isn’t any good at feeding himself, which isn’t surprising when you see his thin build, and he seemed to appreciate the thought. We got some supplies for his family, and three red cartons of gasoline, and were on our way back to the disaster zone.
I had been in contact with work since I now had access to electricity and the internet, so I wanted to check if I had power before going to his family’s house. His mother had made dinner for us, so I would join them for the meal regardless of what I found at home. To my good fortune, power had been returned to my apartment! I had endured only two and a half days without power, met a wonderful group of people, and gotten a free vacation to visit college friends. I was living a charmed life, indeed. Again, I couldn’t help but feel extremely blessed.
I joined my friend and his family for dinner and much too soon found myself saying goodbyes to them all. I consumed as much news as I could on the storm and its effect across NJ once I returned home. I couldn’t believe what I saw. My area was barely effected, but some people closer to the shore had to deal with flooding, lack of working toilets, and so much more. Just a couple weeks before the storm hit, I was in Atlantic City on the boardwalk lounging outside at a cafe with friends between gambling and going to bars. And on Sunday Nov. 4 I saw pictures of the exact same boardwalk covered in ocean and swept away. Things like that just make a girl think.
Even now, four weeks after the storm hit, there are still some suffering from the effects of the hurricane and subsequent snow storm. But overall, NJ has bounced back. If you want to contribute to the relief effort, you can donate to the Red Cross here: http://www.redcross.org/hurricane-sandy.