Signs of Triviality

Opinions, mostly my own, on the importance of being and other things.
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Sandy and I

Hurricane SandyAbout one full week after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I've finally gotten back into a state approximating civilized life in the 21st century. We have power back since Sunday, heat since last night and even though the water is still turned off every now and then, I was able to take a hot shower with decent pressure at home this morning. At this point, I'm finally free to complain about the lack of Internet, TV and phone service, all of which seemed rather unimportant just a few days ago.

After Irene struck last year, I, like many other New Yorkers, was not overly concerned about the impact of Sandy. With a few candles and flashlights, I thought we'd be well prepared -- my main concern was that a tree might fall on my car (this is what it looked like outside my building the day after Irene). Between Sunday afternoon and Monday, though, the warnings become more urgent -- Sandy was going to be quite a bit bigger than Irene. Despite only little rain throughout the day, around 15:30 on Monday, 2012-10-29, the East River had already flooded Stuyvesant Cove, but I still did not anticipate the water to rise as much as it ultimately did.

That night, we lost power around 20:30, in the middle of dinner after we had put the kids to bed as usual. We got out a few candles and were hopeful to get the power back the next day. Even though the winds were blowing strongly, it didn't feel or sound as bad as Irene had. Looking out the window facing East along 20th street, I noticed some water about a block away, but didn't think much of it. Turns out, that was the East River saying hello:

Flooding on Ave C and
20th street

This picture -- taken near the entrance into the loop into Stuyvesant Town, looking south west from the north side of 20th street at Avenue C -- pretty much sums up the effect of Sandy on Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village: most buildings were flooded and almost all buildings along Avenue C and 20th street suffered extensive damage. Our building (431 East 20th street) was fortunately far enough west to not have had the basement flooded, unlike the building right next to us. We were also lucky to have just moved into this building this year -- up until May, we used to live right on Avenue C:

Map of 20th street near Avenue C

As it turns out, my old building was one of those with the most damage in all of Peter Cooper Village. The building got power back today, but is not expected to get heat and hot water back for another 5 days, and gas not within two weeks! (PCV/ST has done a pretty good job of keeping tenants informed on this page as well as via emails and flyers, with details about each building listed and updated regularly.) I was also lucky to not have parked my car in any of the garages in Stuyvesant Town: most garages were flooded with well over 5 feet of water; most cars parked in those garages are total losses. When I took a walk to take a look at my car on Tuesday, I found that the foot compartments contained about 5 inches of East River. I took a small bucket and scooped out the water, and to my surprise, the car actually started (expelling some more East River from its exhaust pipe). Of course it now smells rather funky and who knows how much it will cost to get cleaned/dried/inspected/fixed, but again, Glück im Unglück. Others were not so lucky:

damaged car

Anyway, so on Tuesday morning we woke up with no power and no idea for how long we would be without. With no radio, no TV, no internet access and only very spotty and unreliable cell phone reception, I set out to find some batteries to get at least our radio working (see above re considering myself well prepared with Babka alone). Now in New York City, going out into a neighborhood that is completely without power is not actually a futile endeavor. Once you've maneuvered around the occasional tree, you notice that several of the usual breakfast places are actually open. In the dark or by candle light, people were making coffee, delis and breakfast shops were making eggs, and New Yorkers happily stood in line (in the dark):

tree in the East Village people in line
for breakfast

...and yes, I was able to buy some batteries in a random store. "We're having a special sale!" is what the person behind the counter excitedly assured me. Special sale, indeed.

candles in bottlesWith the newly powered radio, we now felt already quite civilized and in touch with the rest of the world, and the initial announcements about the time until power would be restored seemed not too bad: "Two to three days." We took a walk in direction of where power was rumored to be available (north of 40th street), but ultimately turned around at 34th street after getting a slice of pizza from a place with no power but a wood burning oven. Back at home, with plenty of Ikea candles (and, thanks to my beer drinking habit an ample supply of candle holders), we kept our apartment well lit, and since gas was working (in our building, anyway), we were even able to cook at night.

On Wednesday, Halloween, we then took our smelly car and drove to my wife's sister in Brooklyn, who had power, heat, hot water and internet -- all the things we desired. The kids were able to have a Halloween party and even go Trick-Or-Treating, while we took hot showers, went shopping for (non-perishable) groceries and charged our cell phones. The drive back from Brooklyn into Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge and up the FDR drive was surreal: the bridges were lit exactly half-way, lower Manhattan was dark and you could only see lights in midtown:

Manhattan in the dark

The next day, Thursday, November 1st, limited bus service had been restored, and so we tried to take a bus uptown into civilization. Unfortunately, all buses were too crowded to get on, but we were lucky to catch a cab. Crossing 40th street was weird, since all of a sudden life around us was again entirely normal. After having recharged our devices, enjoyed free internet access and let the kids hang out and read some books at the New York Public Library, my mission was to find some ice: without power, our refrigerator had warmed up and the contents of our freezer started to thaw as well.

plastic bags hanging from a window Bags of ice were sold out everywhere uptown we checked, but fortunately Con Edison was giving out dry ice on Union Square, where there was also a public cell phone charging station. The single bag of dry ice lasted us another 18 hours, and we started to get creative in order to keep food cool: we packed a few things into plastic bags and hung them out the window. This way, the weather turning colder actually worked in our favor. Except, of course, for the fact that we still did not have heat or hot water (and were of course still without electricity). The next day (Friday)'s mission was to find a space heater, more ice, and get the kids a hot bath, so we once again took our increasingly stinky car over to Brooklyn. When we returned, the East Village had gotten power back, and as we got out of the car, the first building in Stuyvesant Town (ie south of 20th street) also turned up.

Later that night I noticed that we had power in half of our apartment: the bedrooms, bathrooms and the refrigerator had power, but not the rest of the apartment. This sounds pretty weird, but apparently there were a number of other people in Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town who were in the same situation. Either way, we were pretty psyched to have our fridge working again.

With power having been restored to the East Village, the next morning meant we could get some fresh bagels, eggs and bacon and all sorts of wonderful things, so Saturday started out pretty well. In the middle of the night from Saturday to Sunday, we finally get all electricity back, but woke up to the water having being turned off. It has been on/off every morning since then, presumably while work is being done on the water pumps over night. On Sunday, we got hot water back and felt pretty awesome about that, too. The space heater we had bought on Friday did a great job at keeping the kids' room warm over night, but we were happy to get heat back late on Sunday evening.

So, all in all, we were without power from Monday night until Sunday. During that time, there were two media that kept me informed: public radio and Twitter. These two remained my near exclusive sources of updates, both from government officials as well as from local instant communities.

We've also been without hot water until Sunday late afternoon, and now without water in the mornings. Most of the contents of the refrigerator and freezer had to be tossed (which gave me a good opportunity to clean it), but all in all we faired pretty well, despite staying in our apartment (many other families we know in Stuyvesant Town or Peter Cooper village had left their apartments for hotels or to stay with friends). We were lucky to have moved into this building and not have stayed in the old one, and we were again fortunate to live on the second floor and not depend on the elevator during the power outage; friends who live on the 34th floor in Waterside Plaza were much worse off, for example!

And once again, as was the case after after 9/11, the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the re-election of Bush in 2004 (yes, I do count that among the many and severe disasters), or Hurricane Irene last year, I'm impressed by the way in which New York takes the punch. Being able to get your coffee and eggs on a roll the next day is as much relief as it is to see communities pop up everywhere, neighbors going door to door to ensure everybody is fine and even to see that life simply (if, perhaps, oddly from your own point of view) goes on in other parts of town, as it will when you get back to normal and start to forget that (for most of us) whatever you're doing is really not quite that important.

November 6th, 2012

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