Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy farewell

Monday, 29 October 2012

On Monday morning New York City is closed down. I’m staying at home as my office, like most others, has been forced shut. Without transportation it would anyway be impossible to get to Manhattan. It doesn’t look too bad outside, though. It’s grey and the rain is falling, but it all looks rather calm. The wind comes in gusts that violently shake the trees outside. Some leaves have already turned yellow and are flying off like wet rags.

By noon the situation is starting to look more serious. According to the reports, the storm has been moving faster than anticipated and therefore has arrived earlier than expected. Its power has intensified. There’s by now no doubt this’ll be the worst storm to hit New York since the 1938 hurricane. The TV shows images from Atlantic City, NJ. The famous boardwalk and the casinos are being pounded by heavy winds and the waves from the open ocean are splashing forcefully onto the shore. I remember my brother has a vacation property on the Brigantine Island not far from Atlantic City. I also remember it faces the ocean. There’s only the sandy beach and a narrow street between the building and the Atlantic. In good weather, the location is lovely.

I correspond with my colleague Chona who lives in New Jersey. She is lamenting the pictures of her beloved Jersey Shore being eaten up by the waves. The TV meteorologist explains how New York City is squeezed in between New Jersey and Long Island, which means that in an Atlantic storm situation like today, the water has only one way to go: inland towards the city via the inlets. Therefore, the storm surge forecast for New York harbour is grim.

The most threatening situation starts unfolding in mid-afternoon on the west side of Manhattan. A crane on a high-rise construction site on the 7th Avenue at 57th Street has collapsed and is hanging upside-down at the height of the 90th floor above the city. There is no way to stabilize it, so it’ll be pure luck if it stays up and doesn’t fly smashing into neighbouring buildings and onto the street.

Around 4 pm Governor Andrew Cuomo holds another press conference flanked by NYFD and other emergency personnel. A troop of National Guardsmen dressed in camouflage uniforms stands guard behind them. There is a life-threatening situation on Fire Island, a thin barrier island off Long Island. Fourteen people who refused to obey the mandatory evacuation order last night had to be rescued today. Having spent some good summer vacation time on the island, I can’t even imagine anyone wanting to face a hurricane on that thin sliver of sand in the Atlantic. In the process a rescue vehicle has been lost. Luckily there were no personnel losses. Cuomo quotes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who accused people who refused to leave of being selfish, putting others at peril. The emergency chief tells in no uncertain terms that the window to evacuate is rapidly closing. Sandy is now expected to make landfall around 18:00, which will coincide with the peak of the tide coming in. When that happens, it won’t be possible to get out of the islands that surround New York City.

I also correspond with my other colleague Indran who lives high up in one of the high-rises on the East River waterfront in Manhattan. It is Zone A, but the building complex is very solid and the water would anyway never reach that high up, so he had chosen not to evacuate. He and his family moved here from South Africa only earlier this year. They are awed by the storm which they can observe through rattling windows from a vantage point tens of stories above sea level.

Our building is faring well, too. We stay in our warm apartment and enjoy the food we stocked up on before the storm: steaks and asparagus for lunch, followed by coffee ice cream; grilled chicken and salad for dinner. Do we normally eat this well? Nowa sleeps through much of her first hurricane. I go down to the basement, which looks dry—so far. 

Around the time of the landfall, I venture out briefly to snap these photographs. From the balcony the southwestern sky looks menacing. On the street side, the large trees are bending with the gale force winds. Luckily, the rain remains surprisingly moderate.

In early evening, the communications start to falter. The cable network on which our building depends on for the Internet, TV and telephone landline goes dark. The elevator also becomes unsafe to use. We’re cut off from information and communications. Well almost, as Yoko’s iPhone can still send and receive messages (my older model went blank). Some neighbours in the building report water leaking from their a/c vents. Apparently, water is also starting to gather in the basement.

Around 21:30, Yoko reads on the iPhone that Sandy is no longer a hurricane. The National Hurricane Centre has reclassified it because it “has continued to lose tropical characteristics”—no wonder at these latitudes. It doesn’t mean that its power is waning. Sustained winds of more than 120 km per hour remain. The wind and rain continue late into the night.

Tuesday, 30 October

We survived the storm with minor personal inconvenience. In the morning the winds are still high and there are heavy showers. At the JFK airport, top wind speeds recorded were 127 kph. Our cable service is restored and we never experienced a power outage. Not everyone was equally lucky. The storm left some 7 million people in 11 states and the District of Columbia without power. In New York, power outages are widespread and currently 1.8 million people are without power. In the New York University Langone Medical Centre even the back-up generator system failed. Some 260 patients, including four newborn babies, had to be evacuated.

ConEdison, the power utility, made a statement that this is the biggest storm-related problem in the company’s history. A representative couldn’t give a timetable for fixing the problems but suggested it may take a week to fully restore the service. It's going to be a cold and dark week for those affected. 

The initial reports by the police talk about seven Sandy-related deaths in the city, but there is no information about how these happened. The national death toll from Sandy is currently put at 16. According to news reports, more than 80 homes have burned down to the ground in a fire in Breezy Point, Queens, due to electric fires. One can imagine insurance companies studying the hurricane causes in the policies for loopholes to avoid payment to the home owners. A building in Chelsea collapsed partially because of the wind. The crane in Midtown West is still hanging there, but the situation remains dangerous and the police have evacuated buildings in the neighbourhood.

There is massive flooding around the city. The National Hurricane Centre recorded storm surges of up to 3.8 metres in Kings Point. The storm surge in southern Manhattan’s Battery at 4.3 metres, was the highest ever on record, beating that caused by Hurricane Dana in 1960. In the South Street Seaport waves with a height of 9 metres were measured. Residents on Staten Island report that they have never seen anything like this. Coney Island waterfront is still inaccessible even to eager reporters. Streets look like rivers with cars floating on them. Cars have been crushed under felled trees. One car spontaneously combusted in a fireball, possibly caused by salt water getting into its battery. A huge tanker has washed ashore on Staten Island.

Reports are coming in and are being updated as more information becomes available. The economic impact has not yet been assessed.

The system-wide shutdown of mass transit—both local and long distance trains, subways, buses, ferries—continues. Seven subway tunnels are severely flooded. One can only imagine the hordes of rats sprinting across the debris in the deluge. Apparently MTA had managed to get all subway cars on higher ground in anticipation of the storm, so the trains have been spared damage. MTA calculates it’ll take four days to pump out the water from the tunnels. The rain continues to fall.

It seems that we’ll spend some more time indoors.

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