Superstorm Sandy – seven days in a divided city
Our man Nikhil Kumar chronicles the sounds and sights of an apocalyptic week in Manhattan
Nikhil Kumar is The Independent's New York correspondent. He was formerly assistant editor on the foreign desk and has also done a variety of jobs on the city desk, where he wrote about markets, commodities and other business and economics topics.
Sunday 04 November 2012
The warnings add up as the weekend closes. New York Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey's Chris Christie issue them, and even President Obama breaks way from the campaign trail to notify Americans that Sandy is a "big storm". "We have to take this seriously," Obama says during a visit to the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hunker down is becoming the cliché du jour. And many are. By mid-afternoon, a hardware store off New York's Union Square has run out of flashlights. Minutes away, the queue at a local supermarket snakes round multiple isles before reaching the bank of tills. Bottled water appears to be on everyone's list, and more than a few weigh down their baskets with soup and instant noodles.
But this isn't panic, not yet. Everyone's being cautious. Monday might be a write-off but we'll be back to normal – back to work, back at school, back on the subway, which shut down tonight – on Tuesday. Thus goes the common refrain. Why stock up, then? Oh, it's just in case...
As New York sleeps, Sandy speeds up. Morning forecasts presage an ocean-going, full-scale, "life-threatening" weather demon. Lower Manhattan's pavements clear to let it pass. In certain parts, you can cross entire blocks without encountering more than a handful of people. In case you think you've misread that last sentence, that's whole blocks. In New York City. On a Monday morning. Traffic has thinned right out. As the rain gathers pace, scores of shops and restaurants close early. Some have never opened at all.
In the afternoon, the President reappears with another warning. This time he's speaking from the White House in proper commander-in-chief mode. "Do not delay. Don't pause," he says, imploring the millions along the north-eastern coast – the most densely populated corridor in the country – to evacuate when the order comes. And yet, there is no sign of trouble in New York, so far. And then night falls.
The storm crashes ashore in southern New Jersey at about 8pm. An hour or so before, someone rings about a damaged crane near Central Park. Have you heard? Knocked sideways by howling winds; one-half is dangling dozens of storeys above ground. And, sure enough, there it is on the news, thinly visible through a haze of rain, threatening to come down any minute.
About half an hour later, with the wind and the rain beating against the windows, the lights go out. Via phone message, word comes of an explosion down by 14th Street. A transformer has blown as floodwaters from the East River sweep into Manhattan. Sandy has arrived. Indoors on the third floor of a building that rises up on 6th between Washington and Waverley, all you can hear is the howling wind and the sound made by pellets of rain striking the window panes. Later, urgent sirens – police? fire engines? – blare in the distance. There's nothing to do but turn in.
The lights are still dead – and now the phone (on AT&T) won't work. Attempts to find a signal by going around the block, around to the next block, or the one after that come to naught. But nothing. Nada. No service. The wind has eased, and the rain is becoming lighter. Downed trees and scattered rubbish are on the pavements around lower Manhattan. Traffic lights have gone dark, and the police are out in force. So are the residents. Disoriented, with no power, no mobile phone signal, and little idea of what's going on, they've been out on the pavements since daybreak – at least in the parts of town that aren't flooded.
Travelling uptown brings the phone back to life, and with it accounts of Sandy's devastating impact across the Jersey shore and, nearer to Manhattan, in Queens and Staten Island.
A late-morning visit down to Manhattan's southern tip, in a cab that takes half hour to find, such was the scramble in the absence of the subway. Now I can see some of the severity of the flood, with the entrance to the Battery-Brooklyn tunnel still blocked off. But while there is no power in the West Village, East Village, Chelsea, SoHo, the Lower East Side and other stretches of lower Manhattan, around Battery Park City, where the storm surge was reported to be most pronounced, the lights are still on. Some residents (who have stuck around in defiance of the mayor's evacuation order) say they experienced brief outage. But most seemed to have had power throughout the evening.
After dark on Tuesday, there are two New Yorks: the one with power and the one without any power or mobile phone signal and, in parts, without water. Looking north from downtown, the brightly lit antenna spire of the Empire State Building seems brighter still against the black foreground. In blacked-out parts, shops and restaurants are largely shuttered. The few that manage to reopen – with the aid of generators – are doing a handsome trade.
With the power and phone network still down, the only way to communicate – the only way to get anything done – is to travel north. That means finding a cab or, more likely by Wednesday morning, sharing one. Drivers take three or four fares at a time, such is the demand.
Uptown, the world suddenly comes back to life. It's as if nothing has ever happened. The storm debris has been cleared away; shops are open; restaurants are serving hot food.
The contrast with the public housing blocks on Manhattan's south-eastern edge could not be starker. Over there, only blocks from the East River, in the lower reaches of the East Village, downed trees are still visible on the pavements. There's no power, and for many, no heating or hot water. This is where the transformer gave up; the explosion occurred at a substation on the corner of East 14th and Avenue C, up the road from a row of shops and businesses that had been flooded on Monday night. Cars parked on the surrounding streets were submerged when the river rose up, residents say, and many have been damaged for good. When I visit the area on Wednesday morning, the roads are eerily quiet.
From the trendier SoHo neighbourhood, where the power is also out, comes news of a fire sale at Balthazar, an upmarket French eatery. Steak sandwiches are going for less than half the price as the owners get rid of meat that is doomed to rot in the absence of electricity for the freezers.
The later it gets in the week, the more pronounced are the differences between the lit-up city in the north and the darkness down south. Lower Manhattanites in increasing numbers are pitching up to stay (invited or not) with uptown friends or relatives, leaving downtown feeling bleaker than ever. And if they haven't moved out, people are still having to travel north to charge their phones or purchase hot food. After dusk, vendors appear on the pavements, hawking flashlights in the still-dark streets.
Those who've stayed behind in the darkness are developing an edge by the end of the week. On Wednesday, many people were still sharing cabs with a "we're-in-it-together" camaraderie. But today more than one seems ready to fight, right there on the desolate avenue, for a taxi. But the mood is beginning to lift as the day progresses: power is coming back on. Chelsea, TriBeCa and more. By Saturday, the electricity company promises, New York will be one city again.
Power! The lights came on in the middle of the night, and later, we're told, most city parks are set to reopen. No news on the subway, though. A limited service began earlier in the week – but that was mostly uptown. Downtown stations remain off limits. But at least we have power.
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