After the storm: New York pulls together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy

Four days after Hurricane Sandy struck, many parts of New York are still without power, but a striking sense of community is keeping residents warm

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Four days after Hurricane Sandy struck the city, parts of downtown New York were still without electricity, phones or water. A not so invisible line, clearly demarcated by the absence of street and traffic lights, ran along 23rd Street in Manhattan and has all but divided the city into two separate post-Sandy worlds. Crossing it is a surreal experience.

It was almost entirely silent but the scene screamed “apocalypse”. Avenues and small side streets were still littered with debris, broken umbrellas and entire trees, and nearly deserted. Subway stations were sealed off with police tape, many of them still flooded and some likely to be inoperable for weeks. Shops and bars were shuttered, some barricaded by sandbags. It reminded me of every zombie movie I had ever seen.

Apart from a few fallen trees and rising water levels from the Hudson River, the Upper West Side, where I live, was spared. Bathtub filled, candles lit and with food for weeks in the cupboards, we gasped every time the lights flickered. Having seen the viral video of the ghastly explosion of a transformer downtown and received confirmation of the subsequent blackout from several less fortunate friends, we expected the worst, but our electricity stayed on all night.

About a hundred blocks south of us, most households lost electricity around 8.30pm on Monday night as the storm caused the flooding of 13 000 volt underground feeders. Union Square was filled with countless blue and white, neatly lined up ConEdison trucks. Hector Balaguer, 54, a senior fuel operator who has worked with the company for 31 years, is part of the crisis team and is scheduled for 16-hour shifts until the end of the week. Until then he sleeps in his trailer. “I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to,” he said, “And even if I could, I don’t know if I still have a house.” He arrived in New York from his home in Pennsylvania on Sunday morning but said he severely underestimated the storm.

So did most New Yorkers, many referring to hurricane Irene of last year that failed to live up to the hype. Despite the serious warnings ahead of Sandy’s arrival, many did not take it seriously. “We never thought it was gonna be this bad,” said Vincent Paul Boyle, 44, strategically located on the corner of Broome Street and Avenue of Americas to pick up the extremely limited 3G signal, “We were joking about it right until the power came off.”

The impacts of the blackout have profoundly changed the neighbourhood. In the surrounding streets the significantly lighter traffic flowed at a very different rhythm as drivers adapted to the absence of red lights. Some people walked several miles to cafes, banks and churches to charge various electronic devices. Many residents compared the scenario to a warzone, while others drew parallels to the aftermath of 2001’s terror attacks. The prospect of what is now estimated to be a longer power cut has caused an exodus to other parts of the city. Meanwhile uptown, most traces of the storm had been cleared away within a day or two.

“Wow, I’m so not physically prepared for Armageddon,” said Cristina Borenstein, 45, who lives alone on the 22nd floor of a 16th street building, struggling down the candlelit stairs with a pink backpack and a large paper bag filled with food. She saw the transformer explode on Monday night, describing it as a “huge spotlight coming over the building for five full seconds.” Fifteen minutes later the power, and eventually the water, failed. After hearing that the blackout would last at least until the weekend, Borenstein decided to evacuate, but she said she had been impressed by the prevailing calm and solidarity in the neighbourhood; “This is what New Yorkers do best.”

“You start to appreciate the small things now. The ones you always took for granted,” said Michael Velez, 38, who has worked for the building for ten years. His face lit by two yellow glowsticks placed on the desk, Velez described the residents as his “second family” and came from his home in the Bronx early Tuesday morning to make sure everyone was all right. He walked twenty-two flights of stairs with an injured knee to provide older residents with water. “That’s the story really, the loyalty of the staff,” said resident Julia Heit, sitting in the lobby with a large, light brown and seemingly nervous pitbull on her lap. “They have been phenomenal.”

Craig Bero, the owner of Cosmopolitan Café in Tribeca, operates one of the few restaurants that have remained open despite the lack of electricity and supplies. Accompanied by Sixto Rodrigues, 47, who cooks eggs and pancakes in candlelight over a gas stove in a corner, Bero has served free food, coffee and tea to the neighbourhood residents since the blackout began. As he talked he poured coffee for a line of people that reached the door. Lela Chapman, 31, who operates a greenmarket nearby, entered to deliver new paper cups. The sense of camaraderie was striking.

“This is why we do it,” Bero explained. He paused for a minute to show dusty, faded photos of 9/11 taken just outside the small café. “We do it for the community.”

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