Hurricane Sandy: Ever wondered what it’ll be like when the money and oil run out?

Hurricane Sandy has shown New York a glimpse of life without water or power - and it's split the city in two.
  • @PhilipHensher

The explosion came at the height of the storm.

Afterwards, we had the impression that it might have been a bolt of lightning. But we had no idea what it was. And immediately, the flat was plunged into darkness. We went cautiously to the six-foot windows that were flexing in and out with the roaring gust. Around us and below, Manhattan’s lights were extinguished as far as we could see in one direction, for six blocks northwards. We had been warned that, in the course of Hurricane Sandy, the power might be turned off by Con Edison, the electric company, as a precaution.

We’d taken precautions of our own. We’d bought candles, stocked up with food, filled the bathtub with water – with no power, you can’t pump water up 29 storeys. The building manager had said that the outage would last maybe 18 hours, 24 hours. That seemed long, but possible to cope with – until two o’clock, eight o’clock on Tuesday.

Let’s stay put and wait for the lifts to come back on.

The lessons of the next couple of days were of what we rely on, and never think about. Without power, and only bottled water, some things that you just expect to be there were abruptly gone; others were attainable with Bear Grylls-type effort. The first thing – “Oh, no coffee,” Zav said when we woke up the next day. We hadn’t thought to get in some instant coffee. The next thing? “Oh, no bath,” I said. Efforts with flannel, kettle and bucket followed which you don’t want to know about. I gave silent thanks for the luck that had landed us with a gas hob. There was hot water to be had, at least.

Then, as we looked out at the quiet, dark landscape of the city after the storm, the next automatic urge. I wanted to know what was happening. But how? No television, no radio, no access to the internet apart from what we could get on the mobile phone.

I phoned friends in New York and some others elsewhere – they told us what they knew. Everything below 39th street was in darkness. No, they didn’t know when the power was back. We learnt what the flash of lightning had been – a sub-station suffering an explosion.

That didn’t sound good. We had food, anyway. We’d got back from Washington DC late on Sunday night, and had stocked up as best we could –with a pile of takeaways from a Bangladeshi restaurant on Lexington Avenue. It would be curry for lunch, for dinner, and for the foreseeable future, alternating with salad. It’s amazing how little you fancy salad when you’ve no heat or light in your flat.

We lasted two days. The bathtub water was coming to an end; the food was going to run out in the next two meals, three with a bit of caution. The batteries on all the mobiles, English and American, were going to run out, and then we’d have no means of communicating whatsoever. We really didn’t know what was happening outside, but there were lights uptown. We did the plutocratic thing: we got a friend to book us a room in a hotel at Columbus Circle, and on Wednesday moved out, walking down 29 floors in pitch dark.

The street that we’d observed from high up was eerie, once reached. Everything was closed and dark. The traffic inched forward at junctions, with no traffic lights; the few people out on foot hovered on the pavements, nervously. A bus went by – at least they were back – filled to the gunwales.

New York, we discovered, had become a city of two halves. It didn’t correspond to any known economic divide – billionaires are as likely to live in downtown TriBeCa and movie stars in SoHo as in the old-money Upper East Side these days. The city had just been arbitrarily divided in two by the power cut. Below 39th street, the only shops were flashlit bodegas. A fishmonger in Chinatown was selling his stock for a dollar a fish, even gigantic carp. People scurried along, lit by the headlights of parked police cars, if that.

We were fortunate, I suppose, in being able to afford to move to a hotel in upper Manhattan – lucky, too, in having a friend who was able to find a room there, since shortly afterwards, there wasn’t a room to be had for love or money in the whole upper island. The hotel we moved to saw its chance, and was charging us $400 a night, rising to $600 for the Friday night.

There were comedy deprivations, even in upper Manhattan, where the only annoyance seemed to be the traffic, and the closed-down streets around a crane which hung, dangling, far above 57th Street. “It’s done nothing – nothing – for days, that crane,” a friend remarked. “Boring! Boring!” They had electricity and hot water, mostly, but not everything made it. “We’ve got no raw bar today,” the waiter in the steakhouse said. “No French fries – I know, guys – and no mussels, roast chicken.” Around us people were making the strangest meals; the people next to us dining off chocolate cake and a side of garlic Brussels sprouts.

“When things get back to normal…” friends were saying longingly by Thursday. No hunching round electricity supplies on 40th Street, charging your mobiles in the company of strangers – a modern campfire, someone said. No heating up your water on the gas, or washing in the cold water you’d saved days ago. No working out what food would see you out until tomorrow, and what was going to need an enormous hike; just a phone call, like normal, to the delivery boy who’d be up in 40 minutes. If the power comes back on Saturday, as it’s predicted to do for us, things will get back to normal quickly; for many others, it’s not going to happen for weeks.

Normal. Actually, it seems for these few days as if we were brutally returned to human normality, and the delicious fripperies of civilisation were removed, and we were left with what was necessary. The delicious fripperies were there, uptown, if you threw enough money at them. But next time? When the money runs out, or the oil, or fossil fuels altogether?

When normality returns? It felt, in bleak moods, not like a return to the past, but a glimpse of a future of hoarding, communication through chance encounters, uncertain failures. And a chaos which might be only a very few hours away.

Twitter: @PhilipHensher