A Chronicle of New York Disasters

My apologies for the serious lateness of this post, but we’ve had a heck of a month. And by ‘we’ I mean not just me, but New York, and you know…the country. Since I last wrote in, we’ve had an unprecedented natural disaster, an unprecedented national election, a totally (er) precedented national holiday and I’ve had a few random personal doozies thrown in there as well. I could blog ’til I’m blue in the face, but as I sit here with Fleetwood’s “Landslide” coming through the speakers and my bamboo and green tea writing candle burning away (trying not to salivate as I anticipate the mac n’ cheese and beer that my husband is about to hand me), instead I’ll focus on some things that Sandy got me thinking about. Hurricane Sandy, that is.

I listened to my beloved Brian Lehrer of WNYC the other day, as he interviewed a woman named Rebecca Solnit, the author of a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. The book examines crises from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 to Katrina and the intriguing social possibilities that arise out of their ashes. WNYC had already interviewed her when her book came out around three years ago, but it was a good week to do a recap.

Having been a New Yorker on 9/11, during the 2003 blackout and now for Hurricane Sandy, this is a subject I can speak to from personal experience. Not as a sociologist, but as a member of a community that has been mightily tested in the last 11 years.

As I feel like I’ve told many people over the last decade, I was just a year out of college on 9/11, and that morning I was on one of the last subway trains to run from Brooklyn under downtown Manhattan before they were shut down. Streams of people entered (rather than exited) the train, and after catching frazzled bits of conversation, it was clear that the first tower had been hit but no one knew what was happening. By the time I reached my office near Columbus Circle, the second tower had been hit as well. My crazy boss was panicking, and wouldn’t let me leave the office. My mom worked on the Mall in DC, and we thought it had been hit too, so I frantically tried to reach her but no phones were working. After connecting with my mom and dad hours later, I finally left my office against the behest of Crazyboss, and walked through uptown Manhattan to take refuge at my friend’s house. This was the first time I got a taste of what Gotham gets like in a time of chaos and need.

There was a tenderness in every pair of eyes I met. I remember noticing that cars weren’t honking, and people were being patient with each other rather than swearing and bickering. There was an eerie quiet. Restaurants and bars were bustling with people who didn’t know where else to go, and as I passed dining patios, I noticed that everyone was treating their servers kindly, acknowledging that, aside from officials and rescue workers, they may have been the only people still working in the city that day. Strangers were helping each other on the streets, and the elderly and children were being watched over by more than their caretakers. Neighbors who may never have met before that day were mingling on stoops and sharing their homes. There wasn’t a feeling of mourning yet: people were smiling, but the scenes had a faraway feeling, like inside we knew we were all very sad and scared.

The next few weeks continued like this; the anger that New Yorkers normally direct at each other began to boil toward outside forces, and we cherished a rare and special unity. There was an unspoken agreement that we’d been through enough for now, that we would put our petty grievances to rest for once. That the person you might have barked at for taking your parking place or dawdling at the ATM may have just lost a wife, child, mother or brother. Maybe we were making it easier for each other, or maybe we were trying to find something good in the horrific. Sometimes I still wish that feeling had lasted longer, but it didn’t. It dissipated slowly, and eventually receded like Sandy’s tides.

I mentioned the two-day blackout of 2003. While it wasn’t a disaster, it was a crisis, and at first this city which had just been through a major terrorist attack less than two years earlier needed convincing that this wasn’t another one. I was on the subway again. (Thankfully not one of the ones that got stuck in a tunnel.) We’d just pulled into the West 4th Street station, the doors opened and everything went black. There was a momentary  outcry of fear and then we all tried to make our way out together, holding hands as people with lighters or phones led small groups out of the dark. We heard someone fall onto the track and someone else say “Are you okay??” and an affirmative reply as a group struggled to retrieve him. Not long after we emerged into daylight did we get reassurance from those with radios and working phones that this was a simple, yet widespread, power outage. I was in a play at the time, so I walked to the theater and got confirmation that the show was not, in fact, going on. The other players and I walked to someone’s building, where their neighbor was cooking up all the meat in their fridge for a barbecue, and we spent the night on the building’s rooftop eating and singing songs to the acoustic guitars of people who had been strangers hours earlier. I remember walking to another friend’s house the next day, passing restaurants and delis handing out food on the sidewalk. I hadn’t bathed but I didn’t care. The city was having an adventure, and our lives weren’t in danger! We had no choice but to break bread with friends and get creative as we waited, and no one could watch TV or absorb themselves in anything electronic. We were free, and for those 48 hours, we all had a lot of fun together.

Fast forward nine years later, and we are faced with another crisis, but at least this one was natural (albeit the product of climate change) and foreseen to some extent. None of us lay people really expected Sandy to rough us up the way she did, especially after Irene came and left the city last year without the anticipated fuss. But here we were, without trains again, hunkering down or evacuating, and this time we had what we didn’t before…social media. A disaster in the age of Twitter and Facebook is a whole new world. Even if we didn’t feel the community coming together walking down the street (most of us couldn’t easily get to anyone else or were afraid to walk outside with all the warnings of downed power lines) we felt it online. We checked in with each other, we offered up our couches and Aerobeds and we reported our safety or needs to the world. Nearly everyone I know has given away goods or volunteered in some way. With the lengthy outages and transportation breakdowns and gas lines, for a little while we got a taste (again) of what it must feel like to live in a third world nation. And the camaraderie and “in-it-togetherness” was upon us again as we paid attention to our hardest hit brothers and sisters. That feeling is already starting to disappear again; or really, it has. We know that communities around us are still suffering, but if we can’t see it or feel it ourselves, we easily forget. We are busy people, and unless something jolts us out of our everyday routine, we need consistent reminding to take care of each other. It’s not our fault; only unusually good Samaritans always think of others. We’re just otherwise living our lives.

Last story: the other day a Marine colonel came to my office, and my-oh-my, it’s very humbling to be in the presence of someone so decorated. He talked to our board of directors about the programs he runs to assimilate soldiers when they return from tours of duty abroad. He talked of the notion of “service” from a perspective that most of us don’t think about, and gently asserted that it should be considered a value as important as self-preservation.

Between the colonel’s visit, the post-disaster community experience and the recent election, my sense of my own citizenship is all a-flutter. With Obama’s victory, I feel what true service people must feel every day: a deep sense of pride coupled with the realization of how much work there still is to do.

Okay now really the last story: As I walked around Union Square in the days after 9/11, there was a huge path of chalked quotes and drawings that people were contributing to, among candles and little shrines. That was the first time I let myself cry over what had happened, mourning no one in particular. It’s a very bizarre and intense feeling, to deeply mourn people you never knew, but for all I know I was mourning what I knew was the permanent loss of my own safety and comfort.

I bent down, and with my chalk I wrote the Anne Frank quote that I remembered from a friend’s high school yearbook page:  “…I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

The story of Sandy, as told through the lens of my photographer friend,
Nathaniel Johnston. His hurricane gallery can be seen here.

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One Response to A Chronicle of New York Disasters

  1. Pingback: Can’t We All Just…NOT Get Along? For Like a Minute? | greengreengrass

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