Squeezed into little pockets of time before sleep each night, I recently read yet another Michael Tougias book, because I cannot get enough of his stories of rescue at sea. This one hits a little closer to home than most. It’s called Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy. It’s about the tall ship Bounty, a replica of the HMS Bounty (used in a film), which sank during the storm after her captain decided to leave safe harbor and take his chances on the open seas, feeling the ship would fare better trying to skirt the storm than pummeled ashore.
I lived through Sandy, and while we were more fortunate than most – tree damage and considerable inconvenience was the worst of it for us – members of my family lost their home and had to be rescued by National Guardsmen. Another lost her rental property (and therefore the rental income). And others unrelated to me lost more – their homes still are in ruin as funding for reconstruction never came through; businesses (and livelihoods) were wiped out entirely; and lives were lost. Including two on the Bounty when she went to her watery grave at 33°54′N 73°50′W, the graveyard of the Atlantic.
Monday, October 29th: Landfall
Sifting through old YouTube videos I came across one I took during the day when the storm hit our state. It was nothing compared to how bad it would get that night, when the majority of the damage was done. During daylight the trees trembled mightily, the rain fell hard and the lake outside was churned to a state I’d never seen it in before. Even with relatively small fetch in this area of the lake, the waves grew to tremendous heights and crashed mercilessly against the shore. Docks and sea walls were pounded to bits.
I took the video from inside the shelter of my parents’ bedroom, looking out at the mounting chaos outside, with my then 10-month old son on my hip. We were in good spirits. At one point, he belched, and we laughed merrily.
As the day wore on I wondered when we would lose power. It was no longer a question of if. I work from home and need to keep up a daily pace or I fall too far behind. Parenting full time while working is a challenge and the scheduling is tricky. I kept my electronic devices charged and hoped for the best. Surprisingly, we kept power well into the night, finally falling into total darkness around 9pm. By that point, we could see half the town was without power as well. Entire stretches of shoreline were engulfed in blackness. The wind howled, and we used kerosene hurricane lamps and a battery powered radio and kept warm by the fire. The weather report promised the worst was yet to come.
By that point I had turned on and tuned in my police radio and was listening to frantic dispatchers and police activity throughout the county. It was looking pretty grim. A fire truck barreled down our street and pulled into my neighbor’s driveway. Firemen got out and searched our back yard with flashlights. I can only assume they were looking for downed wires, because they were everywhere. Our street was littered with them, across the road, across yards and snaking through the forest.
When I could take no more of the eerie buzz of police activity on my scanner, I turned it off and took my son to bed. My bedroom then faced directly into the wind, and I was afraid the windows would blow out, or a tree limb would crash through. It wasn’t a long distance between the windows and where we slept. I gated both sides of the bed with extra long safety rails and kept my son on the side of the bed furthest from the windows sheltered by my own body, just in case. As it was nearly Halloween, I’d decorated the room with battery powered multicolor LED ghosts in long strings, which were now the only source of light, like some kind of deranged disco.
Early Morning Hours, October 30th: Sandy Arrives
It sounded like a jet engine was sitting right outside my room, and it did not abate, it went on all night. The long, long, long night, when I slept in fits and starts, punctuated by hours of wakefulness in the roaring wind and the cold. I took a book to bed, a compendium of Stephen King’s short stories. As the wind punished my world I read The Mist. Perhaps not the greatest of choices.
Whenever I woke I’d check the clock to see what time it was, because the meteorologists had promised the worst would be over by 2am or so. 2am, 3am, 4am, the winds blew. Finally I fell into deep enough sleep, or the winds lessened enough to allow me to sleep, until daylight. And when we woke, we woke into a world that was dim as twilight.
Soon I was an old hand at changing diapers by lamplight and spoon feeding my son in the bleak grayness. There was no sun, as with the previous two days, and candles or flashlights were required to navigate the house and use the pitch black bathrooms. Because the house runs entirely on electric, we lost the ability to cook, to draw water from the well (bathtubs had been filled the previous night while power remained, as well as every pitcher in the house filled with drinking water, and buckets prepped for toilet flushing – which could be refilled from the lake), to see and to keep ourselves warm. The fire crackled non-stop in the fireplace and our only entertainment was a radio station we could pick up on an AM frequency I’d never used before, which played 70s rock interspersed with emergency announcements and e-mails from listeners who were selling generators for much, much more than their retail value. But everybody wanted one. Outside, the few on our street who had them polluted the air with the constant hum of gas-powered machinery. (A serious gas shortage then followed as people required fuel to run their generators. It became impossible to find stations that still had gas very soon after the storm passed, which made running automobiles difficult, too. Gas lines were immense.)
From the radio I learned shelters had been set up throughout the area for people to go keep warm and town water supplies had been made available to the many of us with wells. A college with power and operational plumbing opened its locker rooms to the public so they could take showers.
My police scanner lost charge and I no longer cared. My phone, however, was precious, and I kept it powered off most of the time. I powered it on only to check emails periodically, and even that was dicey, because as the hours drew on the cell towers themselves were running out of battery power and dying. I went from 4G to 3G to whatever it is that we used to use in the olden days.
No Power, Just Chaos
The afternoon of the 30th I bundled my son and myself and set out for a walk along our street. I wanted to see firsthand the aftermath of such a powerful storm. At the end of our street, trees had fallen entirely across the main thoroughfare through town, taking power lines with them. No traffic could exit the town that way, except through a detour eventually set up along our road. However, our road was blocked off for a significant amount of time, because wires were downed in nearly every other property, and trees lay strewn about the street. Everyone had to stay where they were for the time being.
We cooked on a tiny gas powered range designed for extended camping. I don’t remember what we ate, but it was likely soup, or boiled hot dogs. We were painfully aware that both fridges and freezers, stocked with food, including expensive organic produce for my son’s meals, would soon thaw and everything would be lost. Discovering that my parents’ store 25 miles away actually had power, my sister and step-father filled coolers and cool storage bags with the food we valued most and shuttled it down to the refrigerator there.
The hours dragged on. It was so quiet, I couldn’t stand it. The power company had no earthly idea when they’d sort out the mess. The infrastructure was painfully outdated; this was a disaster waiting to happen, and it finally had. Contract power and light employees from all over the country drove to our area to help restore electricity and marveled at how bad northern New Jersey’s power infrastructure really was. School was canceled, and canceled and canceled, until parents went stir crazy with their bored children and worried that they would get no vacation days since they were rapidly being consumed by the darkness of Sandy.
It’s amazing how incredibly dull a world with no sun, no sound (apart from the whine of generators) and nothing of our modern comforts and entertainment can be. After the second night I declared I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to get to a place where we could have heat and electricity, running faucets and functional plumbing. I couldn’t keep on with a 10 month old baby I couldn’t properly bathe and supplemental bottles (supplementing my breastmilk) I couldn’t reliably warm. I asked to move residence, temporarily, to the back rooms of my parents’ store, which was laid out in several rooms of goods open to the public and then several rooms of stock storage and furniture for taking breaks in the back. There was a refrigerator and a microwave. There were toilets and sinks (but no showers or tubs). There was electricity for my netbook and phone so I could work. There was wireless Internet. It was like the promised land.
Eight-Day Exile in Storage
Halloween was postponed in most towns, canceled in some. My son’s first Halloween – for which he was to be dressed up as a lobster – would have to wait. Meanwhile we settled into our temporary life as refugees carving out tiny corners of comfort where we could. I pushed two chairs together and slept sitting up with my legs on one and the rest of me on the other, and my son in my arms. Upstairs, we made a makeshift changing table, where we also sponge bathed him daily. For naps, we slept together on an air mattress in a vacated office (which my parents occupied at night). My sister slept on another air mattress tucked between a wall display of porcelain gifts and a tree festooned with glass ornaments.
We made a makeshift changing table on an unused display shelf and enjoyed light, heat and warm water for sponge baths. Every few days one of my mom’s employees kindly loaned us use of her apartment to do laundry and to take proper showers and baths. We ate a lot of takeaway. But it was bliss compared to the depressing darkness at home.
People at my work marveled about the fact that I was living in a break room in the back of a shop, sleeping on a chair, but it was alright. I’d had two days of the alternative and had no desire to trade places. We were fortunate and looked for ways that we could help those who weren’t so lucky, like sending diapers and other necessities to shelters down south.
At one point my mother went to the grocery store to buy some fried chicken. As she waited in line, the woman behind her struck up conversation about the storm. Mom revealed that we were living in a store, which astonished the woman. When my mother mentioned we also had a 10 month old baby in company, the woman burst into tears and begged us to come have dinner at her home. A total stranger. It was a touching invitation but we declined. But, it exemplified the guilt and helplessness that most of us felt when it came to those who’d lost so much more. The people who had power felt guilty about it and wanted to shelter those of us who did not. Those of us who had no power but still had houses felt guilty about it and wanted to reach out to those who no longer had anything. It was an odd phenomenon, layers of guilt and charity, glued together by humanity.
Finally the town where my parents’ store is located rescheduled Halloween, several days after the holiday, and about a thousand people, mostly costumed children, took to the streets to trick-or-treat at local stores. I dressed my son in his costume and took him up in his stroller. Because he was too young for candy, we draped a bag of candy over the side of his stroller and wrote on it, “I give candy”. We invited passing children to take candy from the bag. It was infinitely more fun than going door to door asking for it.
Two dear, long-time friends of the family had electricity in their nearby stately, comfortable home. They implored us to come stay with them and finally, gathering all our belongings like gypsies, we did. The last days of our Sandy-imposed exile were spent in complete luxury. We watched the presidential election from a large flat-screen TV with cable. (My vote, incidentally, was not counted; our largely Republican county allowed those of us who’d been displaced by the storm to vote via fax, but of the three votes we sent that way, only the Republicans’ were acknowledged…my Independent vote was ignored.) Elijah and I slept on high thread count sheets in a spacious king sized bed with comfort topper and a fluffy down duvet. We bathed in a jacuzzi tub. We were fed incredibly delicious, hearty home-cooked meals.
On the 11th day we returned to our home when power was restored (confirmed by calling our land line, which is cable-powered, so when there’s no electricity it does not work). The toilets smelled worse than outhouses and the place took a while to warm up, but we were home. It felt odd. Across town, people were still without power. My grandmother’s came back on the 12th day. It was over 2 weeks for more remote sections of town to light up again.
The whole thing seems like a dream, and knowing how much worse it could have been – and that we had places to go – makes me feel very lucky indeed.
- 117 people in the United States died, 34 in New Jersey. At least 2 in my county.
- As a hurricane and post-tropical cyclone, Sandy broke three records (lowest barometric pressure, highest surge at Battery Park and highest surf in New York Harbor).
- On November 1st 4,800,000 million people were still without power, in 15 states. The total rose to 8,100,000.
- On November 3rd 12 counties in NJ began gas rationing, which lasted 15 days.
- By November 7th the Red Cross had raised almost $103,000,000 in Sandy relief donations. FEMA approved $403,000,000 in relief. A further $385,000,000 in housing assistance was also available.
- Also on November 7th, a nor’easter hit our already vulnerable area. We made it through that storm fine, too. Again, we were lucky.
- On November 28th, NJ’s governor estimated the damages from Sandy to be appx. $36,000,000,000. About 3,000,000 in New Jersey were still without power.
- An estimated $25,000,000,000 in business revenue was lost.
- Sandy was estimated to be the second-costliest hurricane, after Hurricane Katrina.
- More Sandy facts from CNN and from TIME.
Writing this post, I still feel that odd combination of good fortune and guilt. I feel like I barely have a right to tell my Sandy story, when the stories of so many others were much worse. So I hope you will forgive me the indulgence of describing what life was like for the two weeks following the storm. My experience was trivial compared to others, but it was difficult in its own ways, involved sacrifices and will certainly never be forgotten.
And Michael Tougias’s book is well worth a read.