Picture Glenda Moore. A 39-year-old mother, she instinctively set out to protect her two small boys as the lights went out when hurricane Sandy struck – and the floods seeped into their Staten Island home.
Or maybe the 50-something George Dresch, who figured he could sit out the storm with his wife and daughter, at home on the same exposed flank of the island – in New York Harbour and facing the open Atlantic.
Or perhaps their fellow islander, Leonard Montalto, 53, who shooed his daughter to safety as the flood level rose, insisting he must stay back to be sure the basement pump continued to work.
In opting to flee or remain, each wrote a little-people drama which, collectively, are more within human comprehension than is the big-picture destruction of the hurricane’s assault on the north-east corner of the US this week.
Moore’s SUV stalled on a flooded seaside road. Opting to make a run for it, she clutched two-year-old Brandon in one arm; and with the other, she dragged Connor, 4. But she stumbled, losing her grip and both boys disappeared in what, by then, had become a “raging tide”.
The flood dumped her in a flooded marsh, from which she emerged to spend two hours going door to door, pleading with neighbours to help her find the boys – but none would, she told local police.
Dresch and his 13-year-old daughter, Angela, disappeared when a catastrophic wave ripped apart their home in Oakwood. Several kilometres away in Tottenville, but still on the island, Montalto sounded confident as he watched the pump and uttered what would be his last word to his 24-year-old daughter. In a mobile phone conversation, he told her: “The water’s rushing in – it’s a good thing you got out.”
The bodies of the Moore boys were found on Thursday in a swamp. The body of the Dresch girl was found a block away from the splintered wreckage of their home on Tuesday; that of her father was recovered several streets away on Wednesday. A search of Montalto’s flooded basement by police divers failed to turn up his body, but it was recovered after neighbours punched a hole in the wall, which allowed the water to drain away.
These painful stories about the dead are swamped in accounts of the struggle by the living in the days after the hurricane.
New York certainly came to a shrieking halt – its subway system was flooded; all buses were off the roads; the bridges and tunnels that moor Manhattan to the rest of America were closed; power and communications were lost for millions; hospitals were evacuated when back-up power failed; and supermarket shelves were stripped bare. But for all the attention lavished on New York City this week, the real recovery crisis was across the Hudson River where, as late as Thursday, 20,000 people still were stranded in flooded homes and 6000 evacuees hunkered in emergency shelters in major centres such as Hoboken and Jersey City – amid rising fears of a public health crisis.
After making landfall on the New Jersey coast late on Monday, hurricane Sandy ran amok, bringing this prosperous north-east corner of the US to its knees – more than 90 people died, 38 of them in New York, as eight-plus million lost electricity and public transport was strangled in a frenzy of meteorological violence priced at almost $50 billion.
That estimate is huge, but comparatively it represents less than half the cost of the terrorist attacks of September 21, 2001; or Katrina, the hurricane that killed almost 2000 people as it barrelled into New Orleans and the south-east in 2005.
Moody’s Analytics economists attributed about $20 billion of the price tag to business lost by restaurants, casinos and airlines.
The other $30-odd billion would go to repairs on homes and property. Think of it as nature’s economic stimulus, the immediate impact of which was to push up the price of shares in hardware and materials suppliers Home Depot and Lowe’s in Wednesday’s resumption of trading on Wall Street.
Millions of homes in up to a dozen states are still without power and might have to survive another week or more without lifts, lights, heating, mobile phone service, Wi-Fi, refrigeration and hot showers.
In New York, water is in short supply – and being hauled on foot to the old and infirm in city high-rises. Ditto petrol, with long queues forming at service stations, especially in New Jersey. Emergency kitchens were being set up in New York to feed those unable to fend for themselves and sentinel columns of portable toilets adorn the forecourt of some apartment complexes.
By Wednesday, airports had partially reopened. Local public transport in New York in particular, remained affected – prompting authorities to insist on at least three people in cars entering Manhattan.
In a display of the pragmatism for which New Yorkers are renowned, the clientele of Manhattan’s downtown restaurants, still without power and struggling to get supplies, simply moved to unaffected uptown eateries – where maître-d’s report a boom in business.
But if local and federal authorities wanted affirmation that they were seen to be doing the best they could to restore services, then it came late on Thursday when the only bone of contention on the news radar was the wisdom of a decision by organisers of Sunday’s New York City Marathon to go ahead with the event which is expected to draw a field of more than 40,000 and traditionally pulls as many as a million spectators.
Of all the states, New Jersey seemed to suffer most, with its waterside cities and hamlets taking a special hammering.
After losing electricity as Sandy blew through, authorities decided on Thursday that they also must cut the gas supply lines to the barrier islands along the Jersey Shore, because of the risk of fire and explosions in thousands of damaged and destroyed seaside homes.
Atlantic City’s dozen casinos remain closed, pending the restoration of power and potable water supplies. Thousands of utility workers from 12 other states were pouring in to help in the recovery.
Politics is never far from a crisis even when, as happened in the US this week, President Barack Obama and his republican challenger Mitt Romney declared that campaigning for Tuesday’s election had to be put aside. But there were “oohs” among the political chattering classes when the New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, a staunch Republican who might have been Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, effectively endorsed the Democrat Obama with his effusive praise for the President’s handling of the emergency response to Sandy.
And on Thursday, there were “ahs”, and even gasps when the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a self-described independent and a vocal critic of both Obama and Romney, declared that he must stand with Obama because in the aftermath of the hurricane, the poll needed to be perceived as who was the better candidate to tackle global climate change.
In the wall-to-wall media discourse on what Americans are learning about themselves and their society this week, a standout voice was that of an émigré Russian driver in New York’s Coney Island. On emerging after the storm, he was horrified to find his livelihood – his limousine – in waist-deep water and facing the opposite direction to that in which he had parked it the previous evening. Scoffing at how coddled Americans were, he chortled that growing up in Russia made him ready for anything. Then he marvelled at something very German, which indicated that his horror had been misplaced – turns out his Mercedes-Benz was floating because its door seals were so perfect, not a drop of water had seeped in. Boris was still in business.
But as New York struggles to get back to business, there is less to marvel at. Behind the high-tech dazzle and glitz of Times Square, the city’s infrastructure – physical and ethereal – was revealed as a carelessly fragile construct.
Some elements indeed may be as clever as the Mercedes-Benz door seals, but as the self-styled capital of the world, the Big Apple failed under pressure.
Radley Horton, a climate scientist and an adviser to New York City, discerns a teachable moment. Amid rising sea levels and temperatures and accelerated melting of the Arctic ice, he argues that Sandy’s ferocity has thrust the city’s ability to cope into unprecedented territory.
Ironically, he argued that New York had been preparing for such a storm – “but the impacts were on an extreme scale, and that’s very challenging to prepare for.”
Predicting a time-consuming recovery before there might be any detailed attention to preventive measures, Horton itemises a massive to-do list – pump out subway tunnels before electrical transit equipment can be tested and replaced; fix electrical distribution stations which were inundated; deal with the buildings in which electrical equipment is located in basements; and address the surprising vulnerability of coastal communities to fire.
Did someone say Haiti?
Haiti is not exactly a suburb of New York. But almost twice as many Haitians as New Yorkers died and more than 200,000 of their homes were destroyed or damaged as hurricane Sandy spun her wheels in the Caribbean last week before heading north. The tiny island with a population of just a few more than New York was still reeling from a 2010 earthquake that killed 316,000, injured 300,000 and left one-million-plus homeless.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.