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Disaster Response: A New Yorker Reflects on Sandy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Downtown Manhattan: Pedal power but no electricity in the days after Sandy. Credit: Christine Gorman/Scientific American

Evolutionary psychologists tell us it’s human nature to search for lessons from the skies. Here is what I think Hurricane Sandy is saying to the U.S.: If you don’t hang together, you will hang separately.

I feel undeservedly lucky to be in a part of New York City that has power and water in Sandy’s aftermath. I am also thankful that I paid attention to the meteorological forecasters and stocked up on food and water ahead of storm.

Because I have power and Internet but Scientific American’s offices do not, I have been working from home on one of the articles that will appear in an upcoming issue—provided we can send the magazine to the printer on time. (For more on Scientific American’s situation, here’s a podcast.) But I keep losing my focus. My mind keeps wandering to the people who are without lights, heat or water just a few blocks south of me on the island of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison, our power company, says it will be able to restore electricity downtown later today. Other areas on ConEd’s grid may have to wait as long as November 11 to have service restored.

On Tuesday, the day after the storm, I walked from midtown to downtown to see for myself what conditions were like around our office building at 75 Varick. Along the way, I passed by a utility station and spoke with a Consolidated Edison employee there who was tending to a hose that was pumping out water into the street. He asked me whether the subways were running and I reported that several of the tunnels had been flooded and that they didn’t know when the system would be back up. (The subway started limited service two days later, on Thursday). When I realized he hadn’t heard much about what had happened, I gave him a quick recap. “I’ve learned more useful information from you in the past 10 minutes than in the last two days,” he said as I turned to continue my walk.

As I walked through Clinton Cove (West 55th and the Hudson), I snapped photos of the line of leaves that marked how high the water had reached. Then I looked at the photo and thought—who would be impressed by a bunch of leaves on green grass? The waterline didn’t look like much unless you understood the context.

That thought reminded me of my grandmother—my dad’s mother—who grew up in rural Missouri and as a married woman lived on a farm in a floodplain. I remember her telling me when I was a child that she feared floods more than fires and I was so surprised. “Why would you be more afraid of water than of fire?” I asked her. “You can run out of a burning building,” she told me, “but a flood surrounds you.” Later, when I lived through a flood during my college years in Houston, I had a more visceral understanding of what she meant.

By the time I reached SA’s offices, my legs were getting tired. I hadn’t taken my bicycle because I didn’t know what condition the bike paths would be in. I would have been fine, but now I was committed to being on foot.

The locked and darkened lobby looked dry but there was no power as far as I could see in any windows. One or two emergency exit lights on a high floor were lit—powered by batteries?—but that was it.

Spoke with two maintenance men coming out of one of the shuttered loading bays of the building. They said they had been up all night during the storm, had even ventured out to clear the drains in the street with their hands. They were in a hurry to get home, find out what the situation was like there.

All the traffic lights were out, of course, but drivers were approaching each intersection cautiously. (I had walked down along the Hudson River so as not to have to navigate too many intersections.)

Spoke with one woman and her boyfriend who had walked down 32 flights of stairs and were heading uptown to stay with friends who had power. Indeed, nearly everyone I saw on the streets was young and able-bodied.

In the days since Hurricane Sandy came ashore, we have seen devastating pictures and heard heart-rending stories, stories that, by definition, have been told primarily by the lucky ones—the ones who are alive, who have contact with the outside world.

But we have not heard much from the elderly and infirm who may be stuck in high-rise buildings or cutoff neighborhoods. Those stories will start to trickle out in the next few days. Indeed, a few of them already have begun: the off-duty policeman who died while getting his family to safety, the child who was swept out of his mother’s arms by the water.

I remember the pattern from another disaster that befell New York City 11 years ago—the September 11, 2001 terror attack, a disaster that in retrospect was much more limited geographically, although it took so many more lives. We heard the stories of the survivors first, the ones who had been late to work or managed to get out, before we learned about the people who had gone in early or returned to their office before the second plane hit.

There is another theme that is developing in this aftermath of this storm as well:  the parallel stories of officially organized rescue and recovery efforts—on the part of firefighters, emergency medical personnel, police, local, state and federal government officials—and the self-organized rescue and recovery efforts—on the part of neighbors, strangers, civic organizations, faith groups and businesses.

It takes time to get the big, official rescue and recovery organized and moving, which is why disaster preparedness plans always emphasize that people should have at least three to four days supply of water, food and medicines on hand in case of emergency. In the past two days, I read about the heroic efforts of the Visiting Nurse Service to continue serving homebound patients throughout New York City and the ad-hoc efforts of friends, neighbors and strangers to canvass a public housing project in downtown Manhattan.

Both the formal official response and the ad-hoc civilian response are saving lives during this recovery. (Indeed, the voluntary efforts of so-called “emergent groups” is a growing area of disaster-planning research.) President Barack Obama and Governor Chris Christie have been photographed together on the devastated New Jersey shore. Why does it take a disaster to teach us all to pull together? How long until we go back to bickering, to ignoring the imperatives of living, as Zorba the Greek referred to it in the movie by the same name, in “the full catastrophe” of life?

And now, back to work.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Azuaron 7:54 pm 11/2/2012

    My wife works for a utility company (the company has territory in NY state, but we live elsewhere), and she’s volunteering to be shipped to Long Island for the next week to help with the recovery efforts.

    I’d like to take this comment to say that utility workers are there to help. The companies hire people from all over the US and Canada to have enough people to get the electricity and gas back up within a reasonable amount of time. Further, “reasonable” has priorities (like hospitals and sewage plants) that come way before residential areas.

    Finally, I’d really like to stress that the people actually out there in the field are just trying to help you. You wouldn’t scream at a firefighter who’s putting out the fire in your home, why would you scream at the utility worker who’s trying to restore your electricity? The more you let them do their job (or, better yet, help them do their job by calmly providing relevant information), the faster everyone’s power and gas will get back on. The more you impede their job, the slower everyone’s power will get back on.

    Because of possible attacks against utility employees, the National Guard assigns soldiers to protect every utility employee. Isn’t that ridiculous? The National Guard has to waste personnel protecting people whose job it is to help the recovery efforts because disaster victims would otherwise attack them.

    Link to this

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