The hurricane seasons of ’04 and ’05 were, in climate lingo, “active” for anyone situated at the time between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. I know because I was there, living in southeastern Florida, wondering what we’d all done to deserve so much sea-borne wrath.
But the six storms to reach us then — Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Katrina, and Wilma — were the last major weather events I experienced as a resident of Fort Lauderdale. Except for the usual watchful anxiety of June-December, the region went basically untouched after Wilma. Florida’s next calamity was man-made and economic. I left the state in October 2010 to look for new work, figuring I’d seen my last angry tropical air mass.
I was, after all, moving to New York City.
On Tuesday afternoon I was in lower Manhattan, trying not to think about that shortsighted prediction. Better to focus on the unlit stairwell to my mother’s 16th-floor apartment. I had lived through blackouts, boiled water, gas shortages, and the general disorientation that goes with life in a hurricane belt. But seven years past Wilma and 1,000 miles north, Sandy posed a new worry — the well-being of immediate family.
My personal exposure to the storm’s destructive potential was modest: I was a two-and-a-half-hour drive inland, at a relative’s house in Pennsylvania, where Sandy had struck with diminished force. I had power, water, and a full tank of gas in my car. I drove back into the city the morning after landfall without difficulty. Few people were trying to get into New York at that point.
Parts of the next 36 hours would be spent loaning wheels and whatever “expertise” on coping I possessed as a former Floridian. I went up and down a lot of nearly invisible steps — once using a glow stick, given to me by a doorman, to light the way. In the end, my situation was manageable, if not negligible. For a few people I know and millions I don’t, Sandy is proving much worse.
The Northeast has taken some tropical uppercuts over the centuries, but not many, and none like this. Irene last year did serious damage to parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It never invited comparisons to national traumas such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina — and we can debate the utility and rightness of these analogies.
Suffice it to say that for a lot of Northeasterners, Sandy is an introduction to compound miseries that Floridians know too well: destroyed homes, loss of life, dislocation, powerlessness, and maddening shortages.
The city proper is handling this unaccustomed strain of crisis. Subways and buses — New York’s circulatory system — are running again on a limited basis. A strained patience is mostly holding among the motorists who seethe in traffic jams and gas-station lines. Power is coming back fitfully, although Consolidated Edison, the local utility, is already under fire and can look forward to months of criticism and official inquiry.
The cancellation of Sunday’s New York City Marathon, while belated, prevents a rotten juxtaposition: resources being expended on a foot race while disaster recovery lurches forward and the dead — numbering in the dozens so far — are still being counted.
New York is not re-experiencing terrorism and mass murder, or living through the wall-to-wall horrors that Katrina visited on New Orleans residents, for whom there seemed to be literally no escape. But there are pockets of hell for people who haven’t been through hurricanes before, and probably for some who have.
Midland Beach on Staten Island, inundated, and Breezy Point in Queens, razed by fire, are suffering terribly. Just beyond the city, Long Island is a major concern: Wounded, cut-off stretches of populous oceanfront have received virtually no assistance.
Looking at pictures of New Jersey and its ruined shorelines, I worry that Sandy is to the Garden State what Hurricane Andrew was to Gold Coast Florida in 1992 — a natural disaster promising a slow recovery and scars.
As I said, I’m not a hardship case. Nor was my briefly stranded mother. The lights, elevators, cable TV, and land-line telecom in her building had gone out, followed by the plumbing. My task was to get there with coffee and bottled water, then pack up and help navigate the murky stairwell.
We drove north on Tuesday to a family friend’s apartment in Harlem, where the electricity was on. As we passed through several blocks of blanked-out traffic signals and gradually back into a functioning grid, we both felt a familiar kind of vertigo: Sandy had mimicked some of 9/11’s disjointing effect on Manhattan.
But only in passing. As an act of happenstance, not warfare, a hurricane leaves more room for people to be OK with normalcy where they find it. On Wednesday, while a blacked out and waterlogged Greenwich Village was foregoing its annual Halloween parade, I saw kids in full costume being chaperoned around Harlem. We’re living in a patchwork of differing, weather-related outcomes, and will be for a long time.
I’m less worried about the city than its neighbors. New York’s history is replete with shocks. (My mother spent the blackout of 1965 trapped in a subway train.) A hurricane is one more to be absorbed.
By Thursday afternoon I was back in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where the sometimes eerie quiet is a feature, not a bug, of the surroundings. My mother got electricity back in her building on Friday night, and was home on Saturday, waiting only for the heat and hot water to return.