A Pax on our Houses – or – Endless Winter

The latest snow-hurricane, storm “Pax” has passed, and we hardly had a moment to breathe here in New York City when another dumping of snow is upon us.

Will Winter ever end?

Normally the weather is not of interest to me as a blog topic, but I know I’m not the only person feeling an abnormal amount of cabin fever right now.

The average high temperatures for our area at this time of year should be around 40 degrees. We haven’t come close to that, it seems, in weeks. Certainly not on average.

And I’m sure we’ve had record amounts of snow this year too.

You’d think with all this time indoors that I’d somehow be more productive, but no. I’m as lethargic as a bear in her den, still waiting for Spring.

Still, as the days click by, the sun stays out just a little bit longer. The sun is setting around 5:30pm, and that sunlight holds a lot of promise for the thaw to come.

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Oh the Humanity – Hurricane Sandy – Part Four

One Hurricane Sandy Story … from Jersey City

PART FOUR

This is the final installment of my Hurricane Sandy story. For those of you who would like to read the whole saga, begin with The Rushing of the Water, Part One; then Days of Darwin, Part Two; Lights Out, Part Three; and this piece Oh the Humanity, Part Four.

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THE NEW NORMAL

A little over a month has passed since super-storm Sandy pummeled her way up the coast and smashed into the New Jersey shore and New York City metro area. For most of the rest of the world, they’ve probably forgotten the devastation that happened here and imagine our lives are back to normal.

They are not.

As of this writing, PATH trains from Jersey City into New York City (9th, 14th, 23rd and 33rd Streets) are not running on the weekends. It was only about 2 weeks ago that the PATH train which runs from Newark to World Trade Center re-opened. In fact, normally the PATH runs until 1am daily, and these days when the PATH is running, it only runs until 10pm. The subway from New York City to Brooklyn (the L train) was closed for at least three weeks, and people essentially had no way to get to work by subway if they lived along that train line.

If you are not from this area, it’s hard to imagine why that’s such an inconvenience. Try to remember, in the NYC metro area, we are talking about 100’s of 1000’s of people using these transit systems daily. Then add in the Christmas visitors who arrive in droves – from all over the world – to see the magic of New York City at the holiday time, take in a Rockettes show, see the tree, and yes, visit family in New Jersey, Brooklyn or elsewhere and you have an ongoing massive mass-transit problem on your hands. (That doesn’t stop the Port Authority from charging you twelve bucks to go through the Holland Tunnel in your car to get to Manhattan though…

I ran into someone today who told me that “the only good thing about having to move was that it went so fast because there wasn’t much to take with him. He and his wife lost nearly everything during the storm.” He gave a half-hearted laugh, which is heart-breaking. He said the worst thing he lost was photographs printed on paper which he cannot replace. He vowed to reach out to his friends during the holidays to ask them to share whatever photos they have as their holiday gifts to him.

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

I’m thinking back now to the days after the storm, and there are vignettes in my mind that stuck with me because of how human and decent they were…

Previously I mentioned how woefully unprepared I was for the storm. I had candles but no matches, for example. I was walking down the street to buy some food, and I stopped at my neighbor’s house. One of my neighbors is an older gentleman and his wife, and his children were there trying to use a hand-held plastic bucket to empty out the four feet of water that had accumulated in the ground floor level of his apartment. I suggested that it was probably dangerous to keep stepping in the water (this was the day after the storm) since we were unsure whether the electric was fully off or not. The man’s daughter had not considered this and stopped what she was doing. Later they did get someone to pump the water out for them.

In the meantime, we talked about how cold it was, and that we had no heat. I mentioned that I had no matches to light my candles, or even to light my stove, and the daughter ran into the house and came back out to hand me handfuls of matches they had gotten in a large box. I only accepted two books from her, telling her I’m sure I wouldn’t need more than that. She assured me they had plenty, and I promised to come back and ask for a few more if I really needed them.

The matches came in handy that night…and for the nights following that while I continued to stay in the apartment:

A group of candles lit during the Hurricane Sandy power outage

A group of candles lit during the Hurricane Sandy power outage

Meanwhile during the day, people emptied the entire contents of their homes and left them at the curb:

Furniture and other belongings left at the curb in Jersey City after the storm

Furniture and other belongings left at the curb in Jersey City after the storm

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The entire contents of an apartment left at the curb

The entire contents of an apartment left at the curb

Finally, the high point of my worst days after the storm was a kind of miraculous moment (for me). I was coming back from having bought a little food and I saw the hair salon near my house that I go to regularly. The door was ajar, and there was a generator outside but it wasn’t running.

I pushed the door open and the owner of the salon was sitting there warming her hands over a candle at the reception desk. The salon was empty. I asked her how she was doing, and she said the generator had stopped running and she wasn’t sure how she was going to get her business back up until electric was restored. She mentioned she hadn’t been flooded, and somehow, she added, they still had some hot water left in their tank. It was 4 days after the storm, so that was surprising.

Rita, I said, it’s been four days since I’ve been able to wash my hair. I don’t have hot water at home, would you mind washing my hair? Of course, she said.

I took off the hat I was wearing and she proceeded to wash my hair. It was an emotional moment because it just felt like all the disastrous, terrible things that had been bottled up inside me were threatening to come spilling out as she rinsed the soap and conditioner off my now clean hair.

She towel dried my hair and apologized because there was no electric so my hair would have to stay wet in the cold, no hair dryers. I was so grateful, I told her, and the lack of hair dryers didn’t matter to me at all.

Just as I put my hat back on my wet hair, the lights in the salon came on. “Oh!” Rita said, surprised. “Oh my god!” she said, again. Then she went rushing around the salon to check all the electric, and unbelievably, the electric for that street had been restored… just at the moment we finished.

We were both so overwhelmed by the simple act of the lights coming back on, we hugged each other. I walked home feeling like I was part of some strange miracle. It was like I had seen a glimpse of what can happen when people are good and kind to one another.

 

Lights Out – Hurricane Sandy – Part Three

One Hurricane Sandy Story … from Jersey City

PART THREE

For those of you who have not read Parts 1 and 2 of my Hurricane Sandy story, you may want to read “The Rushing of the Water” and “Days of Darwin” to provide context. This is the continuation of what happened to me in the days following the storm.

Niagara Falls, In the Basement…

The second day after the storm, I still had no electric, but by then I also realized I had no heat or hot water. During the storm surge four feet of brackish sea water from the Hudson River flowed into my building’s basement…where my main electrical panel, furnace and hot water heater reside.

My neighbors found a guy who had a generator and a pump and he pumped the water from the basement.

This guy was very popular on our block in the days after the storm. Even while he worked on ensuring the hose pumping the water wasn’t filling with debris or mud (the bottom of the basement is a dirt floor) … people kept coming up to him and asking him when he’d be done so could he help them out. The guy was so decent, he only charged us a few hundred dollars to do the work, and the niagara falls of water that came out of the basement literally flooded the street again.

When we saw what the basement looked like after the water was pumped out, we realized all the systems needed to be replaced. And “all systems” meant the main electrical panels for 9 units in the condo association, new electric meters needed to be re-installed by the electric company, and 3 furnaces and 3 hot water heaters needed to be removed and replaced.

It seems that when your furnace sits floating in frigid cold sea water for two days it “don’t work no more.” Same for the hot water heater and electrical panels. And speaking of electric…

My Kingdom for an Electrician…

I’ll cut right to the punchline: it took us three weeks to get our electricity restored.

Finding the electrician and hiring him wasn’t the problem. We got competitive bids and got the contract going before the end of the first week after the storm. But there were fits and starts with the crew. They did not have all the parts they needed. And while under normal circumstances the right parts would be readily available, after an emergency mega-storm like Sandy, you can’t always find the parts you need in a timely manner. And so you wait until the parts are found… and you wait without electric.

After the electrician was done with his portion of the work, only then can the electric company come and replace the meters and finish their portion of re-activating the juice at the telephone poles. We were so frustrated because it took us 6 days of obsessive phone calls from many people in our condo group along with the activists among us (I’m not one) getting the local councilman’s office involved before PSE&G got a “bucket truck” dispatched to throw the final switch and turn the lights back on. Unbelievable, but true.

But I wasn’t there when they turned the electric back on. I was in California by then.

Since I’m fortunate to have the kind of job that allows me to travel, on the Sunday after the storm I was already scheduled for a business trip. And when I got to Newark airport, not only was it up and running, I was able to catch an earlier flight out of town…thanks to United Airlines.

I was excited when I landed and got to the hotel. You can’t believe how miraculous it feels to take a hot shower, after going six days without one.

But there was still the matter of getting the furnace and hot water heater replaced…

END OF PART THREE

Days of Darwin – Hurricane Sandy – Part Two

One Hurricane Sandy Story … from Jersey City

PART TWO

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, October 30th, there was no water in the street. There was no rain, and if I recall correctly, no wind. Hurricane Sandy had left town.

I had no electric in my house, so I had no way of getting news to understand the severity of the storm. I assumed, in my naive and uninformed bubble, that the New York metro area had gotten some flooding, sure, but probably all else was fine. I was still operating under a “this was probably a little worse than Hurricane Irene from last year” assumption.

THE SITUATION WITH THE CAR

My first business was to check on my new car. If you recall from my previous post, the car was parked on the street a few doors down from my house, and I watched in desperation the previous night during the surge as the water crept up the wheels.

As I approached the car, some leaves and bits of mud clung to the doors. Not a good sign.

I opened the door and expected to see soaking wet floor mats, maybe soaking wet seats, or who knows what. But no. The car was dry inside. I couldn’t believe it. I put my hand on the floor of the car because I couldn’t understand how it was possible the car hadn’t flooded. My hand, and the floor of the car, were both dry.

I slid into the driver’s seat and stuck the key in the ignition. I thought even if the inside didn’t take on water, it was still possible water came in through the muffler pipe. I turned the key, and, the car started. It didn’t sputter, stall, or make funny noises. Somehow, my car had been unharmed from the storm.

If the car had been parked ten feet closer to my front door it would have been totaled. What saved the car was the height of the street at that particular point on the curb, along with the design of the Honda Fit which sits higher off the ground…both extremely lucky coincidences for me.

AND WHAT ABOUT GAS?

As I pointed out in my previous post (The Rushing of the Water) I was woefully unprepared for the storm. I had about a quarter of a tank of gas and didn’t fill my tank before the storm.

Once I realized my car was okay, I decided to get out of Hudson County and go further inland to find an open gas station, and maybe get something to eat. I figured I’d be having breakfast at a diner within the hour. You have to remember I had no clue about what really happened during the storm. My car was working, and driving to find gas and a hot meal seemed like a logical next step.

So I drove up the ramp to get on the New Jersey Turnpike at exit 14C (the Holland Tunnel exit). And in a purely New Jersey moment, even though basically all of Jersey City and Hoboken and who knows how much of Hudson County had no electric, the freaking toll plazas on the New Jersey Turnpike WERE OPERATING. You had to “check in” at the toll booth to get on the Turnpike. (Again, I did not realize the irony of that at the time, but later it annoyed the hell out of me.)

Once I got on the Turnpike though, the scene was anything but normal. The Turnpike was deserted. I was the only car on the road. The road looked like a tornado had been through the night before. There was extensive damage from mud, grasses caked onto the center-dividing guard rails, and small branches strewn across the road. Amazingly, the Turnpike work crews were already there and began their clean up.

I drove as far as exit 12 and got out at Carteret. There were no open gas stations nor were any stores open. I realized at that moment there was no electic there either. I kept driving and figured I’d head further inland, toward Rahway or further if needed. But as I approached the border between Carteret and Rahway, there was a police cruiser and a blockade of cones across the road. I immediately realized the Rahway River had probably overflowed its banks, which it has done in the past, and flooded their local roads. There was nothing to do but turn around and drive back to Jersey City … through the toll booth that was fully operational in Carteret, and again through the one operating in Jersey City.

What I had accomplished, was using half of my scant remaining gas with my unproductive adventure, and a growing realization that the storm was much worse than I had ever imagined.

The Rushing of the Water – Hurricane Sandy – Part One

One Hurricane Sandy Story … from Jersey City

BEFORE

I don’t know why human beings consistently underestimate the impact of predicted disasters, but like everyone else that was there, I stayed in Jersey City on the night of October 29th, 2012.

In the days before, I watched the television with its dire warnings of an unusually high storm surge expected due to the full moon that night, and offshore models depicted a precise landfall trajectory for Hurricane Sandy to cause the most damage. I mentally made a note that I should buy a bottle of water along with my diet iced tea and two days of food. And I did too, I got a 12 ounce bottle of water.

I’m sure I was much less prepared than most: I had candles but no matches, I didn’t fill my car with gas, I had no flashlight, no battery powered radio, and not even a hand crank can opener. I also had no cash on hand, well unless you count two dollars. No, my preparation consisted of “stockpiling” 48 hours worth of fresh food – enough for the day of the expected storm and the day after, when I imagined any clean-up would take place.

And even after I heard low-lying areas of Jersey City were under a voluntary evacuation, I just assumed since I am “many blocks” from a marina inlet just off the Hudson River, and because there was no flooding during Hurricane Irene last year that I did not live in one of these alleged low-lying areas. Let me add that at no time did the news specify which areas of Jersey City were low-lying, we were just expected to know.

What does a prospectus to an investor say? Past performance is no indication of future results.

These are words printed regularly on documents warning human beings about, essentially, human nature. We underestimate what we think the worst could be until it happens and then we readjust our new reality accordingly based on our direct experiences.

For some of us, our parents or grandparents lived through the Great Depression. Many of us couldn’t understand the strange behaviors of a whole group of people who “lived without” for decades. Toasting slightly stale bread because it was “still good” or saving what seemed to be junk because it might have a future use, or putting savings away even when you didn’t have a lot because you should “just in case.”

In case of what, we always asked? We could never imagine.

Until I became an adult I never understood any of it, but these childhood experiences and conversations came back to me as I lay in a pitch black apartment during the storm. Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

THE FATEFUL MOMENT

So, as I said, I ensconced myself in my second floor apartment with two days of food in my refrigerator. I also plugged in my computer and cell phone in the unlikely event I’d lose electric for a few hours.

The television repeatedly said the worst of the surge was expected at 8pm EST. The wind was howling outside at that time, and the branches of a nearby slender tree whipped against my window in bursts, but the rain didn’t seem too severe. It was the wind that was frightening because it was much more ferocious than what we experienced during Irene, when I was also in my apartment, and thus could compare the impact of each storm to the other.

At about ten minutes after 9pm, I heard a loud POP and a transformer on the street light across the street on the corner exploded, sending yellow electrical sparks flying everywhere. Then a terrifying second POP as another transformer exploded beside a tree directly across the street, and the tree caught on fire.

My heart started racing and I began cursing aloud in my empty apartment. I ran down the stairs toward the front door, wondering if the neighborhood, which consists of connected row houses, would soon be burning to the ground. It would be extremely easy for a fire to spread rapidly.

When I got to the top step of my front porch, I was momentarily relieved when I saw the rain put out the tree fire. Then I looked down the street and instead of pavement, I saw a rippling river of surge water flowing toward me.

The view from my top porch step during the height of Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge

The water was already covering the bottom-most step of my front porch, which meant it was already above the street level and above the curb and above a full porch step. It did not occur to me at that moment, but that level was also already above the window line of basement garden apartments on my block.

Eerily the lights of a tavern diagonally across from my building illuminated the scene. Unbenownst to me five feet of water was also rushing into their less-than-a-year-old commercial kitchen, located in the building’s basement.

As I looked in the other direction, my heart sank. My car was parked on the street just twenty feet duther down from my front door, with the water creeping up the wheels of my two month old brand new car. I just stood there in shock imagining water rushing in between the door seams and into the muffler, completely totaling the car. I remember feeling so helpless to stop it.

The wind continued to gust and howl, and there was nothing to do but go back upstairs. When I got there, the lights began to dim in a brown-out fashion, so I turned off the television and all the lights…but then the electric went out anyway and the street went dark. I didn’t fully realize it at that moment, but my cell phone signal also went out.

Only the howling of the wind kept me company.

I began pacing back and forth for an hour in my living room. I repeatedly looked outside to see if I could catch my car’s final demise if anyone drove down the block, but I just couldn’t tell where the water line was. I decided to go to bed in the hopes that when I woke the storm would have passed and any damage could be easily assessed and repaired.

Little did I know, or comprehend, of what was to come.

A car speeds past me during the height of the surge, trying to race to higher ground.

END OF PART ONE

A gray day in Jersey City

It’s eerily calm out right now, and gray. Last night, I lay awake at 2, 3 and then 4am and watched tiny flakes of snow hit the pavement and disappear – nothing stuck and it’s all wet black pavement without traces of white. It’s also not cold enough for snow.

I couldn’t sleep in my bed because it was too comfortable. It was strange, tossing back and forth all warm and supported by my cushy mattress and unable to find the right spot. So I went to the living room and wedged my body into my couch, which feels fine when you first lay your body down, but the longer you stay in one spot it feels like it’s made out of concrete.

I watched re-runs on television. This re-run was of a man going to Hawaii to pick cacao pods. Then he showed the process from picking the pod to making dark chocolate.

I finally fell asleep around 4:30am, and slept until 9 and then decided what the hell and fell back asleep again for a few more hours because my brain still wasn’t working.

I’m sitting up as I write this and every joint in my body is saying thanks a lot for the brilliant idea of sleeping on the couch but in a way, I’m glad for the discomfort. It makes me want to get up and do something (other than write this blog post.)

This post feels like a Random Insomnia Post, which I used to write on the blog awhile back, even though it’s the middle of the day right now. I guess you can have insomnia any time within a 24 hour cycle, I just never thought about it that way. Maybe I would if I worked the night shift and tried to sleep when the sun is shining and it’s beautiful outside. That’s probably the worst kind of insomnia, actually.

Just as I write this, the sun is fighting to peek through the clouds. It’s like someone turning up the volume on a great song you love that comes on the radio while you’re driving down the highway and tapping your fingers on the steering wheel…but then turning it back down again when the gray clouds win.