More than 110 people were killed but there was no crime. There were widespread blackouts yet there was no systematic looting. Police departments were run ragged but lawlessness seemed to take a vacation.
This column isn’t about crime this time. It is about how, in the the face of crisis crime is replaced by an overwhelming sense of fellowship and mutual survival. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy I am writing this not on my usual laptop computer but on a smaller iPad which is cumbersome to operate via candlelight. I had to slowly charge it to life via a cord plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter.
My family is among the almost five million Americans left without power by this monumental storm. We’re told it could be 10 days before our Hudson River village, about 20 miles north of Manhattan will have electricity again.
But we are alive and feeling so lucky.
Not far from us, in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens not only did massive quantities of floodwaters roar in so did a marauding fire that consumed more than 80 buildings leaving hundreds homeless. Firefighters battled neck-high floods, low water pressure and tons of Sandy’s sludge for 12 hours to contain the blaze. This neighborhood has already had its share of tragedy. It has always been a close knit place populated by firemen and police officers many of whom lost their lives as first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Just as we saw in the aftermath of September 11th first responders to Sandy’s wreckage ran toward the calamity as the rest of us ran away to safety. All up and down the Eastern seaboard brave souls pitched in to help evacuate stranded residents and hospital patients. They worked tirelessly to clear debris, fallen trees and land-stranded boats from neighbor’s yards.
From Florida to Connecticut utility workers left their own families and fanned out en masse to help restore their fellow citizens gas lines and electric service. They battled dangerous live wires, rising tides that made flooding even worse and roadways with malfunctioning traffic lights and littered with obstacles.
In the run-up warnings about the approaching storm the media had taken to calling Hurricane Sandy and its expected collision with a powerful northern cold front “The Frankenstorm.” Creative word play and almost funny when I first heard it. But I’ll bet rescue workers struggling in the thick of it weren’t thinking of clever names to call the storm.
In New Jersey, the state in which Superstorm Sandy made landfall, volunteers with operable boats and large trucks roared in to save total strangers. One was a petrified 85 year old woman who was coaxed onto the back of a jet-ski and taken to safety. On my battery powered radio I heard an emotional Governor Chris Christie describe what he had seen after taking a helicopter tour of his state. He described the devastation he had seen including acres of flooded neighborhoods, farm land, damaged rail roads and an exit off the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 280 that had simply disappeared in the storm surge.
Christie sounded as though he might cry when he described the complete destruction of one of his favorite childhood spots – the Seaside Heights amusement park. Its rides were gone, he said, floating in the sea.
“We will rebuild,” a resolute Christie said. “But for those my age it will never be the same … so much washed away into the Atlantic ocean.”
In New York, the other state that incurred the most damage from Sandy, the massive scale of destruction was hard to comprehend. The area in lower Manhattan where hundreds of thousands live was plunged into darkness. The sea wall surrounding the newly rebuilt Ground Zero site was compromised and Hudson River water began to pour in. Seven tunnels into New York City and hundreds of subway stations filled up with countless millions of gallons of water. Commuter train tracks from New Jersey and Connecticut were buried in Sandy’s sludge and made inoperable. With transportation stalled in and out of the city commerce stopped, including Wall Street – the engine that runs so much of the American economy.
But no one gave up. The Coast Guard and the Red Cross were there to help. The financial sector re-grouped quickly and got back to work. The Army Corp of Engineers brought in enormous sump-pump devices and put them to work at the tunnels and rail hubs to undo what Sandy had done. The city offered free bus rides to get people back to work. There were no complaints from civil servants forced to work exhausting mandatory overtime with no immediate end in sight.
These people did it because that’s what we do in America. We gather up our can-do attitude and we get the job done. We don’t let tragedy define us. It doesn’t matter what we don’t have – electricity to power our televisions and our habit-forming computer gadgets or heat for our homes in this chilly late-autumn weather – it is what we ARE that matters most. Compassionate, resolute, survivors.
After slogging through the divisiveness of partisan politics for the last year it’s heartwarming to see Americans being cohesive again – even if it is just a transitory phase. Too bad it takes a crisis to remind us that we are all in this together.
The Hudson River is three miles wide where we live and only a small two lane road lies between us and the water. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing it everyday outside my window. I sheepishly admit that I sometimes look at its usually placid flow with a sort of disinterest. Never again. This behemoth has commanded my eternal respect because I see now that this historic river is capable of terrible things when spurred on by Mother Nature.
We have survived. The river will survive longer.