This time last week, I was stressing out about squeezing everything into what was quickly becoming the busiest two weeks of my life (not counting the time I decided to move to New York). I was trying to meet deadline after moved-forward deadline, report on the US Presidential Elections, make travel plans for said election, train for the NYC Marathon, fundraise for said marathon, apply for a Visa, etc. In other words, becoming a true New Yorker, and juggling a dozen balls in the air.
And then, Sandy came.
After being here for Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time she hit NYC, I was a bit skeptical in the beginning when I first saw the news reports. If there was going to be damage, it would be near the beaches and Upstate NY, like what happened in August with Irene, I thought. But then things started to feel different. There was a sense of real urgency – no time even for organizing hurricane parties. Things started to shut down quickly – the subway, the schools, the parks. New York started feeling like a ghost-town.
Monday afternoon, I took a cab-ride down to Battery Park City, or as close to it as my friend and I could get, to see what lower Manhattan looked like. Being on the Upper East Side was a completely different experience. I would soon realize that in more ways than one. While the UES still seemed to have a hurried presence about it, with people dashing into grocery stores and forming long queues outside the Fairway, the bottom of NYC looked like a “before” scene in The Day After Tomorrow – eerily quiet, unnervingly empty. I looked over the Hudson, at the water rising by Battery Park City, and started to get a little frightened. We walked up the running path, and then the wind started to pick up. Such strong gusts, I almost fell over a few times. And then the panic started to climb up in my chest: I suddenly wanted to be back in the safety of the Upper East Side, but would we find a cab now?
Police were doing rounds, telling people who were still in the area to get out. As the wind grew stronger, so too did my panic. My eyes darted around for a cab, but there were none to be found. We walked a few more blocks, until finally, one appeared. Grateful, I slammed the door behind me, and we drove off along the deserted FDR highway, back to the sanctity of the UES.
And there, I “hunkered down”, as Americans like to say. Waiting the slow wait with weather porn and worry, not sure what was about to come. The wind continued to howl, and the trees outside my apartment banged against my window. It was scary, but not knowing what to expect was scarier. I’m from South Africa. We don’t have hurricanes or super-storms there; the most a Highveld thunderstorm can do is frighten you with its lightning displays and occasional balls of hail.
And yet, my experience of Sandy ended up being nothing compared to what happened even just two streets over from me, where the East River rose so mightily that it flooded the foyers of apartment buildings. Or just a couple dozen blocks down where it filled NYU hospital, causing a massive last-minute evacuation of babies and patients. All I really experienced was seeing fallen trees and massive branches smash into car windows. My power stayed on throughout and I didn’t even need to go across to Ryan’s Daughter, the pub opposite me offering free wi-fi and a generator.
My Sandy experience was sheltered. And for that I am ever grateful. I read of the people who were killed – by falling trees or fire, or those swept out with the water, like the two little boys in Staten Island. My heart sinks. I’ve seen the images that look like they truly did come out of a movie – water flowing through the 108-year-old subway; the ConEd power plant explosion, that crane dangling oh-so-precariously over Midtown. And Jane’s Carousel, practically submerged in water. And yet, beyond New York City, Sandy was even more crippling. In Breezy Point, Queens, where she razed an entire community of 100 homes, leaving behind the devastating snapshot of a burnt-out war zone. In Seaside Heights, New Jersey, where she ripped out what used to be a popular fairground attraction, and the former home of the Jersey Shore misfit cast (even that sin not deserving of this). In West Babylon, Long Island, where she raced through my friend’s home, taking baby clothes and boardgames with her.
To them, Sandy was utterly unfair.
And I can play that game – wondering why I got off so lucky; questioning the futility of it all; judging myself for running the NYC Marathon when others are trying to get back back any semblance of life.
But in the midst of it all, I am becoming a New Yorker. The spirit of determination, and steadfastness, and stubbornness that I’ve experienced in the past year and a half of being here is rubbing off on me. There is a real sense all will be built back up, better and stronger than before. And I want to believe it too. So, I will play my part where I can, and I will run for the charity I’m supporting. And I will choose this image to be one of the lasting impressions I have of this event. While coming back from my run tonight, Captain America appeared in front of me on this Halloween evening.