16 November 2012

Driving into the Storm: The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Sunday, Nov. 11

Although Hurricane Sandy had come through the East Coast almost a week before, even from more than a hundred miles west of where it did its worst damage there were signs that it was not business as usual.

In preparation for my trip to the New York area, I did a little Web research to make sure I could get fuel for my diesel-powered car. I found and printed out a listing and then I called several stations in Western New Jersey. “Yes,” we have diesel, was the reply. I felt it best to buy fuel as far east as I could so that my car’s very long range would be even longer. Bad move. After waiting in my first gas line in more than 30 years, I was told, “no diesel.” Then I went to a truck stop next door and although they had diesel, the nozzles for a truck wouldn’t fit my car. With a range of 100 miles remaining and knowing that the further east I went the harder it would be to find fuel, I consulted my list and started calling. Phones were out of order or disconnected in three instances.

So, I did the only sensible thing: I back-tracked and went west about five miles to Phillipsburg, which is the last town in New Jersey. Fortunately, I found fuel — at 10 cents a gallon less.

Back on the highway I headed for my hotel. As I reached the industrial area around Elizabeth I couldn’t see much in the way of damage, but it was after 10:00 p.m. and it was dark. When I found my hotel I noticed another problem: There was no parking left. Box trucks from missions were taking up multiple spaces, a woman who worked for AT&T had found a spot for her trailer, but not her truck and, as the night clerk told me, with FEMA putting up many families, there were two and three cars per room.
Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.

Monday, Nov. 12

I was up fairly early to get ready for my big day looking at storm damage. I was surprised by how foggy it was and wondered if it was mostly ground fog from the lingering moisture caused by heavy flooding.

As I headed north on Route 1 I saw a huge tent complex on the southbound side, with signs proclaiming “hot showers.” It appeared to be some sort of refugee center, but visibility was poor and I needed to focus on the road ahead and finding my turnoff for the Goethals Bridge to take me to Staten Island. By all accounts, parts of Staten Island were decimated, but I couldn’t see that much damaged from Routes 440 or 278. Traffic was incredibly light on Staten Island and as I reached Queens, and while things looked pretty desolate, I attributed it at least partly to the dismal gray fog.

When I approached Howard Beach, I was first struck by the non-functioning traffic light as I carefully turned left. As I followed the GPS instructions, I started noticing piles of sodden wallboard, discarded mattress and loads of trash bags on the curb, punctuated by the occasional industrial-size dumpster. Many houses looked fine from the outside, but looks were deceptive. At our first stop, even the plantings looked fine, but it was only the raised first floor that saved it, and as it turns out, only one other house in the neighborhood avoided first floor flooding. The darker side was that the finished basement had been totally submerged, although the sheet rock and rugs were already long gone. The electrician was on hand and like all the houses in the neighborhood, the furnace, hot water heater and electrical service were either new or about to be replaced. From the sidewalk I could see a front end loader scooping up sodden wall board and other pieces of someone’s home.

A beloved collector car was lost along with an almost new family car and an above-ground pool. The story was the same all over the neighborhood. Another family just a block away lost a gorgeous old Corvette, two family cars, a Chevy drag racer with a freshly built and even more freshly flooded engine, and a basement and garage full of memories. Again, the basement had been gutted and the electrical panel was new, as were the furnace, the hot water heater, and the washer and dryer. All of the family photos and many other collectibles were gone forever.

At one level, seeing the damage was pretty sad. But at a different level, I heard tales of families and neighbors coming together, taking turns on the gas lines, lending generators, and helping each other carry out destroyed carpets and furniture. And the same was true wherever we went. These New Yorkers were tough, and they were really good to each other. They also had great things to say about the City’s response and, in particular, the sanitation workers, who were picking up two, three, even four times a day, with dump trucks and heavy loaders.

I also heard tales of horrendous gas lines and I saw many stations that had closed their pumps. Where gas was available, the prices were 30, 50, even 70 cents more than they had been in New Jersey. While many New Yorkers were pulling together, others were profiting at the expense of their neighbors. After a slow year or two, several people I met mentioned that most contractors were now swamped as the demand for dry wall work, electricians and plumbers had soared.

The damage in western Long Island was a little more visible because there were bigger trees to uproot and drop branches. We saw a lot filled with flooded late-model cars. The flooding was just as severe and some people remained without power after 12 days. Instead of praising their local government and power company response, they were a lot less satisfied. But inside, the view was the same: gutted first floors awaiting new sheet rock and a new burner for the furnace.

A few businesses were still closed and we heard rumors of one body shop that had been washed out and wasn’t going to open, while another one had a 60-car backlog due to flood damage. It’s going to be a long recovery.

When it was time to leave the area, I again turned to my GPS. Everywhere I went, I was redirected away from heavy traffic and ultimately headed across the Williamsburg Bridge into Lower Manhattan. I saw a few shuttered businesses, but as I skirted the edge of Chinatown the area looked largely unchanged.

I went to New York to see a few collector cars that had been damaged and to meet their owners. But the cars didn’t make half the impression on me as the people did. I met families with several generations under one roof and I kept hearing people say how lucky they felt to still have their homes at all and to have all their family safe. I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

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