News & Opinion

Hurricane Sandy

The morning after feeling for battered New Yorkers

The Times

October 31, 2012


In the grey dawn after the worst storm that most can remember, New Yorkers picked their way through a darkened and chaotic city. Hurricane winds had scraped the side off a building in Chelsea and shaken the towers of midtown Manhattan. An explosion at an electricity plant on the east side of the island had lit the low sky with green fire and in the same instant several thousand lights in lower Manhattan went out.

The waters of New York harbour had risen 14ft, briefly returning the shoreline around Wall Street to a shape last seen 400 years ago. Twenty babies and 180 patients had been carried from a hospital on the East River while on a far-flung promontory of Queens. At least 50 partially submerged homes had caught fire: firefighters were still tackling the blaze.

The floodwaters had receded by dawn but on the east side of Manhattan, roads, cars, bars and a dog hotel were all still submerged.

Officials along the East Coast carried out a broader reckoning. There had been at least 48 deaths, 18 of them in New York. “Someone was in their house in their bed and a tree fell on him and killed him,” Michael Bloomberg, the mayor, said. “Someone stepped in a puddle where there was an electric wire.” A man and a woman had been killed when a tree fell on their car.

Rescue efforts continued in New Jersey, where entire towns were inundated and seaside rail lines washed away. The New York subway suffered the worst damage in its 108-year history. At least 8.2 million people were without power and a large tanker had crashed into Staten Island.

“It was scary but we are alive,” said Brian McKenna, a publican who had tried to leave his apartment on the East River as the waters rose. “It was rising about a foot every ten minutes. We went to pack our bags but by the time we came down it was too late. The water came up to the second floor.”

Residents of a nearby tower block made desperate efforts to rescue their cars from the car park outside. “We watched one guy trying to drive away but the water had come to the top of his windshield,” said Jenny Wu, 19, a finance student who lives on the 14th floor. The Wu family had tried to reach their own Lexus, but could not get out of the lobby. A wall of water rose against the glass, sealing the door shut.

On the west side of Manhattan, at about the same time, Daniel Castaldi and a colleague were trapped inside a loading bay beneath a warehouse. They had gone down in a freight lift to save a colleague’s car.

“They got the car out and closed the door of the loading dock,” said Mr Castaldi, 53, a technician. “Then the power cut out. It was pitch black, I had only the light of my cell phone and water was entering under the loading dock door. It was rising rapidly.”

They retreated to the highest point. “Emergency workers bored a hole through the wall,” he said. “A couple of them showed up in scuba gear. We walked out into waist-deep water.”

Melissa Ramirez, 35, had wandered out that night to stare at the river. “I had to wade back across the west side highway,” she said. On the far side of the Hudson she saw blue-green sparks, “like fireworks”, as electrical substations exploded. In Chelsea, she met a man walking a small dog. “There was a gust of wind so strong it blew us half way across the street,” she said. “The dog was literally in the air.”

It was about that time that she heard a crash and saw the side of a house fall into the street. The top two floors of a four-storey building opened up like a doll’s house. “We could see furniture and dressers,” she said. “There were people screaming and running out, it was just mad.” No one was hurt.

Crowds gathered to stare at the ruin the next morning. “It’s like the old days when tenements crumbled,” said Will Chiapella, a San Francisco photographer. “A woman said it looked like an art installation; it could be if people weren’t actually living there.”

Residents who had remained blasé in the face of dire warnings to leave were less sanguine the morning after. “We’ve had big storms promised before,” said Sue Unkenholz, walking by the Hudson with her two children. “I was taken aback by how bad it was.”

Charles Hayley-Bell, 37, who is from Haslemere in Surrey and works in New York for HSBC, had worried that his building would explode. “The garage in the basement filled with water, petrol was leaking from the cars. The whole building began to smell of petrol. And the power was out so everyone was using candles.”

Waters from the Hudson flooded Ground Zero, while the East River crept half way up Wall Street. “The water came up to the old historic tide mark from 1609,” a resident in her 60s said. “It reached Pearl Street, which was where the oyster beds were on the old shoreline.”

Beside her, Leslie Lindsay, 36, recalled raging rivers running through the east side. Then, “at about 1am, someone started playing a set of bagpipes,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is the end’.”

But yesterday life went on. The Wu family were performing a post-mortem on their Lexus, while beside them a neighbour mourned the passing of his Toyota Corolla. “I bought it a week ago,” Wilfredo Burgos, 68, said.

Lower Manhattan looks likely to remain without power for several days. “I would pay $20 for a cup of coffee right now,” Bruce Martin, 58, said.

A mass migration northwards had begun as New Yorkers headed in search of a phone signal, electrical sockets and a hot latte.