My family and I have been witness to and beneficiary of amazing providence in this week of Sandy. We are incredibly lucky. Seeing the complete destruction of entire neighborhoods on the Jersey Shore and in Staten Island and Queens and Hoboken only drives that home. This morning my wife saw an aerial picture of the shore town where she spent her young summers and was in shock: whole neighborhoods she knew had disappeared.
In our neighborhood in central New Jersey, we benefitted from acts of wonderful neighborliness. Our dead-end street was blocked by more than two dozen large, fallen trees. Most of our neighbors got together, got out their chainsaws, and proceeded to clear the street and driveways all day Tuesday. (Friends and family will be horrified to know that I, too, wielded my brand new chainsaw, but they will be relieved to know that I managed to break it in short order.) Our street is still blocked by a fallen utility pole but we managed to get some cars around it, until our route turned into a muddy trap, so we shuttle back and forth from this barricade.
On Monday night, as the winds of Sandy hit frightening velocity, a tree fell against the back of our house but we were terribly fortunate as it damaged the deck and roughed up the roof and some gutters but did not breach our home. Another 15 or more trees fell that night around our house — but fell away from it. (We live in the woods, though that may now be singular rather than plural.)
This was a fortunate story repeated up and down our block, where far more trees fell than anywhere I’ve seen in our part of the state (we live on what New Jersey calls a mountain, which apparently accelerated the winds). At one home, a garage roof got a bad gash but that was all. At another couple’s house, the wife worried about a tree falling in the master bedroom and so she moved to a grown child’s bedroom but the tree she feared fell right on top of it, sending wood through the ceiling a few feet above her head. She’s fine. Other houses were similarly hugged by dying trees but overall unharmed. More important, of course, is that all our neighbors were unharmed.
We live in an area with well water, which means that when we lose power, we lose water and toilets, in addition to heat and — thanks to being on Fios — the phone and, of course, the internet. Also, our nearest cell towers appear to have suffered damage or lost power, so we lost total communication in our house. Thus the social media that I tout so much was not as useful to me as I’d have thought. And now, after the storm, it’s still not giving us the very practical information we crave: which streets are blocked; where power is returning; when power will come to us; what restaurants and stores are reopening; where to get gas….
But I was lucky to have managed to make a hotel reservation and the staff at our Marriott has been amazing, letting us extend our stay and helping us with unfailing cheerfulness even though they are harried and overworked and surely worried about their own homes and families. At the restaurants that one-by-one reopen and stores, we have found the staffs to be gracious and generous just as we have found neighbors and strangers to be ready to help in a moment. At our reopened mall today — instantly filled with refugees from the storm — I saw a couple of guys commander electric plugs with power strips so they could watch over folks’ gadgets as they recharged. Yes, crises bring out the best in people.
There are frustrations. We have no idea when we will get power back. I have seen only *one* crew working within miles of our home. I’m frustrated and worried that our downed utility pole has prevented police and firefighters from reaching a home on our street with a bad gas leak and I am concerned about our elderly neighbors being out of reach of ambulances. Our police have been very helpful but we haven’t seen much of our town. Sitting in gas lines, I’m reliving my first big story as a reporter — the ’73 oil embargo — and wonder at how little we’ve learned. I doubt I’ll be able to get to the airport for a trip I’ll probably have to cancel and without trains or bas, I have no idea how I will make it into New York for my class on Monday; millions of commuters are in the same bind. Frustration will surely grow as our powerlessness continues for days and then weeks.
I’m also struck by our lessened investment in infrastructure and standards. When we built the POTS — plain old telephone system — we ended up with a system that assured us we’d still get a dial tone (remember that?) in spite of any problem short of a cut wire. Now, if you believe that weather could become more frequently extreme, then our wires on polls and breakable phone and internet systems and dependence on power to stay constantly charged and connected make us feel only more fragile at moments such as these.
But at the end of this long week, I am aware of one thought more than any other: I am lucky.