December 8, 2013
New York after Sandy: a tale of two cities
By Adrian Bono
Special Correspondent in New York
It is an unusually cold morning in Manhattan, but that doesn’t seem to stop the happy tourists from visiting the pullulating streets around Times Square. Businessmen continue their everyday life in midtown, briefcase and cell phone/tablet in hand, casually mentioning the path of destruction left by a storm that was considered to be “the weather event of a lifetime” by many scientists around the world and that even made climate change skeptics second guess themselves.
The worst has passed for these people, and New Yorkers, who appear to have an innate capability of dusting themselves off and carrying on, it’s business as usual in the Big Apple.
Or at least half of it.
Only seven blocks to the south of Times Square, a very different scenario is playing out.
Everything south of 39th St. has completely gone back to the dark ages. Literally.
Since Sandy landed in Manhattan last Monday night, almost a quarter million people have had no electricity, and the effects of the blackout are starting to show. Standing on the corner of 39th Street and 2nd Avenue after dark feels like being on the threshold of an alternate universe.
Looking to the north, the city is bustling with life. Taxis, traffic lights, busy restaurants and families enjoying dinner in their high-rise penthouses. The city couldn’t be more alive.
By turning your head to the south, reality is blanketed by stygian darkness and post-apocalyptic gloom.
A few windows lit up by flashlights and the red taillights of a few valiant cab drivers who dare venture into the abyss are the only remnants of technology perceived by the human eye. That, and the dirty stench of burning lamp oil. Stores are closed – some of their doors and windows still boarded up since the weekend – restaurants are deserted and area residents are bunkered behind locked doors, their only weapon a flashlight or a set of candles. Or in any cases, an actual gun, as fears of looting and cases of robberies at gun-point continue to rise.
Five days since the disappearance of electricity, mobile devices such as tablets and cell phones have already exhausted their batteries despite their owners’ careful effort to only turn them on a few times a day. And in any case, even if they did work, cell towers in the southern half of Manhattan have already run out of fuel, turning the entire area into a communications black hole. No power, no telephones, no cell phone reception, no home alarms. No ATMs, no money, no food. At night, Lower Manhattan is a giant question mark.
During the day, the situation changes slightly for the better and people try to go back to their everyday routine of walking their dogs and engaging in small talk with their neighbors on the street. “I’ve decided to move to a friend’s house in midtown,” Robert from the East Village says. “For the last five days I have no idea of what is going on in the world and I’m getting desperate. ”
As he speaks, a motorcade of trucks from the National Guard drives by, towing fuel trucks and generators from one place of the island to another. “We’re trying to refuel the cell towers so we can bring cell phone reception back,” one of the drivers explains, adding that restoring communications is one of their priorities.
Hillary, a mother of two living in the Lower East Side, looks a little bit more disturbed. “It’s unreal. I feel like I’m in one of those Hollywood movies. I’m moving to Brooklyn with my family and will be staying at a friend’s house, leaving all my belongings behind and I’m terrified. And now there are rumors that it could take up to 45 days for the power to be restored? I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
As Union Square remains closed to the public due to the danger of broken branches, a double-decker tour bus drives by, with tourists entirely missing the traditional New York sights to take photos of the people standing in line for bottles of water and shut down subway stations. The truth is, disaster porn is a lot more interesting than the Flatiron building.
More to the south of the island, the grim silence due to stores closed and absence of traffic in some of New York’s iconic areas has transformed entire neighborhoods such as Chinatown or the SoHo into a scene from The Walking Dead.
“I got cell phone reception on Sullivan between Spring & Broone,” reads a handwritten, unsigned note taped to the entrance door of a building in a corner of SoHo. Cell phone reception and a WiFi connection have become a commodity in the area. While many aimlessly roam the streets looking for reception, something as simple as a person carrying a cup of coffee from Starbucks can cause area residents to swarm in and ask “Where did you get that?!”. It’s not coffee they need. An open Starbucks means free WiFi and a power outlet.
Disappointment returns to their faces when they are told the drink was purchased above 39th St., where civilization still stands.
Many from the Dark Side (as some of the lucky power-having residents of the north call them) have decided to cross over and invade midtown in an effort to retain their sanity. From 40th to 50th, every Starbucks is packed with people standing in line to update their Facebook statuses and let their friends know that they are alive. Even after closing time, many stand on the sidewalk waving their iPads in the air, hoping to catch at least one bar of reception that allows them to connect.
Bank lobbies, where the ATMs are located, have become impromptu charging stations with dozens of refugees – and their pets - sitting around a power outlet and trying to escape the freezing weather that Sandy brought upon the city.
Abroad, internet users from other cities in the US and from other countries take to social networks to mock Manhattanites. “Man up, remember Katrina?” or “Haiti had it a lot worse”. After all, this is New York, the city that has it all.
And it’s true. Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas were severely hit by Sandy. But that doesn’t make the situation in New York less of a humanitarian crisis. There are still 250,000 people without power in the island. Many of them are low-income, elderly people living in high-rise buildings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and their inability to climb up or down 25 floors is keeping them trapped there with no communication and food is running out. Their own homes have become their prisons.
Neither the Red Cross nor FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – have shown up at their door, because like the government said, the priority is restoring power, cell phone coverage and public transportation services to normal.
So those still connected to the rest of the world have taken matters into their own hands, and signed up for volunteer programs, donating water, food, flashlights and batteries.
Organizations such as Recovers.org, GOLES.org and the CAAAV keep recruiting people willing to help during the day to canvass entire buildings from top to bottom, looking for residents unable to help themselves whether because they are sick or too elderly. Door by door, women (their voice sounds less threatening to scared residents) roam the hallways of every building letting them know in English, Spanish and Chinese that they are there to help.
“This is another 9/11 without as many dead people,” Janet from Brooklyn says. “I feel so badly for all this. I hope we can recover economically from this.”
Experts estimate losses in the East Coast area could reach 50 billion, 20 of them from the loss of business and 30 million from property damage.
But, as one man riding a crowded bus told a fellow passenger, there’s a silver lining to this crisis.
“The best thing about Sandy is that finally after this we’ve realized that climate change is something we need to start addressing.” And he seems to be right. On Thursday, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, a former Republican and current independent, announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for reelection citing his efforts to fight climate change as a deciding factor.
In a country in which still many, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe the theory of climate change to be nothing but a liberal myth, that is a silver lining indeed.