On Survival: Wishing Us All a Safe Haven
As the East Coast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, editor Scott Omelianuk reflects on the storm's destruction and the strengths such disasters can bring out in all of us
An ambulance sits abandoned in the middle of a flooded street after Hurricane Sandy October 30, 2012, in Hoboken, New Jersey.
As I write this I'm thinking I've sort of told this story before. It was last year, about Hurricane Irene. But Irene's roundhouse punch missed my neighborhood and did its damage elsewhere. This time, Hurricane Sandy swung from back on its heels and connected hard on the chin.
My family and I have built a little life for ourselves right across from New York City, in a square-mile community of 50,000 people called Hoboken. Hoboken, New Jersey, is a rich patch of American soil: birthplace of baseball, the nation's first brewery, the zipper, Frank Sinatra, and dozens of other things that make life better. That includes the way its shoreline shoulders the Hudson River as it flows by, and, in fact, it's where On the Waterfront was filmed and where Marlon Brando, seeing it had all been taken from him, croaked, "I coulda been a contender."
But no one, contender or champion, could have ducked the punch that Sandy threw. That's true here in my community, true a hundred miles south, a hundred miles east, and true in some places where communities are now nothing more than broken boards and muck. Sandy was a heavyweight.
As you read this, a few weeks after the storm, it's possible a good measure of life will have returned to normal for some, though certainly not all, of those affected; maybe fresh foods and gasoline will be available, power and rail lines restored, FEMA and the National Guard gone. But I'm not so sure. Right now there is a 25-foot sailboat keeled over on its starboard side on the sidewalk just a few blocks from my house. The park my son once skinned his knees in has washed away, replaced by a rat's nest of debris and uprooted trees. Neighbors and their families in the south and west of town flooded to the third story in a bathtub of 500 million gallons of Hudson River water and raw sewage. And, as I write this, five days after Sandy's waves muscled over the river's bulkhead, with cold weather now biting at people who fled with only the clothes on their backs, there is no estimate for when most can expect the return of electricity and heat.
We somehow fared well at my house. We even kept power, though 90 percent of the town didn't. I know people who have it so much worse—here in my town; down at the Jersey Shore, where blocks of homes have disappeared beneath the sand; in Breezy Point in Queens, where more than a hundred houses burned to the ground. And people died—no one I know, but human beings with lives and families—that frightening night.
November 3, 2012: Hurricane Sandy damage in Belle Harbor in the Rockaways, in the borough of Queens, New York
And so this thing has unnerved me, even scared me, beyond expectation. Sure, I've watched footage of the National Guard patrolling the storm-ravaged streets before, I've seen rescues, recoveries, feeding stations, shelters, and people with hollow eyes walking numb. But all that was on TV, not here, not at home.
During World War I, more than a million men in the American Expeditionary Forces embarked from the Hoboken docks for the trenches of Europe, chanting General Pershing's slogan, "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken." The idea was that as the doughboys left the soil of Europe, however they might depart it, they'd be either going to their final reward or returning here and then onward to home. They certainly couldn't have known, and my neighbors and I would never have guessed, that separated in time and struck by the balled fist of nature, those three very different places could be the same place.
Lying in bed the night after the storm, while I tried to find a way to fall asleep, my wife sensed my anxiousness. Like all of you who read TOH, I thought I had made a sanctuary for my family, this place, built on hope and sweat and not just a little money, that was meant to be always safe. That's the common goal, for we TOHers, isn't it? That's why we read this magazine and watch the TV shows and use the website—to help us make a home for our families. But as my wife turned to me, I told her I felt not just off-balance but helpless in the face of the power of the storm, as if I had failed us. I just want to have a place where you guys can be safe, I said to her. And my wife responded, where can you go that you're always safe?
I want there to be an answer to her question—a point on the map, a town name, a little somewhere with a solid fence and a sturdy foundation and a snug, sheltering roof. But I know the answer is "nowhere." You can be cautious, you can take care to be safe, but there is nowhere that you can always be safe.
And so you do what you can. You prepare, as I hope all of you have, for whatever dangers you might one day face. And you act your best in the aftermath. On the first night, with our electricity hanging on, we gave people the supplies we didn't need—batteries and matches and candles. The next morning we ran extension cords out the front door to a table where people could recharge cell phones and laptops. Others who kept power did the same and offered coffee and breakfast, too. And now, when I finish this note, I'll do what I imagine so many TOH readers would do in a similar situation: I'll go downtown and stand in line to volunteer. There are a lot of people in need, just as nervous, just as scared as I am. There always are, and because there are, the best that we can do is put out a hand. You never know when you'll need one in return.