Dispatch From Storm Central


If you’re wondering, hurricane winds blowing past the window sound just like low-pitched vuvuzelas played through a cardboard tube — with the added thrill that your windows might blow in at any time. Add snare drum rain, the fact that it’s pitch black dark outside, a little claustrophobia, and it’s fair to say there was a slight sense of anxiety and uncertainty. This was Monday night, 9pm.

The good thing about hurricanes (and this is New York City’s second tropical storm in just over two months which is not normal) is that they will pass and they do. By 10pm, Hurricane Sandy had moved north from New York City to mess up somewhere else. And, as any student of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005 knows, that’s when the chaos really begins.

While wind and rain subsided, water continued to rise. A conversation with an apartment block neighbour was suddenly interrupted by a desperate call from his parents. Their house in Brooklyn was flooding. Help. He would later text that they had lost their house and car. Swept away. On this night, this was not unique enough to make the news but was just added to an insurance company’s long list.

The night ticked on. While reporters from CNN and other TV networks embellished live coverage by placing reporters in the middle of raging storms to emphasise their on-scene capability, actual emergency responders waded into flooding streets in the East Village to rescue people from submerging cars.

Then around 10.30pm — boom! — an explosion flashed across the Manhattan sky. A transformer at the Con Edison electricity station at the far end of 14th Street spectacularly blew up and downtown Manhattan plunged into darkness (it’s not yet known whether these two events were connected or if the shutdown was planned as water seeped into the power plant). Word came of a New York University hospital’s generator failing and patients being evacuated. Photos filled Twitter and Facebook (which became prime platforms for communication) of subway stations flooding.

Around 11pm, the night air seemed surreally still compared to just hours earlier but the streets told a different story. Another flash and boom out the window as another electricity transformer exploded. Emergency service scanners revealed fire trucks across the city abandoning 911 calls because streets were inaccessible because of flooding. "Send boat," they ordered over the radio.

Units would call in that a fire was now under control — and be immediately assigned a new emergency. Some  trucks were ordered to drop everything and rendezvous near Rockaway Beach for an as-yet-undetermined task. "Commander’s orders," the radio called out. It was later revealed that the job was a fire that destroyed 80 homes.

Tuesday, the morning after, was a hangover for news and most of it bad. For some reason, two people in my old neighbourhood decided to take a walk with a dog during the storm. The wind uprooted the big old tree on East 18th Street and crushed them to death. The dog lived. Their bodies weren’t discovered until 6.30am.

Shorn of power, Downtown Manhattan was a scene from a disaster movie. The Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, two arteries across the East River, were opened allowing people to — literally — Escape From Manhattan. A friend in the East Village had earlier given shelter to two other friends and their four-year-old kid, evacuated from their uptown apartment when a construction site crane, about 75 floors up, buckled in the wind. The cops had cleared everyone out from surrounding blocks.

The downtown power outage had forced them to flee again to New Jersey, itself facing its own crap fight, while I drove across the Manhattan Bridge to rescue their hosts and bring them as refugees to Brooklyn. With traffic lights out, road rules were abandoned. I parked on First Avenue, in the middle of a street. I didn’t block traffic. A giant felled tree was already doing that.

Coming back across the bridge, we were greeted by returning rain, functioning streetlights, and the National Guard with a line of maybe 10 Humvees. The Manhattan refugees ignored the troops and instead marveled at electricity and functioning ATMs. We’re expecting them to stay for the rest of the week.

It should be noted that in situations like this, everyone has different experiences. Elsewhere in Manhattan, people rode out the storm drinking $1000 wine. Tonight, another friend is scheduled to work an event hosted by Bette Midler where the band Blondie will perform. It’s an annual Halloween party, for a charity called the New York Restoration Project. Apparently they will have electricity. And dinner. At the time of writing, it has not been canceled. So maybe it’s an apt cause. Possibly.

There’s more to tell but this story has to end here. I’ve just been texted by more friends in New Jersey hemmed in to their house by fallen trees and electricity wires. Can I help? They have an emergency generator and need fuel to fire it up. They can get the diesel but there are no containers anywhere accessible. Oh, and some food might be good. They’re two hours by car, normally. I’ll plan to be home tomorrow.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.