Notes on a Hurricane: Acts of God

The desolate Lower East Side, on Wednesday afternoon.

Post-industrial cities are intricate networks of information and people that exist in constant flow; they thrive on technology and capital, but they are also utterly human. A city is a mashup of ethnicities and socioeconomic classes; it is where any aspect of humanity comes face to face with its plurality of Others.

New York City is a post-modern city constructed on modern infrastructure: bridges, subway tunnels, high-rise skyscrapers, LaGuardia’s indoor markets, public housing complexes. These spaces become interconnected with the Internet and through reliable transportation.

This week, nearly everyone stayed in his or her borough, not venturing far. As I crossed the bridge on foot for a post-Sandy venture into Manhattan—which returned briefly to its island status during the storm, when all bridges were closed to traffic and tunnels were flooded—I looked at the powerful generator of capital that stretched from Midtown to the Financial District, and felt my existence as an extension of that activity. I wondered whether I had fully grasped the kind of responsibility that that connection entails. The sky was cloudy, and I wondered if we were in for yet another warm winter—perhaps as warm as the one last year, when the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park were in T-shirts in early November. I wondered if we were in for warm winters from here on out. I wondered if New York City, or this country, would ever be the same.

 

Since the Hurricane, the city buses have been very crowded. On Wednesday, Halloween, I waited for the B44 on Bedford Ave. Two

On the Williamsburg Bridge.

passed by. A woman waiting beside me said she was headed to a building near Times Square where she works as a security guard. Her co-workers had been staffing the building since Sunday night, and she was hoping to let them go and get some overtime hours. I finally got on the third bus, and it let me off in the middle of Hasidic Williamsburg. From there, I walked to the Williamsburg Bridge, and over it. The flow on the bridge was heavier than usual, of course.

In the city, I meandered around the Lower East Side, which was draped in a cloudy gray cloak, stripped naked. Teenagers huddled in darkened bodegas. A few bars presented themselves as gathering places: “Yes, we are open.” Supermarkets had spilled out onto the sidewalk, where they did cash transactions of essentials: bananas, milk, coffee, toilet paper. All the liquor stores were open. One homeless outreach center on East 4th Street offered boxed meals and comfort items to all in need. Crowds passed by in costume; children eagerly demanded candy and every business that could complied. Long lines at every bus stop; faces searching for fresh bread, for hot coffee, for taxis, all scarce. A crossing guard (there were no traffic lights) said to another guard that his dinner break was too short to actually find food anywhere—he’d have to drive all the way uptown.

As I returned to Brooklyn over the bridge, my legs grew tired. At the bus depot on Broadway, I waited with hundreds under a cloudy, gray sky, a hurricane hangover. I then found myself squished, standing up, for an hour as the bus staggered through the rush hour traffic along the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. Rowdy teenagers boarded with Halloween masks. Behind me, a woman with a West Indian accent explained her dissatisfaction with Obama: he supports gay marriage, his values aren’t right. The man beside her insisted that Obama was only saying he supported gay marriage for political points; in his heart, he didn’t agree. Still, she was skeptical.

On the B52 this afternoon, coming through Bed-Stuy, a woman entertained a packed vehicle by loudly remarking on every sign of gentrification we passed. “Lord, now they’re sitting on the sidewalk, eating. You know my father was a Black Panther? Everybody better move to the back of the bus, right, because you better get used to that; that’s the way it’s gonna be here.” Then she switched gears: “Y’all better vote on Tuesday. Don’t matter if it rain, if it snow, you get out there and vote.” Peoples’ eyes fixed on her; their heads nodded.

Powerhouse Books in DUMBO has been destroyed. Their Arena’s glass windows were blown out; floods devoured entire boxes of brand-new books. Tens of thousands of dollars of damage. No flood insurance. A massive flood—a deluge, to use the Biblical word—is considered an “Act of God” in legal terms. No one can be deemed responsible; therefore, private insurers will not cover such occurrences. (Powerhouse is having a benefit sale on the 17th, from 1-8pm.)

DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass—a formerly-industrial neighborhood that now houses some of the priciest lofts in Brooklyn, as well as publishing houses, design firms, tech startups, and art studios) was certainly one of God’s targets on Monday night. One of the iconic images circulating on the Internet then was of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which appeared as if it were floating in a sea, the horses like mystical floating creatures; this photo was provided by Gothamist, whose office is in DUMBO. Other businesses in DUMBO besides Powerhouse are similarly damaged; what was a few weeks ago a top tourist destination, a hugely popular gathering place for New Yorkers, and an art installation featuring sculptures and landscaping, is now waterlogged and dilapidated. There goes the neighborhood. Red Hook is similarly affected. Brooklyn Grange’s new Navy Yard rooftop farm lost all of its bees—they just floated away.

Alongside the carousel, the other image circulating on Monday night was of Manhattan half-lit, after a ConEdison substation on 14th Street at the East River exploded (that video was another high-circulation item). Later in the week, the Times reported on Lower Manhattanites converging in a Chase Bank in Midtown, using the Internet and re-charging their cell phones.

Twitter was an indispensible resource. On Monday night, those of us who retained power huddled by our laptops as gusts of wind banged on our windows. Online reactions were immediate and visceral, exhibiting a live and democratic forum for news updates and debate. Bill McKibben immediately began tweeting about climate change, citing elected officials who seemed to agree that this storm necessarily resulted from global warming. Governor Cuomo’s official Twitter account sent out messages 300 to 500 times each day, and accrued tens of thousands of new followers. The Times on Friday quoted a deputy communications manager for Connecticut’s governor explaining that people no longer have battery-power radios and therefore can’t hear live addresses from elected representatives; therefore their SmartPhones are their lines of communication, and Twitter is vital. One Twitter “troll” was accused of deliberately spreading falsehoods and confusing people. Later, the “people of New York” were extended a “sincere, humble, and unconditional apology.” The Twitter user, ComfortablySmug, says on his profile that his interests are: “Finance, Gin, Politics, Books, Food, Fine Clothing, Meeting Strangers”; this information is followed by the hashtag “#Mitt2012” and a link for donating to the Romney campaign. At the time of writing, ComfortablySmug—later outed as a hedge fund analyst and Republican political consultant named Shashank Tripathi–had 6,781 followers.

There were deaths: 38 reported by the time Friday’s Times was printed. On Staten Island, a woman’s two small sons, 2 and 4, slipped from her grip and washed away after her SUV was battered by waves on a highway; she had been hoping to make it to Brooklyn but was too late in leaving. An elderly couple was found dead not far from their shoreside house. Many homes were washed into marshes and meadows.

Gasoline became scarce, first on Long Island and Staten Island, then in Brooklyn. For the first time, taxis and cars were absolutely vital in a city that prides itself and functions on underground transportation. On Tuesday, the MTA ran a statement on their website that proclaimed the gravity of the situation: never in their 108-year history had the system experienced such devastation. Ten subway tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn were undercover during the storm. It would take days to deal with the flooding and make necessary repairs.

After the storm, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie praised President Obama’s management of the crisis, and the President flew out to the Jersey Shore to meet the Governor. They surveyed the devastation together. The media jumped on the opportunity to highlight differences in policy toward FEMA, which pre-positioned equipment and supplies before Sandy hit, and issued an unprecedented declaration of national disaster, between Obama—who vows to continue funding, and Romney—who asserted during a 2011 primary debate that he would shift the burden to oft-insolvent states. All over the region, the National Guard and other rescuers were wading in water, entering buildings, assisting terrified citizens.

On Thursday, the day following Halloween, Mayor Bloomberg officially endorsed Obama for President, citing as his main reason the President’s focus on climate change and his capacity for addressing the issue. The statement by Bloomberg, an independent, was unanticipated. It only took an Act of God.

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