Everything in New York is larger than life -- our affluence and poverty, our cultural venues and street life -- and it turns out, even our disasters. From 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy when recent disasters have struck the city, they have occurred with intense force and tragic consequences.
We lived through Sandy in my 9th floor Village apartment for four days without lights, power, toilets, phone, and computer. I know it was not as horrific as living through the Japanese tsunami, the Blitz, Sarajevo during the Balkan war, hard labor in the gulag under Stalin. But we did suffer. At age 73 walking up and down nine floors three times a day was exhausting, though I took pride that I was still capable of doing it.
More difficult were the dark nights, where after playing Scrabble with my wife (something I haven’t done in years), and trying to read Graham Greene and Robert Caro by flashlight, my eyes became bleary, and I unwillingly began to fall asleep about 8:30. Also, we had to live with the oppressive smell of toilets that didn’t flush and refrigerators filled with rotting food.
For someone like myself who needs to write, my lack of a portable computer prevented me from doing anything more then taking notes in long hand about my experience. Also, the dark night streets devoid of open shops and lights could feel ominous, as well as turning me melancholic. I felt like I was living in some lost world of shadows and silhouettes where we were all groping about in the dark utterly isolated from each other.
It’s likely none of what I describe sounds apocalyptic to people in countries used to living through wars, revolutions, and earthquakes. Many of them would probably treat the storm as a minor calamity, not a catastrophe.
Our sense of crisis, however, is intensified by the fact that American media love weather events. It allows them to fix their cameras on vivid images of trees falling, demolished cars and houses, the wind howling, subways, streets and shops flooded, and local radio carrying a barrage of human interest stories where ordinary people painfully describe how they are dealing with the storm’s impact on their lives. For the media it’s always much simpler to deal with the sensate nature of a weather phenomenon, than to examine the more cerebral nature of political policy arguments.
However, this was not a mere hyped-up media event -- lives and homes were lost, there were billions of dollars of damage, and genuine misery resulted. Under Obama, FEMA has operated effectively to deal with the situation. The direct opposite of the egregious and callous manner George W. and "Brownie" dealt with Katrina when it devastated New Orleans in 2005. But FEMA’s actions are just a beginning; recovery in the hardest hit areas may take years.
Some of the people who suffered most were New York’s poor and minorities, who tend to suffer more from any urban disaster. If you were middle class, had a car and a second home, or friends to stay with, or you could afford a hotel, one could in many cases avoid much of the distress the storm left in its wake. But if one was poor and infirm, and lived on the upper floors of a public housing project, there was no way to lessen the storm’s impact. Not only did the darkened halls increase the possibility of being robbed, but unless there were fellow tenants or good Samaritans who were willing to help out, you were left alone to fend for yourself. As one tenant said: "The cops don’t come in here. No one’s bringing us flashlights. No one’s bringing water. No one’s doing anything."
One evening I caught a packed bus to escape the desolate streets of the Village for a bustling Upper West Side that had barely been touched by the storm. Walking its vibrant streets, its cafes and restaurants aglow, I had a feeling that most people were going on with their lives without much thought of what was happening merely two/three miles away. In a different context, it’s what I do when I read about the everyday horrors in Syria or Afghanistan. For a moment they bring a twinge of despair, but then I blithely go on with my daily activities.
There’s much more to write about the storm including: the sense of informal, transient sense of community I felt on a bus, sharing the same crisis with a number of passengers; the dedication and humanity of my building’s staff in helping us survive the storm; and NYU, an institution I have been at odds with for its mammoth building projects, generously providing meals and use of their library. There are also the effects of climate change, which scientists believe has clearly made for more extreme storms like Sandy, and the necessity for the city to create a new infrastructure, whose cost will be prohibitive.
Yes we survived, though some people lost everything. There will be massive storms and floods to come, and little that government is willing to do to mitigate their effects.
Leonard Quart can be reached at