The night before Sandy hit New York City, I stepped out of my apartment and dropped by the hardware store around the corner. The store was called “Tire Fix, Bike Locks, Bathrooms, Anything you Need” and might occupy 200 square feet on a good day. Its run by a middle-age man from Trinidad who goes by Joe and keeps most everything behind the counter. I was stopping in for batteries (smart), candles (smart) and a low-flow showerhead (irrelevant). When I asked for low-flow, Joe quipped, “you save it, someone else will waste it.” I didn’t have a quick response, so I just smiled. Joe had his 4-inch TV blasting Eyewitness News, and some talking head was going on about how Sandy was going to be the biggest thing that America had ever done. Joe and I had a good laugh, and I paid too much for my batteries and went on my way. On the way out, I could hear Joe making fun of an older Jamaican lady who had asked if he had any flashlights left.
I live in central Brooklyn, in a tight-nit neighborhood called Ditmas Park. It’s a smattering of row houses and old Victorian mansions that have mostly long since been recommissioned as duplexes and the like. We’ve always had storms, of varying degrees, during all four seasons, and coming from most any direction, but I don’t need to be the one to tell anyone there has never been anything like this. With 100 people dead, more than 3 million without power, and Moody’s estimating around $50 billion dollars in damage, Sandy has spoken, fitfully, and forcefully.
The experience in New York was a segregated one. Not by demographic, but geographic – your life, your livelihood, your power – all stood subject to your elevation and your proximity to the mighty coastal waters. For those in Zone A (low lying areas close to the shoreline), lives were upended, often lost. Whole communities were ravaged by fire and flood. I went on a bike ride surveying the damage on Tuesday, and it was apocalyptic. Meanwhile, for the millions of people farther inland, many of us were almost completely untouched (a blessing I do not take lightly). As sea levels rise and seawaters warm, it seemed as if Sandy, a category 1 hurricane at its strongest moment, had stopped by as a heavy-handed warning.
Some of the most encouraging times in New York City can be when an event captures the attention of the whole city. It is easy to feel anonymous in a city this big. On the flip side, the power of those 9 million people coming together as a community, even in patient sentiment, is palpable. Its unfortunate that it usually only occurs during a tragedy, but the force of the collaborative atmosphere is so compelling. For the few people who hadn’t found a way to help those in need, there were small things that were happening that would make you cry tears of joy if it were a normal day in this town. A group of six cars all stopped at a light without any working signals to let two young ladies cross. A police officer sang to me and others while I boarded a shuttle bus downtown. (The lyrics: “It’s a crisis folks, lets squeeze in. Nice and close together, we got two more people coming”). A young woman jumped into a cab and sat on another lady’s lap. They didn’t know each other, but I could hear them talking about getting home to their kids as she got in. It was a city whose lifeblood was individualism and myopic ambition, and it was suddenly a case study in collaboration, open sourcing, and communal kinship.
I work for Greenpeace, fundraising on the sidewalks of Manhattan and Brooklyn. When I returned to work on Thursday, I biked up through Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, through the ghost town that was lower Manhattan up along the Hudson River Greenway, to 72nd Street and Broadway. I shook a boatload of hands, was greeted really warmly by the neighborhood, and spent hours talking to people about global warming. It’s easy, we all thought, to conflate large storms with impending global doom. Its also easy to do the opposite, and cite larger and longer global trends to eschew causality, occupying some false voice of reason. What must be exceedingly difficult, in my mind, would be to wake up in the morning, see your home under water. Your entire community laid to waste. To know that our nation’s priorities and our politics have played a part in this storm’s strength. There is 1.3 degrees of extra warmth in the Atlantic Ocean, and Sandy fed off of it. It is encouraging to me that Bloomberg made his political endorsements based on his feelings about climate change. It is discouraging to know that it took Sandy for him to do that.