During the week of October 29, the country watched as Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, from Maryland to New Jersey, through New York and up as far as New Hampshire. More than 110 people have died in the storm's aftermath, and thousands of households were left without power. The writer, who is currently on his journalism residency in New York City, captured the events unraveling on his street before his eyes that changed his hometown and his own life.
Day 1, 6 p.m.
"We should've left when we had the chance," my mother said. In that moment, I believed her.
The water looked harmless, just some puddles waiting to be drained. "Do you have your evacuation bags?" she asked us. Sort of. I packed a sweater she recently bought me, my sweatpants and a pair of jeans in a Lacoste duffle bag. In my backpack, I had the essentials: two issues of The Atlantic, two issues of The New Yorker, the latest issue of Wired, my iPad, a charging cable and my Macbook Pro.
I had a notebook or two in case I wanted to write something down. Who knew how long my devices would stay functional? A day, maybe two? Who knew if we would even have power? A part of me, the optimistic youth inside, hoped that by the time we made it to my aunt's house, all we would see was a mirror image of Hurricane Irene: a torrential downpour, some gusty winds and a backup generator to keep us happy.
Our house didn't have a generator. I wish we left.
Her words resonated with me, as I looked out the front door. My father put on some sweatpants and moved his car deeper into our water-ridden driveway, toward the side of the house. The car inched its way to a tight fit. My mother's eyes were weary and filled with shock. She stared out the window and watched the waves approach from both sides of the street. My mother, father and I wasted a handful of minutes deciding whether or not we should leave. My brother stood with a confused look on his face, his arms crossed on his chest. My mother urged us to go. My father said it was too late.
The hell with it, let's go.
But no one moved.
It was too late. We should've left.
But we didn't. We watched the water rise as bystanders waiting in line for a Broadway debut. I'll call this one A Hurricane Named Sandy. Reviews from local news outlets lauded this treacherous storm as a highly anticipated knockout hit for the Eastern Seaboard. Based on the news reports, New Jersey and New York offered it plenty to perform on a national stage.
For some reason, Mayor Bloomberg's words from the television resonated with me: "If you haven't left your homes already, stay put. Don't try to be a hero. Stay safe."
"Mom, Dad: We can't keep gawking out the window," I said. "We need to move things." I couldn't believe my own words. I wanted to stare out the window for as long as humanly possible, to document this historic natural disaster unfolding before our eyes. But I looked around the room and felt compelled to save whatever we could. Inevitably, we knew, the water would reach us.
I grabbed whatever I could find. I carried a computer tower and brought it to my brother's room. My mother carried some foodstuffs to her room on the third floor – our new shelter. I can't remember what I brought upstairs after that. At one point, I stood in front of the table, where the stockpile assembled. I reached for an item and then pulled back, unsure what I should grab next. My mind went blank. Shock settled in. I walked back to the front window and stared for several minutes in awe.
Sigh. What is going on?
Eventually, instinct kicked in. Instead, I grabbed whatever I could, tossed it – okay, placed it gently – into my brother's room and ran upstairs to my mother's room. I sat on the back corner of her king-sized bed, my legs dangling over the edge, my toes barely touching the floor.
Light faded away, and the darkness approached like a cloud of suspicion in the interrogation room during a cold case. I was both the victim and the interrogator. I wondered why I hadn't done more, whether sitting on the bed and staring into the inevitable darkness was productive. I flipped opened the polyurethane cover of my iPad and tried to keep my mind occupied, to no avail. All I could think about was the unnatural high tide crashing into the homes, into boardwalks, into beaches along the East Coast, changing the lives of many, one splash at a time.
After a half hour of work, my parents came upstairs bearing gifts. My mother lined four different boxes of cereal atop the defunct cable box. I finished my last bowl of cereal for the night. What remained was the sugary crunching sound ringing in my ear, the sweet taste of cold milk swimming in my mouth.
Day 1, 9 p.m.
The storm raged. The wind whistled, pierced through the cold air and shook the oak tree looming over my neighbor's house. "I remember when your mother told the neighbors to take down the tree," my father told the room. "They were whining about how it is on their side, but it hung over our fence. We cut down some of the branches, but look at it now. It's moving back and forth."
My mother, in a white nightgown, leaned out the window at the top floor, and watched the shed rise from the ground and turn toward the house.
Shortly before I arrived back in the New York for the summer, my father and I put together a new basketball hoop. Hurricane Irene dismantled my old hoop – its backboard half-broken, the lower part of the metal pole bent. After more than four years, it was time to switch to a new hoop. My father found a good deal online for an iHoop. It solved the problem every high school baller encountered: How do I play music while I'm shooting hoops? Open the plastic flap four feet above the base and put your iPod there. What a novel idea.
"Look!" my father said, pointing out the window. "The shed is turned sideways. And there goes the hoop." The iHoop keeled over and floated prone over the cement floor, its orange rim pointed toward the sky. Looks like I need a new hoop. It's only been a few months.
The purple linen curtain covered the portrait of a town I never knew. In the dark, the curtain looked faint and white. Now, it shielded my mother from the clouds of fear and despair hovering over New York City.
Across the harbor, friends watched as the high tide mangled the boardwalk on Rockaway Beach. I checked Facebook on my phone, only to see a friend from high school share a picture of the flood slowly approaching his house. Then, with a downward swipe, a former high school teacher asked for prayers.
"Just found out a classmate of mine from high school was tragically killed in this storm. Please keep him and his family in your prayers and please be safe."
My worst fear came true. It didn't matter how this stranger met his end. Who knew if this man would be the storm's first casualty or its last? The only thought that ran threw my mind was how lucky I was to be with my mother who pushed us upstairs into her room and gave us shelter; to be with my father, whose solemn presence, with a hint of urging, made sure we protected our dearest possessions; and to be with my brother, who is safe and sound, wrapped in my mother's blanket.
I sat shrouded in darkness, my bed shaking with the nudge of Sandy's graceful wind moving my house, only the flicker of a small flashlight to keep me company. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning joined me.
Day 1, 11:10 p.m.
The battery surge went out after 20 minutes of trust. In a last ditch effort to save the milk and cheese, my parents decided to plug the mini-fridge to the surge protector. I heard the surge call for some help. Every couple of seconds, it beeped.
I shouldn't have told my parents about the protector.
Wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, my brother looked almost peaceful. His face, covered by the off-white cover, hid. His eyes flinched every few seconds. I could only imagine the thoughts going through this 14-year-old's mind as a natural disaster dismantled the sense of security we felt within these walls. He looked neither weary nor scared, simply serene. My mother, after a glass of white wine, dozed off.
"Where is my camera?" my father shouted from the second floor.
I must have gotten my sense of curiosity from him. He wanted to document the occasion, this unnatural disruption of everyday life. "Things like this never happen," he would later say.
I didn't sleep well that night, or the nights afterward. But his truthful words rested with me since then.
Day 2, 10 a.m.
The faint sunlight forced my eyes open. I didn't want to be awake. I wanted the hours to pass by until the moment my lamp illuminated the room. The first thing I saw: my mother sitting in her black leather chair and staring out beyond those purple linen curtains and into the gray horizon. Across the way, apartment windows remained pitch black. Only a faint flicker from the scented candles resonated.
I put on a pair of slippers and trotted downstairs. The carpet felt softer than usual. The darkness narrowed my vision. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the pinch of light coming from a window shade in my father's room. The pillows were piled up on his bed and the sheets were everywhere. I don't remember causing this much damage to my temporary pad. Maybe I did and didn't realize it. The classic teenage excuse, I thought.
I pushed my mountain bike aside, stepped over the wires for my living room desktop, ran past cage where my puppy slept and continued downstairs.
What the hell?
What a sight to see. Weeks ago, on the first night I returned to New York, my parents told me they wanted to rearrange the couches. Well, they got their wish. Faced down on a dirt-ridden wood floor rested the empty shelving unit, where I stored my video game collection and my father stored his movies. My eyes swiveled back to the couches, where I sat and played hours of video games and watched hours of movies. Pig Pen would've had a field day in my living room. I tiptoed around the unit, over some towels and toward the front door. I hesitated.
I wasn't prepared to open the door. When I grabbed the metal door handle, a chilling sensation took over my body. I could not think. I could not see. I could not possibly know what would happen next. All I could do was open the door and see how my life, from that moment on, would change. And it did.
Brown sludge everywhere – on the walls, on the street, on the cars.
Cars were carried out of place.
Only a single brown line on the white front door on the apartment across the street showed how high the tide rose.
The water. It was just above my shoulders.
Coney Island, the one I knew, was gone and forgotten. Throughout the day, my father would go on and on about how the news coverage focused solely on the well-known areas. Red Hook. Breezy Point. Lower Manhattan. Rockaway. Queens. And yes, my thoughts went out to those who suffered from those neighborhoods. A friend of mine from high school lost much of his childhood home in Rockaway. His life changed. But so did mine.
Things were worse on this little island than we had even anticipated. The Almighty painter took his brush – no, his bucket – and tossed paint onto his little canvas called West 15th Street. What remained was a mural of disorder and desolation. Weary neighbors stared in a daze at the devastation. Little by little, people trickled into the streets and wondered what had happened to the sliver of land they collectively owned.
But then, as I sat on my front steps, I closed my eyes and thought beyond New York City, beyond the bubble I had created, where life passed along as if nothing happened. Friends attended classes. Colleagues went to work. Life moved on without pause. To the rest of the country, we were just a flashing headline on the front page of a news site. But others paid attention – partly because of the tragedy that affected many along the Eastern Seaboard, partly because New York City remained the hub for national news coverage.
Reality hadn't hit my parents yet. My mother reiterated that over and over again. We didn't see this coming. I climbed over the first-floor wreckage and found myself standing on my deck in the backyard, surveying the cesspool before me. My brother leaned against the railing, with his hands in his pockets, and stood over my hoop.
In the distance, I heard plastic scratch concrete, a sound as painful as fingernails passing along a chalkboard. I walked over to the front yard and leaned over the fence to see where the noise came from. I noticed my buddy Charlie dragging recycling bins full of water with a friend of his and dumping it onto the street. He went from the driveway to the back of our buddy Junior's basement to break into the underground deluge.
There were no sirens or cops. News reports still called on people's attention to the storm's passing. But no one could hear the unfolding drama over the airwaves. At least, not in our little home. We lost power. We had no cell phone reception. We had no Internet. But we had each other.
The sky, still gray, teased us with the threat of another thunderstorm, only to spill a few raindrops from its clouds.
Still, we hid inside and awaited the worst.
Day 3, 11 a.m.
On the third day, people came out of their homes with shock in their eyes but swagger in their hearts. It was time to get to work. That's the beauty about New Yorkers. No matter how difficult the situation, whether it's a death in the family or the destruction of a community, New Yorkers hustled to make life return to normal.
I awoke to mom calling my name. Our neighbor, who evacuated far before the storm reached Coney Island, offered to let me charge my cell phone, the only phone with paltry reception we had left. My neighbor, a construction worker, was a mirror image of his father. Short, round and stocky. He came from a large extended family that took over two houses next to one another. For him, work in the city had been called off. He mentioned the crane on the verge of collapsing and endangering buildings and people around it. He explained the misguidance of the workers who were supposed to take the necessary precautions to minimize potential damage. The crane, he said, was either supposed to be lowered or leaned against a stable structure before the storm became problematic.
But, of course, the workers couldn't see that coming.
As I stood outside chatting with my neighbor, a familiar face approached from down the street. He wore a fitted Yankee cap and baggy jeans that hung below his hips.
"Jerry!" I shouted.
He waddled toward me in the way kids did to make sure their new sneakers, the ones they waited in line all night for, didn't get dirty. Except my buddy's shoes, once navy blue, were now brown.
A father of three kids, Jerry lived a mile down the road in the projects. After a long day of helping other tenants in his building, he ventured around the neighborhood where he too grew up and to the block where many of his own childhood memories cultivated. We used to hang out on the front porch doing what kids did till the streetlights went out. Now, we chatted as men, wondering what happened to the block we called home.
He told me about the situation near him. It wasn't any better. He spoke of walking in the graffiti-covered hallways now shrouded in darkness, of the eerie silence at night, of the bands of victims breaking into supermarkets and stealing whatever they could find. He even warned me about robbers who posed as Con Ed workers.
At first, I couldn't believe him. The tale seemed like any other story circulating in the streets, a myth until proven true. But no one believed the high tide could ravage our street either. At this point, I was ready to believe just about anything.
Jerry was prepared. He reached for a retractable baton that rested in a holster on his belt. In his hoodie pocket, he had another one. He took out his cell phone and checked for reception. No luck. He was older than me and much more acclimated to the streets than I could ever be.
Minutes later, Junior walked over, ready for war. He wore North Face military vest with innumerable pockets scattered across his body. A switchblade in his breast pocket. A baton in his secret spot right above his hips. A jar of Smucker's Goober peanut butter and jelly in his front pocket.
"Junior, what's with the Goober?" Jerry asked.
"Man, I found it in my house," Junior said. "It was one of the last things that made it through the storm."
Junior and his family live on the first floor of a two-story apartment building. His father owned what could've been a second house in the backyard where, during the summer, Junior worked alongside an assortment of workers in the linen factory. When the storm approached, his family fled to Sunset Park, the same neighborhood where I was born. Before he left, he took all his clothes and threw them on the bed. He placed a sheet of paper underneath the pile to see how high the water would reach.
When he returned the day after the storm, the piece of paper was drenched. His clothes were safe.
But the rest of his house was not. Each step I took felt like I stepped into a puddle. The living room where we spent many nights playing Call of Duty became a stage in the game. I climbed over damp couches and slowly moved through the mangled kitchen. The refrigerator lay on its face. I can picture the scene now: the couches hovering in place, the remnants of alcohol gliding across the room, the refrigerator falling face first into the four-foot high pond and floating until the storm ceased.
This is insane.
That's all I could muster.
Day 3, 3 p.m.
Jerry left to take care of business at home. He has three kids, a mother and a custody hearing to worry about. Junior and I decide to walk around the block to see how others fared in the storm's aftermath.
On the corner just outside the shuttered McDonald's sat an Eyewitness News truck and a handful of confused bystanders. I thought about what my father said, about how news outlets were covering the storm's effects on Coney Island. Yet there was a news truck packing up and preparing to leave.
Unlike yesterday, cops patrolled the blocks on foot. The sirens echoed in the distance. There were no crossing guards, even though the streetlights were turned off. It was every man or woman for themselves. Some were courteous, others were not. Hunger started to set in.
I walked around the corner to see whether Pizza On The Run, my favorite pizza joint in New York City, endured. On The Run is a hole in the wall, a one-stop shop for large slices of pizza for an affordable price. Yet when I looked into the window, I saw a pizza oven tilted over, the wheels underneath spinning.
There was one slice left, folded over, enticing our taste buds until we realized just how gross eating that slice would be.
A cop stopped us from going any further. He guarded a makeshift barricade created out of a web of yellow tape, just outside Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs. I jogged across the street to peek inside the train station.
"Dude, you should've brought your camera," Junior said.
I can always go back and grab it.
But I didn't want to. Why would I? The image of a lifeless entrance to the train station, where floods of tourists flocked the boardwalk on those sultry summer nights, is seared into my mind. Dirt was everywhere. Not a soul in sight. With the lights turned out, the train station took me back in time, to the days when the Warriors patrolled the streets and protected our turf. The dirty floors became modern-day graffiti, a reflection of the artistic terror Coney Islanders felt for one faithless day.
We moved on.
Timbuktu, the barbershop where I got my monthly haircut, held a yard sale. Those red leather chairs – where men waited to look sharp, where barbers joked about who could beat down who in Madden, where the clippers buzzed into the customers' ears like a bee seduced by honey – stacked, one on top of another, outside the storefront. A husky African-American man sprayed some concoction on his white towel, perhaps the same towel he used to clear off the hair from those very seats, and wiped each chair clean. One of the barbers later told The Daily Beast he lost roughly $1,000 in equipment, thanks to Sandy.
"Want to head back to the block?" Junior asked.
Please. I had seen enough.
My cell phone reception is back. The power returned, at least to half of the house. My house, however, isn't back to normal. October 29: the day Coney Islanders sat and watched a tempest sweep past their neighborhood.
When I look outside my window, I see the wreckage Sandy left behind. The streets are still littered with large trash bags, stained wood and broken furniture, waiting for the sanitation workers to finish their rounds in Manhattan so they can pick up the pieces back home. Rumors of looting have subsided, but news of the homeless has arisen. I think about the leftovers I have on my plate and savor every bite.
As I write, the lights illuminating my room flicker, a stellar reminder of the privilege I still have, and of the losses thousands have suffered. But still, I push on, with family and friends, against the current of doubt and disbelief, toward the hope that one day, the bright lights of the boardwalk will shine bright over the calm waters once more.