Hurricane Sandy

Oct 28th - Nov 2nd, 2012

printer friendly

Map of Evacuation Zones
and places mentioned
in this report
Sunday, Oct 28, 2012.
Hurricane Sandy is creeping closer and it has been announced that the parks will all close at 5:00 this afternoon. Also the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority - ie. buses, subways and trains) will start their shutdown at 7:00 pm. However, what effected us most is that "Pickle Day" has been postponed for a week. Still, we can not stay cooped up in our apartment all day. If this storm really turns into something, I expect there will be plenty of time for just sitting around. So we take the subway down to the battery to see what the harbor looks like, and then walk up the shore of the Hudson, through Battery Park City. A lot of other people are out walking about, also looking at the waves in the harbor. The only real signs of the impending storm are the number of camera crews with reporters standing with the harbor and statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

We walked inland a few blocks into TriBeCa. This part of Manhattan is pretty low and the MTA is working hard to seal up the subway tunnels. They have plywood around the entrance ways, and also plywood has been glued over the stations vents in the sidewalk. It looks like it is held in place with something like gorilla glue. I expect that will help if waves roll in from the river to here, but if it is submerged I wonder if the wood will just float away?

People seem to mumble and wonder why the MTA is closing down at this point. The storm doesn't seem very real, and 7:00pm today seems somehow too cautious and too soon. I read a little about what it means to close down the system. It takes a total of eight hours to shut down the whole network. First, 7:00 is when the last commuter trains leave the most distant stations; trains from Long Island, Connecticut, the Hudson Valley and New Jersey make one more run into Manhattan, and then out to where ever they spend the night. So the fine print on the MTA announcement is that at 7:00 they start to close the system, and service after that would be uncertain. After buses make there last run they head to shelters and higher ground. After subway trains are finished they are stored within the tunnels, but on higher sections of track. And then, some how, the MTA must get its employees home. Normally most of them use the MTA, operated by the next shift, to get home. The more I thought about the logistics, the more I thought eight hours was pretty quick.

In the evening Kristina and I go for a walk around our neighborhood. It seems to me that the whole city has spend the day waiting for . . . ? I tell her that it reminds me of the "Phoney War" before the fighting in World War II started.

Monday, Oct 29th
It started to rain over night and the wind is on the rise. Still, it doesn't seem to have risen to the height of a hurricane and closing down the city. Columbia, Bard and NYU are all closed. Even WPI in Massachusetts , where my niece goes to school is closed. The only one in the whole family who "goes to work" today is me. I walked across our apartment and sat at the desk.

Hudson River from
Chelsea Waterside Park

Up an avenue with
little traffic
In the morning I walked down to the Hudson River. The wind is on the rise and it is raining. The trees and bushes in Hudson River/Chelsea Waterside Park are thrashing around.

There is a storm drain from 23rd street which you normally can see in the seawall, a few feet above the waves, but that is underwater. In fact when waves roll in they flow up the drain and spurt out of holes in a manhole cover ten meters inland. They also bounce and rattle those iron covers around a bit.

When waiting at a light to cross the westside highway I told a woman also waiting, "There is something about horizontal rain which thrills a person". She then told me about all the different shapes her umbrella had taken on. This took a lot of pointing and gesturing and body language, for it was a most active umbrella.

In the middle of the afternoon I took a second walk, inland this time. I went over to Madison Square and then up Broadway to Herald Square. Finally I went into a cafe on 7th Avenue. I sat with my coffee looking out the second floor window as sheets of rain scurried down the Avenue. There was hardly any traffic on the streets, but the cafe was warm and full of people talking about the storm. In New York it is often hard to understand conversations at the tables around you, for in that cafe I could hear Spanish, French, Chinese and Russian as well as English. But in a lot of what I heard the word "Sandy" was often repeated.

When I returned to the apartment Kristina was watching the mayor's daily briefing on her computer. Con-Edison is reporting that there is a great deal of water in their tunnels and they may turn off power to certain neighborhoods to protect equipment. I think circuits which are off and then submerged do better then circuits which short out because of being flooded.

Emergency Alerts
We have also started receiving text messages about evacuations, and consult city maps. We are in zone B, and do not have to evacuate, but are only a block from zone A. I downloaded a topographic map of Manhattan from the USGS and learned that zone A is below 10 feet of elevation, where as we are at about 18 feet.

I am also watching the barometric pressure drop, both on my hiking altimeter/barometer, and at the weather station in Central Park. The rate at which the barometer falls is amazing to watch as it accelerates its drop.

We lost power at about 8:30-8:40. It seems to us that the wind has just past its peak, but that is not what caused the outage. It is the tidal surge on the East River which has flooded a power plant and power switching yard. One of the coincidences of this storm is that it hit at high tide. And not just any high tide, but the moon is full, the "Hunter's Moon", and so it is a spring tide too.

We rigged up my camping lantern and I can still light our stove with a match (it is gas), and so we can camp out in our apartment.

Weather Data - Click for details

Tuesday, Oct 30
Still no electricity when we woke, and without power we were without news as to the extent of the storm's damage. In the morning we bundled up in old rain coats and walked down to the river. En route we passed by a number of art galleries on 24th Street and noticed that the waterline on the buildings varied a great deal, rising up to as much as three feet above street level. At the Chelsea Waterside Park I pointed out the manhole cover that had been spurting, burping and clattering about. The iron lid must have been banged about once too often, it had cracked and a five pound piece of it was missing.

Across the Hudson River
toward Jersey City

The waterline on the
window of an art gallery
It was raining off and on as we walked up 23rd Street and then 5th Avenue until we found a hotel with electricity and watched the news, with captions, through the window. We then circled past Herald Square to 10th Ave. and then headed home.

On 10th Avenue, between 25th and 26th Street there was a small store which was trying to get cleaned up. In the sidewalk in front of the store was a hatch way down to the basement. The doors were open and we could see down five steps, and then all dark water. The hatch was surrounded by five black guys, Kristina and myself. One of the biggest guys, who seemed to work there and had his hand on the hatch called out, "Step right up -- five dollars -- you can swim all you want!" at which we all laughed. "Yes sir -- no need to go over to the Y, you can swim right here!"

"What's that?" asked one of the other guys, pointing into the cellar. The first guy looked down and replied, "Why that is our refrigerator floating around down there. Why yes, as you swim you can help yourself to a refreshing drink from that there refrigerator."

I loved to see this attitude. This could have been nasty, with the owner angry. But he took it all in stride and was laughing. And I expect that the neighbors were ready to lend a hand.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to Kristina's office at Columbia University. The taxi driver told us he was happy to leave lower Manhattan. The traffic lights are out and he found driving there a bit scary. Uptown is a whole different city, a place of lights and electricity. We watched the mayor's daily briefing online. Mayor Bloomberg is a good source. He gave a lot of information and status reports in a very short time. We have also become fans of the woman who does the sign-language next to the mayor, especially when she signs waves and storms and helicopters.

Apparently our power problems stem from a power plant on East 14th Street, along the East River. It was hit by the tidal surge and they estimate about four days to recover.

By evening there is limited bus service so we can take the #11 down Amsterdam Ave., Columbus Ave. and 9th Ave. But the driver stops at 34th street, just before crossing into the blackout zone.

We walked back to our apartment on 9th Ave. It is eerie to cross the line at 31st St., between a well lit, fully functioning and active city, and darkness. The fire department has put red flares on all of the street corners. Kristina says that it gives the place an apocalyptic feel. There is smoke from the flares drifting across the avenue. A few taxis are creeping downtown. Occasionally a blueish-white flashlight sweeps us from the doormen of a dark building or a lone pedestrian.

With camping lantern in hand we entered our own building, greeted the doorman, and climbed the pitch black staircase. We met a guy carrying his dog down the stairs. Dogs still need to go for walks.

We made tea and counted the apartments with lights shining into the courtyard. It is not many. I expect that a lot of people have gone elsewhere.

Wednesday, Oct 31, 2012
In the morning I realize that water may become a problem. If a building is over five or six stories tall in New York City, there is not enough pressure in the water mains to get to the top floor. So most buildings have tanks on the roof and pumps which fill those tanks. Without power our tank is going to soon be drained.

The first thing I did was rummage through the recycling and pull out all the bottles I can find. With hiking bottles too, I now have a stash of nine liters. I reasoned that I could wash all of our dishes in the same amount of water as flushing the toilet once, and then flush with the wash water. Scouts will recognize the "three pot method" I used to wash our dishes. Then we headed back to Columbia.

The day is sunny, bright and cool, so we walked a few block up 10th Ave. before getting on the bus. We were waiting at 31st street when we witnessed a near accident - with brakes being slammed on, wheels skidding, but curiously enough no horns. This was the first intersection which had a working traffic light, and it was green for 31st St., and red for 10th Ave. But the avenue driver had just driven up a dozen or more blocks with no traffic lights, and with people always assuming that the avenues had the right away. I don't think he was even looking for the traffic light. I think both car instantly understood what was going on, so after stopping, they waved and crept slowly around each other.

No traffic lights
9th Ave. & 14th St.

Cleaning up
Meat Packing District

Network repair trucks

No traffic lights
9th Ave. & 22th St.
The #11 bus crept up 10th Ave. (south on 9th, north on 10th). The bus is crammed full of people from Chelsea, Greenwich Village and neighborhoods south of us. To help, the MTA offers rides for free today. Last night the trip south had been quick, with the streets nearly empty. But today a lot of people are trying to head back to work and there are no subways running. So the streets are snarled and traffic creeps.

The bus is so tightly packed that people near the back door step off every time the bus stops to let people through. One guy, a big black man in is early twenties was have a great time, playing the role of the courteous doormen, helping people in and out. Between stops I got talking with him. He told me that he lives near South Seaport, which means almost under the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan. As the hurricane hit, his girlfriend had come to stay with him and weather the storm. She had gone back to her apartment on the upper westside to check on things, only to discover that there was power there. So this morning he had walked across Manhattan to Chelsea to meet the bus, and was headed north. He said he walked by some of the parks by the East River which are a mess, with trees down and great slabs of concrete breakwaters and sidewalks broken and buckled.

The buses are so claustrophobic that we get out for awhile at about 80th street at a cafe for breakfast. The place is full of people like us, refugees from below 31st, from the darkside, who are there huddled over coffee and their computers hunting for news.

It took over two hours to travel the five miles from Chelsea to Columbia. The traffic is bad and the bus stops at every other block, that is ten times a mile. It makes you realize just how important the subways are. On a normal day a large fraction of this traffic would be under the streets.

At Columbia we checked the news and read a report from our building's management explaining about problems with power, water, heat and so forth. Although are street was not flooded our basement was. Even more so, the boiler is in a sub-basement and under eleven feet of water. They have started pumping out the basement, but it will take a while.

Kristina talked her way into the Columbia Gymnasium to have a shower.

In the evening we went to dinner near Columbia. It is Halloween Night and the sidewalks are full of students and other people in costumes. It made me think about the way Columbia students and NYU students will remember this storm. Life around Columbia has been slightly disturbed. Robin and students at NYU lost power. Apparently a few building at NYU are connected to generators and today he is moving out of his dorm. We get text messages from him and he tells us that NYU set up a cellphone recharging station. NYU is closed for the week. He and his room mate have been invited by someone down the hall to Connecticut for a few days.

Going south on the #11 bus in the late evening is still slow, taking just over an hour to get to 23rd street. Kristina wanted to walk around the neighborhood a bit so we walked down the avenue following a lobster. Yes it is halloween night. One building in the district is lit up. Apparently it belongs to Google. But the area below Chelsea Market is dark and quiet. This area, called the "Meat Packing District" (it still contains a sausage factory), is normally the local hub of clubs and night life, the place you go to watch people at midnight. But now it is a ghost town. It is curious to see moonlight on these streets, a place normally flooded with urban lights.

On the corner of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street the police have set up a light tower and our directing traffic. Because cars are still in motion, even without traffic lights, when ever we cross a street I turn on my camping lantern to make us more visible.

Throughout the entire city the police always have there lights flashing. I expect that is to show their presents. I had read that all police and firefighters are on duty and they were even considering asking retired officers to come back for a few days.

It is odd to see the Empire State Building glowing. It is at the edge of the lit side. So it glows, but all the buildings between us and it are dark.

Thursday, November 1, 2012
In the morning I make coffee and tea and then we pack up and head out. The Subway is now running as far south as 34th Street on the A-line and 42nd Street on the #1. So we walk up 8th Avenue to the A-train and take it to Columbus, then switch to the #1 to Columbia.

Billy and Kathleen, my brother- and sister-in-law have been trying to get me into the New York Athletic Club as their guest to use the showers. They are members of the club. They live out on Shelter Island, at the tip of Long Island and have tried to call in but the NYAC's phones have been scrambled. So in the afternoon I print out their email and head to the club on 59th Street, next to the south edge of Central Park.

Twisted Crane
I had heard about a construction crane which was flipped by the wind and dangling from a skyscraper someplace. It hangs poised above one of the entrances of the club, which means everyone coming and going must use the main entrance which is very unusual.

The New York Athletic Club was formed in 1868 and still carries some of that "Men's Club in the City" atmosphere. There is a dress code, a large 1920's lobby, doormen and so forth. At the entrance I talked with the concierge. Normally they would have called Billy or Kathleen to confirm that I was their guest. But he admitted that their phones were flaky. When he saw Billy's name on the email he recognized it and issued me a guest pass.

I changed into my running gear in the locker room and then went for a run - through the front door! The dress code has been suspended -- a clear sign that things are amiss in the world. I would like to have run in Central Park but it is still closed due to the storm. There are trees down and they are concerned about branches ready to drop; "widow makers". So I ran around the outside of the park, which is still almost six miles, crossing almost no traffic. There are a number of runners out, all looking wistfully into the park. The city is also full of people who have come to New York to run the marathon and the park is full of stands around the finish line as well as a village of tents and shelters.

Runners in New York City
waiting for the Marathon
After my run I talked to a number of other men in the locker room, half about the marathon and half about the effects of the storm. Of the half-dozen I spoke with none of them had been south of 31st Street, into the dark zone. I encouraged them to take a look. It is curious how a guy wrapped only in a towel can appear so different then someone in a business suit. When wrapped in only a towel you can joke about floating refrigerator and streets marked by red flares.

The subway going back to Columbia was tightly packed, not only are there few trains, but it is also rush hour. I got on at Columbus Circle with a yon man from Germany. We were packed like sardines but everyone was in a good mood. He sheepishly asked if this was normal, which caused the half-dozen people who could hear him to laugh. He explained that he was here from Hannover, Germany looking at potential colleges to go to. The woman next to me smiled and told him that these were, "unusual circumstances". He then continued to say that he had been told New Yorkers were standoffish, but every one seemed so friendly. She told him, "We really are the friendliest people in the world."

Back at Columbia I filled water-bottles which I carried back to our apartment. We also walked down Broadway inquiring at hotels if they had room, but they was no room at any of the inns. After dinner we again headed towards home in the dark zone. As the subway was drawing near the end of the line at 34th Street, I noticed that the guy sitting across from us was caring a big flashlight. He saw that we were looking at it, so when he stood to leave he made a comment about heading into the dark. I pulled my lantern out of my pocket and told him it was a badge of honor, a fraternity of the darkside of the city.

Pumping our basement

Gallery - gutted and ready

Repair team at Gallery

New drywall
Friday, November 2, 2012
Kristina was off early to a teleconference at Columbia. I chose to explore around Chelsea for a while. I walked towards the river where a number of art galleries had been flooded and was impressed by the amount of activity. 24th Street between 10th and 11th Ave. is choked with trucks hauling away debris and hauling in building materials. I looked into one of the galleries, the art has been removed and someone had scribed a line on the wall where the water had risen too. In another gallery all the plaster below that line had been removed and new drywall was going up. I paused and counted. The flooding had happened Monday evening, only three and a half days ago. From the progress I saw I think they must have been there at least since Wednesday!

Back at our apartment I was talking with a neighbor from the other end of the hall. I told her that people seemed very pleasant about the whole affair. "Ah, you have not met my neighbor", she said. She then mimicked, " `It is all to much for me! I think I am off to the East Hamptons! What do you mean you are staying here!' -- and I thought to myself `take your maid with you' ." Most people, if not all, are upbeat.

I walked up to the library next to Lincoln Center to work for a while. As I crossed the Lincoln Center Plaza I noticed that there was a huge banner on the Opera House proclaiming there present production - The Tempest. I asked two women who were standing near the fountain, rhetorically, "Is that what we have all just lived through?" The first just smiled. But the second woman's eyes lit up. "Yes!" she exclaimed as she saw the banner with new eyes, then grabbed her camera and photographed it.

The Tempest at Lincoln Center
The Riverside Library is packed with people. Many, like myself, refugees from below the power line. Nearly every seat is filled, and all electrical outlets are in use. I worked there until my laptop ran out of power and then joined Kristina at Columbia.

In the evening we received an email from our building's management telling us that power was back in Chelsea. Also, an electrician had inspected the building's main circuits and they were turning it on. By the time we got home there was even some cold water running.

On Saturday (Nov 3) hot water was restored and on Monday (Nov 5) evening the heat came on.