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Hurricane Sandy Brings Out the Best and Worst in Us

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There is no telling how long the pain and suffering from Hurricane Sandy will last. I heard on the radio this morning that the cost of this hurricane would be around $50 billion, and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has just pledged $100 million to help the victims of the storm in our state. Well, that sounded great, but then I saw a report about a woman in Island Park, NY (southern shore community on Long Island), who still has no power, is living in filth, and hasn’t seen assistance from anyone in the government or anyone else yet.

I think this is the nature of this disaster, and it is playing out on our television screens (if we have electric power). It seems as if it is going to get very ugly before it gets any better, kind of like watching a marathon of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, except in that case it never gets better. That Island Park woman’s story can be multiplied by hundreds of thousands. I know people are suffering all over the world, but perhaps here we have a microcosm of a suffering that defines the greatest fears of modern western society, one that is incomprehensible to us because it is not supposed to happen here.

How dependent are we New Yorkers (I’ll be specific simply because this is my own situation) on an infrastructure that we take for granted? We soldier on each day expecting that trains will run, traffic on bridges will flow freely, tunnels will be open, planes will take off and land, and Starbucks will have the coffee hot and waiting for us. When these things do not happen all at once, there is a collective culture shock that borders on mass hysteria. Add to this a city that is flooded, powerless, and hungry, and you have a miasma that borders on the cinematic wastelands we have become inured to through endless films and TV shows.

In my house we went without power and that meant no heat, no hot water, no Internet or TV. It was like the end of the world as we knew it. As we sat around with lanterns and flashlights, we took turns telling ghost stories (since it was Halloween after all). I also explained that this was how most people lived one hundred years ago, and the concept seemed exciting to the kids for a short time. My 11 year old became tired of the novelty very quickly. She is a child of technology and does not know life without iEverything. She stared at the useless Wii console in the darkness of the room, seeming as if her best friend had gone to the great beyond. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that “This hurricane thing is so boring.”

That first night in the darkness it seemed as if we were travelers in a spaceship that had lost power. We sat in darkness, hearing the wind howl outside fiercely, as if the ship were tumbling out of control through space. The trees bashed the house like a meteor shower, and the rain pelted our windows like fire from alien crafts. Somehow we made it through the tumultuous night, and in the morning it felt like we had crashed on an alien world. We ventured outside, opening our front door as if it were a hatch on that spacecraft. We walked over debris, large branches, and scattered Halloween scarecrows and witches like astronauts crossing a new terrain.

Everyone was looking around at this “new” world, with toppled trees, some crushing roof tops, others blocking streets and dangling dangerous wires across sidewalks. It did seem as if the old world we knew had been irrevocably changed by the force of a hand more powerful than anyone could have imagined.

The initial awe was soon replaced by stark reality. We had no power, and in this world we live in power is everything. The life we have created for ourselves is inextricably linked with being able to fire-up the whole array of tools we use in daily life. The batteries were low in our cell phones, laptop, lanterns, and flashlights. We had replacement batteries for the latter, but the phones and laptops were going to expire without the ability to recharge. Plus all the other things we need power for: the microwave, the stove, the heat, the hot water, the toaster, etc., sat uselessly in a house that now seemed less like home and more like a place where we crashed to escape the storm.

As the days passed, it seemed people got more desperate. Once our local Starbucks gained power, I saw people lining up outside with laptops in their hands. Inside customers sat on anything and everything, including all over the floor. The baristas could barely keep up with the orders, for people were looking for sustenance for not only body but also for the mind. They were going stir-crazy in homes with no connection to the world we have created, one of the expected instantaneous connection that without which we are lost children.

Even today, now the fifth day of the ordeal, I saw this vapid expression on people’s faces. They seem less like deer in the headlights but more like people who have lost their memories, wandering past darkened storefronts as if it has been so long they cannot remember what it was like to shop. A few fortunate shop owners have posted signs “We Have Power” outside their windows and doors, and people flock there even if they can only walk into an establishment that is illuminated. Other stores have signs that read “Free Charging” or “We Have Wi-Fi,” and that brings the people in to simple Mom and Pop stores they never would have entered before. The local library had up a sign reading “We Have Power and Wi-Fi,” and there was a long queue of people waiting for the doors to open, with laptops tucked under their arms and kids holding their hands.

Amidst all the turmoil, there are examples of people helping others. I know of someone who carried meals to an octogenarian stuck on the 18th floor of her building. Some neighbors came around with chainsaws to help others get trees off lawns, houses, and garages. Others took red gas cans with them to seek out the precious liquid for their confined neighbors’ generators. All of this is comforting in this ugly reality of the storm’s aftermath.

But there is a decidedly dark side revealing itself daily. People’s tempers are getting shorter, the fuses are burning low, and an explosion is only seconds away. There are fights erupting on long lines for gas stations, where people are getting desperate for even a few gallons. Going around my neighborhood, I only saw one gas station open today, and the line had to be miles long. I have heard stories of friends and relatives waiting on line for hours, only to have an NYPD officer walk up to the car and tell them, “Sorry, they’re out of gas.” This is more than a tempest in a teapot; it is a recipe for a raging storm after the calm.

I have done lots of walking these last days, mostly to save gas. I find a store here to get a loaf of bread, or there to get a carton of milk or a dozen eggs. Sometimes a store just opens and I go in and can see the water beading on frozen dinners in the freezer, which turns me away because they probably were defrosted days ago and are in the process of refreezing.

Behind our local supermarket, there was a dumpster the size of a truck filled to the brim with discarded food from the store. Need proof that the feared zombie apocalypse has indeed gripped this part of the world? Well, earlier today I saw people actually jumping in and digging out food, and some of them were sitting on the sidewalk, noshing on their pickings like those living dead ghouls gnawing on someone’s tibia.

New York is a great place to live, but one of the problems is that we are surrounded by water. This proximity is a great attraction to tourists, who love to take the Circle Line tour around the island. We have the Statue of Liberty to visit, great beaches, and many opportunities for recreation in an urban environment. This wonderful asset is also a great liability because, as the old saying goes, “water will find its own level.” Unfortunately, when we have a storm of this magnitude, that means millions of gallons of it pouring into subways, streets, and places like the Ground Zero site.

It is a tough time to be a New Yorker now, but as the world learned after September 11, 2001, we are not easily beaten. In true New York spirit we get up, we dust ourselves off, and we raise our fists and say we’re ready. Yes, we will get through this. Governor Cuomo has shown great leadership, and his press conferences have been helpful. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also shown leadership, but his deadpan delivery and monotone speaking voice is such that the animated sign language interpreters standing next to him at his press conferences have made his lack of public speaking skills painfully obvious.

New Yorkers will get through this. It will still be a rough time ahead, and some people are still without power and may be for many days to come. If you can help, please donate as much as you can. Just as people helped after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti, we need people to help now. You can help those affected by Hurricane Sandy by visiting www.redcross.org, going to iTunes.com/redcross, texting REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10, or calling 1-800-435-7669. Please remember that woman in Island Park, and so many more like her, and make a difference now. Thank you!

Photo credits: FDR-arstechnica.com; subway-ibtimes.com

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.