In a Disaster, Peace of Mind Comes From the Neighbors

I was recently talking to a close friend of mine who happens to be a first responder (in a different part of the country) and I was explaining to him how much this storm had shaken me up, and he pointed out that it is common to feel vulnerable before and after a storm like this.  And obviously, he could not have been more correct.  Natural disasters chip away at the very core of what be build to make ourselves feel safe and in control of our lives.  And when that is in jeopardy, I think it is impossible not to feel vulnerable.

Even though Ellie and I weathered the storm unscathed in Upper Manhattan, I felt incredibly exposed.  When the winds intensified last Monday night, I began to wonder how bad it could possibly get.  Earlier in the day I was still living in denial, telling myself that it was highly unlikely that the worst case scenario would play out…which may seem odd because I work in news and could not have been more educated on this particular topic.  But working in news has also taught me how to detach myself from pending doom so that I can function as a producer, and not be completely overcome with emotion.

When I was laying in my bedroom with Ellie, the wind howling so loudly that it was hard to hear Ellie speak – I was not a news producer.  I was a mom, determined to do everything possible to keep my child and I safe.  I decided to inflate the air mattress and put it on the other side of my bed, furthest from the windows, and to tape up the windows to try to prevent shattering if they did blow in.  I feel like I remember seeing a story about how that tape actually does nothing, but I figured it couldn’t hurt and if nothing else it would give me some peace of mind.

The wind was incredible.  I could hear the elevator cab banging around in the elevator shaft on the other side of my bedroom wall, and the draft in the apartment was so strong that I really had a hard time opening my apartment door when I went to check and see if a window in the hallway was opened.

Despite how disconcerting all of this was, Ellie had no trouble falling asleep next to me, and I felt comforted by the open invitation my neighbors had given me to come sleep with them in their living room if I got too scared or if the windows did in fact blow in.  As the storm intensified, Lower Manhattan lost power, my family in Connecticut lost power, subways flooded, the Path Station flooded, the FDR and West Side Highway flooded, NYU Langone Medical Center needed to be evacuated because generators failed, and I prayed it would end soon.  At about 2am, the winds died down enough for me to feel it was okay to close my eyes, knowing that my apartment and my family were all fine – but worrying about what the rest of our area would look like when I woke up.  Working in news for 10 years has also taught me that the true extent of a disaster can’t really be grasped for at least 12-24 hours.

Ellie and I woke when the sun came up and as the day went on, I saw how truly unbelievable the devastation is.  My friends posted pictures of trees through houses, water up to roofs, sides of houses sheered off…and the death toll reported on local news kept rising as the day went on, as helicopters flew over unrecognizable coastlines.  And for a moment, the massive devastation was paralyzing.

But then something shifted…as people were able to wrap their minds around the incredible need that existed from others in their community – they assessed their own blessings and began to try to help those less fortunate.  The messages on Facebook turned to open offers of homes that had electricity and heat, and then impromptu collections of necessities and runs to go bring them to the people that need them most popped up.  Over a thousand runners took the energy they would have used in the canceled New York City Marathon, and used it to help some in hard-hit Staten Island begin to clean up.  People that knew of a need posted information so that those looking to donate could fill it.  And incredible acts of generosity and kindness began to rise above the terrible mess that Sandy left in her wake.

Unfortunately, the situation is still dire in a number of areas…and it will take months, if not years to rebuild and recover what was lost.  Because of that, it will always be true that storms like Sandy expose a feeling of vulnerability – but they also reveal the tightly woven fabric of our community.  And I thank god for that.