Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Hits Hoboken: Floods, Fire Alarms, and Freak-Outs

(If you like pictures better than words, scroll down!)

Well, readers, the tribe has spoken: I would certainly be the first person voted off of Survivor.

Hurricane Sandy has taught me many things, but the most glaring is the fact that I am absolutely terrible in crisis situations. I either make bad decisions or hem and haw until the bad decision is the only option left, and either way, I whine until the whole ordeal is over. This is not something I'm proud of. I like to think of myself as a Scarlett O'Hara racing against Sherman's fire--lying, cheating, stealing, or killing to get to safety at Tara, but I am much more a Melanie, lying in the back of the wagon, unconscious and moaning while being rescued by a stronger, more decisive person.

Before I confuse you too much, let's back up to the beginning. I have a charming (meaning: old), comfortable (meaning: small) apartment in midtown Manhattan. Like many New Yorkers, I assumed talk of this hurricane was wildly inflated. We're New York City! Hurricanes can't touch us! They wouldn't dare! So I went about my business, turning a blind eye to every single meteorologist in town.

But when the tunnels and bridges and subways started closing, my blind eye suddenly saw the light. I grabbed brownies, stromboli, and an umbrella and raced for the nearest cab to Hoboken. You see, after surviving 9/11 and two blackouts in the city, I simply did NOT want to be trapped in Manhattan a fourth time. It always makes me remember this submarine movie I once saw (it apparently made such an impression, I can't even remember its name) about a vessel that had begun to flood. The captain had to make the tough decision to close off a section of the sub even though one of his men was trapped on the other side of the door, causing him to suffer a slow, painful death. Being in Manhattan during an emergency makes me feel like that poor schmuck who was in the wrong part of the sub at the wrong time.

So I went to stay with friends in Hoboken. I was still so sure that the storm would only end up as a blip on the radar that I didn't even bring a change of clothes. Or even a coat. Sure, Hoboken was in a low-lying area, but any flood or power outage would be over in 12 to 24 hours, right? Plus, if it ever got really bad, I wouldn't be on an island. I could easily driven--to safety.

All day Monday, I was poised for the predicted downpour and the downed power. I kept my phone plugged into the computer, which was plugged into the wall so I would be at full charge if the power went out. I wrote funny Facebook posts to friends, I cooked extra food in case restaurants wouldn't be able to deliver, and I watched the news, which claimed Sandy would hit town by 6pm.

Six o'clock came and went with nothing more than a mediocre mist. I smiled, knowing I was right all along, and starting planning my return to the city.


I noticed a stream of water running down the street, which seemed odd considering the light rainfall. When I looked again ten minutes later, the street was covered. In another ten minutes, the sidewalk was submerged by at least a foot of water. And it was still coming fast! The Hudson River seemed to be making a visit to Hoboken. Panic officially set in. Panic with a capital P and that rhymes with T and that stands for TROUBLE.

The beginning of it all...
Oh, we surely got trouble right here in (Hudson) River City. In fact, we got several feet of trouble in the form of sewage/rainwater that was surrounding the building. I kept staring at it as if it would stop or disappear. But it didn't. Then, the fire alarm went off followed by this prerecorded message: "THERE IS A FIRE ON YOUR FLOOR. PLEASE EXIT THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY." Ummmm, exit the building to where exactly, Mr. Disembodied Voice? Into the Hudson? I don't think so. Panicpanicpanicpanicpanicpanicpanicpanicpanic.

Apparently, there was no fire on my floor or anywhere else in the building. The alarm was tripped when water poured into the basement of the building.

Basement stairs

And if that wasn't enough, a transformer just outside the window started smoking. Unfortunately, there was still power at that point, which allowed me to watch this horrifying video of a transformer exploding in Manhattan just moments before.

Blessedly, I somehow fell asleep that night and woke up to a building that didn't have power, but did have new waterfront views.

That day, people sort of stumbled around, taking pictures of the disaster in disbelief. I honestly can't tell you a single thing I did that morning other than stare at the water, talk to other building residents, and hang out in the lobby, which was powered by a generator (thank goodness!) that provided an excellent opportunity to recharge phones and laptops ( Neighbors offered power strips for everyone to use. One motherly neighbor even set up a waffle and coffee station. Another glass-half-full neighbor found that his alcohol cabinet was also half full and had a barbeque/frat party in the interior courtyard. This is not to say that everything was a jolly holiday. It was actually more like one of those all-inclusives you get a web deal for in Cancun where the water gives you the runs, someone steals your passport, and you get upcharged for everything. So you booze it up and befriend other guests to avoid allowing the trip to become a total bust.

I discovered that I could still use the gas stovetop, and made several meals by the light of a candle and an unexpectedly useful light-up Brookstone shaving mirror. In fact, I seemed to be obsessed with food and the preparation of it because it was the one productive thing I could do. Well, that and watch the fire hydrant outside, which was my gauge of how fast the water was receding. Monday night, it was totally covered. By Tuesday morning, the cap was visible. By nightfall, the arms were visible. As you can imagine, this was an extremely productive and time consuming job.

Can you spot the hydrant?
What were the unproductive things I did, you wonder?

Worry and whine. Whine and worry. And I didn't even have wine to go with my whine. Wine actually would have decreased my whine.  But there was no more wine. Just whine.

When I woke up on Wednesday, the first thing I saw was the almost-bottom of the fire hydrant! The second thing I saw was a woman in a kayak rowing around the building to shout information up to residents who were starved for news of the outside world. I was so fascinated by the kayak that I missed the information. Anyway, it turned out that the mayor and National Guard were in the lobby to tell residents that help was on the way! The National Guard would return at two o'clock to transport people to City Hall. I wasn't exactly sure what I would do at City Hall, but it sounded better than hanging out for another day with no electricity and a dwindling food supply.

In fact, things were definitely looking up in general on Wednesday. A number of people decided they couldn't take being trapped anymore, so they put garbage bags over their shoes and pants, secured the bags with duct tape, and waded through the water to...I'm not sure where, but I hope it was to safely. Some nutjobs skipped any protective measures and left in flip flops and shorts. Just like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, they crawled to freedom through a river of foulness I can't even imagine. I sincerely hope they burned any clothes that touched the sewage and took scalding hot showers afterward.

Shorts. I mean, seriously gross, buddy.
Watch this couple on the video clip below!
Some people drove out of the parking garage through water that practically covered their wheels. This seemed like a fantastic idea...until one red sedan's wheels locked and sent it floating away.

So the options were: sit in the apartment twiddling my thumbs and and hoping the water goes down enough to drive away; or hop on board with the National Guard, walk 14 blocks, and pray the line for the ferry to Manhattan isn't eight hours long. The first convoy was filled almost instantly, so that wasn't an option. We had just about decided to wait it out when TWO convoys appeared. It was a sign. Actually, it was more of a coincidence, but still. In retrospect, it was a sign.

We were helped aboard the truck and the hurricane suddenly changed from being a drag to a delight! I was positively giddy with the thrill of it all. Little ol' me was being rescued by the National Guard! I am a refugee! A friend texted me about a possible escape plan, and I replied, "Ummm...I'll get back to you. I'm sort of being rescued by the National Guard at the moment." The whole thing was sort of preposterous in the best possible way. The headline for the operation could have been "YOUNG PROFESSIONALS SEMI-DRAMATICALLY RESCUED FROM A LUXURY HIGHRISE." A World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer crew captured the whole thing, and if you have a lot of time on your hands and look very closely, you can see my black North Face backpack being put on the truck. You can't see me because I'm woefully short.

After an oddly long ride through gallons of dirty water during which we were trailed by a CNN truck, we arrived at City Hall.

When I started the mile walk to the ferry, I wasn't sure what I would find there. Along the way, Washington Street was bone dry, and some businesses were open and operating without power. The shelter was packed, and there were several homes that happened to have power who graciously used extension cords and power strips outside to help charge phones. The atmosphere was communal even though the situation was dire. You could almost forget about the hurricane until you saw something like this mangled boat dock.

Amazingly, the ferry line was practically non-existent, and other than waiting for a teenager to make change for tickets by hand, there wasn't a single hitch taking the ferry to 39th Street in Manhattan. There was an angry mob waiting in Manhattan to take the boat across the river to Jersey, though.
NY on the left, NJ on the right
Almost home!!!
After that three-hour journey, I can't tell you how excited I was to get back to my own apartment that had (ironically) never lost power. I cheered out loud as I flipped each light switch--because the lights actually turned on! I took a long (hot!) shower, turned on the (working!) television, and got out some (properly-refrigerated!) brie to celebrate my return home.

I know that not everyone was as lucky as I have been. Thousands of people are still suffering from horrifying circumstances, so I don't mean to make light of the situation in any way. I am eternally grateful to the National Guard, all the building workers who battled the waters (and the residents' frustrations) for days while sleeping on air mattresses instead of in their own homes, and volunteers who assisted others in every way possible. You are the Scarletts who helped this poor little Melanie make it back to Tara. And if ever circumstances are reversed, I will happily cover up the murder of a pillaging Yankee on your behalf.


  1. Amazing story. Thank you for sharing with all of us that have been wondering what it was like for the people of NJ. Our best to all that were harmed.

    Cheers to your safety Urban Upstater!

    1. I have to agree with everything in this post. Thanks for the useful information.
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  2. Somehow, you've managed to make tragedy funny...and get Music Man tunes stuck in my head at the same time!

  3. Rosie, this is a great story! where were your Hoboken buds while all this was happening, tho?
    Linda Dickey

  4. Thanks, friends! I'm so happy to be home!!!

    (And Linda, they were trying to ease my panic. :) )

  5. You may feel like Melanie, but you act a lot like Scarlett, my dear! So glad you are safe and sound, back at home at Tara! Can't wait until you are really home, here, with us!
    We're praying for all those who continue to experience the hardship and devastation of this storm.

  6. I was waiting for this blog. :) Thanks for sharing!!!! I am glad that you are ok. -Justine

  7. Loved reading about this from your point of view. Thanks for sharing!