Around this time last year I was wallowing in puddles of brackish water in what had once been my bedroom. The house where I had lived my whole life had been inundated in five feet of flooding, and scattered around me were photos, sopping wet with their colors running, depicting my childhood in that home. Next to me I could see the door frame where my parents had painstakingly chronicled my growth, drawing lines with dates next to them as I grew taller with every passing year and finally achieved my commanding five-foot-eight. As I waded around looking for something, anything that could be salvaged, I thought to myself that there was no coming back from this.
Hurricane Sandy happened around Halloween, and I had been preoccupied with finding fun parties. Irene had happened the year prior and I’d forced my family to take it seriously, emptying our home of everything. When I got home and saw that the extent of the damage was a tiny puddle in front of my stoop, I laughed.
As reports started coming in about Frankenstorm Sandy, I figured that it couldn’t be too horrible. Even if there was flooding it wouldn’t be more than two or three inches high, I told myself. Big deal. We’d just have to rip out the carpets.
On evacuation day I made a cursory patrol of the house in a half-hearted attempt to store some things in boxes and as high as possible. I was more concerned with a political conference I’d planned on attending in the coming days, and as I filled my suitcase I was thinking more about what I wanted to wear, rather than what I might not want to lose if the house was destroyed. I carelessly deposited an ancient painting of my oldest known ancestor, dressed in traditional Jewish garb and with piercing blue eyes, on my couch because I was feeling too lazy to bring it up to the attic.
I was confident that I’d be home in two days. Still, as I stepped out the front door, it occurred to me that this might be the last time I’d ever see my house again.
When the storm hit, my parents and I hunkered down at the Holiday Inn of Park Slope, which was on the opposite side of Brooklyn from my home in Manhattan Beach. The only danger in Park Slope during a hurricane was from trees and wind. Manhattan Beach, on the other hand, was surrounded on three sides by water, including the Atlantic Ocean.
My neighbors and childhood friends across the street chose to remain in their house during the storm. As I sat sheltered in the hotel, they were my sole source of information about our neighborhood, and though our relationship had grown distant over the years, I suddenly found myself calling them every hour for a status report. “We’re having a good time over here,” they’d tell me. “All clear.” “The water’s a little high in the bay, but it’s looking okay.” Then 8 pm came along. On Facebook I started reading about people seeing water running down the streets or into their basements. My calls to them went straight to voicemail. “They’re dead,” I remember thinking to myself.
They’d survived, of course. When I went home to survey the damage the next day, I learned that my neighbors had spent the night in their attic as saltwater turned their house into a moat, with dangerous electric currents flowing throughout.
My hotel-refuge was down the street from a gas station, and as people began to panic and the state issued edicts against “price-gouging,” filling up became a nightmare. My father became obsessed with getting a good spot on the line. He’d sneak out in the middle of the night to get the car in queue before the gas station opened. He was happy; it gave him a chance to listen to Eric Clapton in the car—a luxury he didn’t have in the cramped hotel room he shared with my mother and me. I was grateful that he was gone, because it meant that I had a restful night of sleep without his prodigious snoring.
I began to see people bringing containers and gasoline cans to the station like Oliver Twist begging for some more gruel. There was inevitably gasoline spilled on the ground by the station, and always some idiot smoking a cigarette. I worried that the entire block would light up in a towering inferno. Was this what the Carter presidency was like?
Soon the public bickering started, exemplified by Chris Christie’s love-fest with the president, and Congressman Peter King complaining about his colleagues blocking a pork-heavy aid bill. But my family and most people were too busy to care. We didn’t have time to wait around for hours hoping FEMA would return our calls, and getting a hug from a politician and hearing “I feel your pain” wasn’t going to help us. Now, around the anniversary of this disaster, I read about how a certain mayoral candidate would like to take the money that the politicians bickered over and use it to create “living-wage” jobs and “affordable housing and community health care sites” in neighborhoods like mine. Sandy certainly created a messy sty for the pigs and their frolicking.
In some bizarre way I am grateful to Sandy. It shook my world and woke me up. It’s a reminder that a disaster can be used as an opportunity to come back bigger and better than before—but please don’t take that as an endorsement of the broken window fallacy.
Photos: Joshua Shnayer; Thumbnail: UPI