Enduring Hurricane Sandy: the sirens never stopped

Islander in New York City recounts the night Sandy hit.

I had no idea what to expect when warnings of Hurricane Sandy became more serious over the weekend of Oct. 27.

Hurricane Irene, which hit New York in late August 2011, turned out to be much less destructive than expected. It struck during the middle of the night, and I completely slept through the storm. Our north Brooklyn neighborhood lost a few trees and more branches, but really it was nothing worse than the Inaugural Day Storm that hit the Seattle area in 1993. Other Northeast regions were hit worse by Irene, but the tropical storm (as it was downgraded to) did little in comparison to Sandy, which turned New York City upside down.

My boyfriend, Corey, and I, who live in a first-floor Brownstone apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, prepared for Sandy like most everyone else on our block. We were in “Evacuation Zone B,” which means we had the choice of evacuating. Of course, we were only four blocks away from the mandatory “Evacuation Zone A,” which lined the East River and Newtown Creek, but having unnecessarily shoveled out $50 to catch a cab to a friend’s house for Hurricane Irene, and another $50 back (the MTA shut down all public transport for Irene as well as Sandy), we decided to save a buck and stay. So instead we bought provisions: jugs of water; a Maglite flashlight; plenty of food; matches; candles and a good bottle of red wine.

The storm hit, as predicted, at about 8 p.m. on Monday evening. Although things had been “stormy” all day, once Sandy hit, it was clear. The sheet metal on the balcony next door began ripping too and fro (which sounds like a crashing plane for anyone who’s curious) the wind’s screaming and howling picked up, while a mess of tree branches, garbage (it is New York after all) and who-knows-what whipped around outside our kitchen window. The courtyard slowly but surely began to fill with water. We were lucky it didn’t flood our basement … or our apartment.

But despite all this cacophony, the most unsettling sounds were the emergency response sirens. They first began around 8 p.m. and then continued through the night. I don’t know if they were ambulance sirens or fire trucks — probably both, but you could hear them all night long. Those sirens were what had me worried. It was those sirens that I fell asleep to, having no idea what I’d wake up to.

What I did wake up to was absolute silence. “Maybe we’re in the eye of the storm,” I thought to myself. No. Silence is apparently what New York sounds like when there’s absolutely nobody going to work; no garbage trucks clanging by; no street vendors opening their metal doors; and no disgruntled cabbies honking at cyclists. Silence is what 8 a.m. sounds like after Hurricane Sandy has hit.

We were very, very lucky. Although Newtown Creek flooded the art studios, metalworking shops and apartments that banked it (causing thousands of dollars in damage), our block was left dry. Things looked worse during those memorable windstorms we weathered on Mercer Island. Other areas of New York weren’t so lucky.

It took a few days for the storm to “sink in.” Nobody could really go anywhere, so Corey and I just met with friends at a local café to buzz over the storm and swap stories. I’d never seen so many people not go to Manhattan in my life. Of course, nobody could go because the bridges were still closed, the MTA subways and buses were still shut down and the East River ferry system was a clear “no.”

It took a day or two for the reality of Sandy to sink in. Corey and I were pretty much glued to our laptop screens, unable to believe the images we were seeing: Lower Manhattan totally in the dark; entire shorelines demolished; subways submerged under water; cars piling on top of one another, creating a BMW/Honda/Subaru dam; and thousands of people in shelters or displaced by the storm. It was truly sobering.

On Thursday, I told my editor I could make it into Manhattan to go over content for the week. Most MTA buses were now running and a handful of Manhattan subways were working. Expecting long lines, I thought I’d get ahead of the crowd and leave home two hours early (it usually takes me 30 minutes to get into the city). I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bus line snaked around the block, and as I took my spot in line, a B62 bus flew by packed like a can of sardines. Didn’t even stop. The next bus did the same.

Realizing I had next to no chance of catching a bus within the hour, I decided to walk. Although I didn’t exactly know the way to Manhattan, all I had to do was follow the pilgrimage of others ahead. Over the Pulaski Bridge, nearly two miles to the Queensboro Bridge, and over the pedestrian path until I finally got to a running train in Manhattan. The trip home was just the same, except the bus lines were even longer.

Yet New Yorkers pulled together. People were lending open hands, putting their heads together to find a solution. When Mayer Mike Bloomberg mandated that cars with less than three passengers would not be allowed into Manhattan, neighbors called each other to carpool, and drivers pulled over at crowded bus stops offering rides. Food trucks and shops with power in Manhattan set up free “charging stations” for pedestrians to charge their cell phones. Pizzerias passed out free slices, and diners offered free coffee for residents to warm up.

And then there was the overwhelming response from volunteers. Corey and I signed up to volunteer at the Hunter College shelter on Saturday, helping prepare cots for those displaced by the storm. Only 10 minutes after we arrived, volunteers started being turned away. But they kept coming. A woman stopped by who spoke Spanish, asking if anyone needed a translator. A retired psychologist inquired if anyone needed counseling or support. Teens, adults and seniors filtered in hour after hour, asking if there was anything they could do.

The efforts are still on-going. Sure, there was chaos, people lost their tempers, complained and even acted out. But, in the end, the true character of New York was captured in the thousands of individuals offering a helping hand. I thought back to similar efforts on Mercer Island, and I realized: you don’t have to live in a small town to feel a sense of community. And New York began to feel a little more like home.

Elizabeth Celms is a graduate of Mercer Island High School and a former Mercer Island Reporter staff member. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is working as a journalist.