Friday, November 2, 2012

First Friday after Sandy

I commuted to work this Friday morning, the first Friday and my first morning commute after hurricane Sandy turned the New York/New Jersey area into a disaster area. 

A gas station without gas in Brooklyn, New York
This morning’s travels were less problematic than I expected. Busess are running, but not all subways are yet operating. After missing my bus by less than a minute, I walked to the closest Subway, only to discover that it was not running this far west.  The gas station across the street from the subway station was out of gas, yellow tape blocking access to the pumps.  Gas stations that used to have gas have run dry because resupplies are not flowing. Stations with gad cannot pump it because they do not have electricity to power the pumps. 

Empty New York Subway Station
After an initial delay, I finally caught another bus and surprisingly made up for lost time, arriving at work only 15 minutes late. The two buses I rode were not overly crowded, less crowded than some normal commutes. The streets seemed to be less congested with traffic than usual, probably because there still was no school and gas is in short supply.

What I discovered once I arrived at work brought Sandy’s impact a little closer to home, or rather work.

In addition to serving as the half-time Pastor of a small Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in Flushing, Queens, I also work part time as a GED Instructor for a Social Service agency in Jamaica, Queens.  The agency serves 16-21 year olds, most high school dropouts, providing them with vocational services.

a New York bus finally arrives
The GED classroom in which I teach is a corner room on the seventh (top) floor of one of the highest buildings in the neighborhood. One wall faces south, looking out toward JFK Airport. The other wall faces east, looking out toward Aqueduct Race Track and Long Island. At some point during the height of Sandy's fiercest winds, a south facing window blew in, covering the floor with glass.  With an entry to the building, hurricane force winds blew into the classroom, blowing out ceiling tiles, distributing old paint chips, and scattering papers throughout the room. One of two black boards was ripped from the wall. The room I walked into this morning obviously was not able to be used as instructional space.  I hope it can be cleaned and repaired by next Monday.

I think the window that blew in and broke bore the brunt of Sandy's hurricane force winds, as the fiercest winds would have blown from the south-east and east during the height of the storm. There are no neighboring buildings more than two stories high to act as windbreaks. With an 85 mph wind gust officially recorded at nearby JFK during the height of the storm, I am surprised only one of the classroom windows blew in.

Doorway view of hurricane's aftermath
Once my co-workers starting arriving, they too surveyed the damage.  Then we started talking about our recent experiences.  We shared personal storm stories, cell phone photos of flooding and downed trees, and tales of death and survival we had learned about from various media outlets.  I learned that two of my coworkers were still without power.  My supervisor had her power restored just the night before. Another co-worker was unable to make it to work because the Subway is only partially operating.

Because of my experiences this first Friday after Sandy, I have come to realize, or admit to myself, that even though my family’s health and property were not adversely impacted by Sandy, we are living in the midst of a disaster area.  I was beginning to sense this reality as early as yesterday.

Both local and national media have been filled with stories and images of death and destruction.  For example, an entire neighborhood of Queens, over 110 homes in Breezy Point, a geographical point I have sailed past numerous times, lie in smoldering rubble.  The devastation on Staten Island, New York City’s southernmost borough, through which we drive on our way to the Jersey Shore, is only now coming to light, four days after Sandy struck. More people died on Staten Island, 22, than any state other than New York. 

The devastation along the Jersey shore, where we have family and friends and have often enjoyed the beaches, just an hour or two (depending on the traffic) south from New York City, is catastrophic.  Some residents who remained behind on barrier islands along the coast of New Jersey are just now being forced to evacuate and may not be allowed to return home for up to six months.  Those that evacuated before the storm hit are being allowed to return.

While power has been restored to most of lower Manhattan, some people who lost power because of Sandy’s wind, tidal surge, and snow may not have power restored for up to a week to ten days.  Roads, tunnels, and bridges are impassable, if they still exist.  Gasoline is almost impossible to come by cell phone service has just recently returned to near normal.

A little over eleven years ago, New York City and the area surrounding it suffered the loss of over a thousand lives when the World Trade Towers tumbled to the ground.  As massive as that disaster was and as many families and communities it affected, the physical destruction and impairment of infrastructure was limited to Lower Manhattan.

While Sandy has (so far) claimed a little over ninety lives, more lives have been adversely affected, more people left without power, more people left homeless, cold, and hungry, than on 9-11.  While Sandy toppled no skyscrapers, the damage to and loss of infrastructure over a vast geographic area has been much more disruptive than the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Yep, I now live in a disaster area.

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