Oct 5, 2016
When New York Stopped: Confronting the Lingering Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
The only memory I have from the night of the storm is filming a video of my feet splashing onto McGuinness Avenue from my apartment on Kent Street in Greenpoint. In the video, I laugh with my ex-boyfriend at the novelty of streets transformed into streams and at the very idea of a hurricane in a northeastern city. If any city was immune to the cruel indifference of nature, surely it was New York. I sent the video to my family in San Diego who replied with panicked text messages instructing me to get back inside. We laughed at those too. The videos of train stations conquered by rain water had not yet emerged. There was not a body count. Much of the city still denied the very existence of Staten Island. When we went to bed that night, we turned the lights off on our own volition.
Ten years earlier, in 2002, I came to the city as a high school senior to visit New York University as a prospective student. I took off on my own one afternoon in search of souvenirs on Sixth Avenue, and came across a postcard with a black and white photo of the graffiti message, “YOU CANNOT STOP NEW YORK CITY” with a heart wrapped around it, in apparent defiance against the terror that struck the year before. I bought six of them and never sent a single one, opting instead to decorate binders, backsplashes, and desks with them, in both my childhood home and dorm I moved into the following year when I was mercifully accepted. I had no vision of a future that didn’t involve New York. I believed, and still believe, in the romantic notions of the city as a land of cold, black-clad exteriors disguising legions of warm, open hearts. I bore witness to the kindness of her strangers and absorbed a sense of duty to extend it in kind to newcomers now that I recognized New York not only as familiar, but as home. I believed there was no better way to feel grounded than to walk among buildings that reached the heavens. I believed that a city that doesn’t sleep is not exhausted, but immortal, with no need for rest. I believed you could not stop it.
Waking up the morning after Hurricane (or more officially, Superstorm) Sandy and witnessing the devastation it wrought felt like an affront to the divine order. The images of Lower Manhattan completely blacked out were visually stunning, but ethically indecipherable: you can’t just turn off half of Work Island. Canarsie has been through quite enough, thank you. And Coney Island needed to be up and running when the Hydra emerges from the sea at the End of Days. But rain and wind do not follow our rules, so they paid no mind to what can and cannot be fucked with in the five boroughs. So just as true New Yorkers know the custom of stepping aside to make room for “Showtime!” and eschewing “Don’t Walk” signals in favor of good sense, they also knew that the custom in the wake of a disaster was to offer help to those who needed it.
Cars that normally only started to switch sides of the street to avoid tickets on street sweeping days or to venture upstate, became freight vehicles delivering vital goods to the outer reaches of the city. People learned neighborhood names they never heard before, like Gerritsen Beach and Breezy Point. People who avoided eye contact on the subway days before were now neighbors; moving furniture and organizing food distribution to those without electricity. Volunteers were welcomed into soaked homes to help victims gather what belongings they could salvage. Feats of unfathomable logistical complexity were performed not by city administrations but by grizzled retirees and able-bodied hipsters alike. Collective outrage at the idea of moving ahead with the New York City Marathon caused its cancellation, and out-of-town runners gave up their hotel rooms to New Yorkers displaced by flooding. The vulgar myth that New Yorkers are more self-centered than other Americans evaporated instantly as the spirits of her inhabitants gave their time, talent, and resources to heal New York City.
I worked at a housing non-profit at the time, and we were tasked with coordinating relief efforts to keep people in their homes. We visited Gerritsen Beach, where an erstwhile middle-aged actor had taken the reigns of a recovery effort with inspiring results. At events offering useful information to affected homeowners, we set up a table alongside other non-profits and improvised our way through questions we could not answer. The unknown terrain of FEMA paperwork, flood insurance, and what exactly goes into elevating a house onto stilts was all in flux. Maps were being redrawn, rates were changing, permits were required. These people needed money and answers, and we gave them forms covered in questions.
But as waters receded, so did Sandy’s name from headlines. People went back to work when train service was restored. Office charity efforts shifted from food drives and volunteer sign-ups back to lower impact philanthropic work, or to nothing at all. The kind of groundswell of generosity that we witnessed after the storm was unsustainable, of course. But the speed at which it dispersed was alarming as well. I worked at the non-profit another year after Sandy, where the focus remained on recovery, even as it disappeared from most local consciousness. There was a startling disconnect between the urgency of the work I did and the public discourse around the storm, in that it was virtually non-existent. And when I left the non-profit, I also let Sandy drift into the recesses of my memory, even as I knew that there was an untold amount of damage awaiting repair and financial catastrophe looming over much of the city.
Waking up the morning after Hurricane (or more offically, Superstorm) Sandy and witnessing the devastation it wrought felt like an affront to the divine order.
There is a digital graveyard of community Facebook groups that were created quickly to organize aid after Sandy, but have mostly fallen silent. To be clear, this is not an accusation of apathy as much as an explanation of exhaustion and limited resources. The work that needs to be done now is bureaucratic and budgetary, problems that cannot be solved by generosity of spirit and resourcefulness. Volunteers cannot do that work and even voting does not assist directly. But when the citizens were left without recourse and with a tight-lipped collection of programs to take over the work, we were made vulnerable to being uninformed and depriving those neglected in the aftermath of our solidarity.
Jill Cornell serves as a board member on the Brooklyn Long Term Recovery Group, a collective of non-profit organizations continuing the task of rebuilding communities while government funding remains sluggish, insurance companies remain profit-motivated, and the rest of the city remains mostly unaware of this nightmare at the city’s edges. “People outside the disaster area have moved on. They’ve forgotten,” Cornell said. “Every once in a while I put a post about the work on social media and I always get responses like, ‘Wow people are still dealing with that?’ And I’m like, “Yeah, you know who? Poor people. It’s poor people who are still having to deal with this.” During our brief conversation, Cornell explained a dizzying assortment of issues faced by affected communities. Overwhelming flood insurance costs; immigrant buyers unaware that they are required to buy flood insurance; NYCHA repairs neglected for years; procuring permits to elevate houses built on marshland and shifting sands. There is an entire subset of headaches related to the 2015 release of NYC’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) by FEMA and the subsequent appeal by the city for alleged errors.
There was a momentary memory jog for the New Yorkers who caught a PBS special about FEMA’s flood insurance program in May, which revealed a spike in private insurance profits after Sandy. FEMA has been accused of mishandling the funds it has procured.
A search for updated information on the progress of recovery in affected neighborhoods produces a roster of NYC-government run sites of varying commitments, and several FEMA sites, some of which pop up a frightening disclaimer about going onto a Homeland Security-owned site. These government sites are good at relaying milestones, but not their contexts. FEMA’s website states: “New Yorkers filed 57,289 Sandy-related claims and received nearly $4 billion in flood insurance payments for repairs and contents losses,” but that doesn’t mean much when we can’t see how much was requested in those claims. A comically paltry section on the FEMA site titled, “Public Assistance Sandy Success Stories” features only four stories, none of them related to actual residences, but instead to a Manhattan youth arts center and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. This is not to dismiss these cultural landmarks as frivolities, but when a NYCHA recovery update document reported in 2015 notes that 219 buildings were damaged and 60,000 residents were affected, it is disconcerting to see that even if FEMA prioritized these residents, they don’t see it as worthy of a public relations effort.
Thousands have left the city since 2012. Thousands more have moved here since, their memories bearing no burden of Sandy. New York did not willfully forget about the impacts of the storm when the immediate catastrophe was over; but information that was withheld and outstanding damage that was not treated has muddled its reality. To expect sustained, long-term engagement after every disaster that befalls one’s city is to court emotional and physical exhaustion. We survive by having a kind of collective amnesia about these events, we would all head to higher ground if we always thought of the potential of the tides. The city administration benefits from us not remembering too much or too often. They distract us with the endurance of Luna Park at Coney Island and the homes they repaired rather than the ones around the corner they have not. But there is something lost in our failure to see the ruins that remains after the storm. We break a promise to those angels who emerged that morning after the storm to see wounded places and people, and recognizing them as our own. The neighbors we made reverted to strangers again. We let the vulnerable periphery of the city migrate to the periphery of our minds. Eye contact is averted, our exteriors cooled again. We look away from the places where the storm tried to stop New York City. We do not speak of the one that might succeed next time. ♦
Illustrations by Sarah Lutkenhaus
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