Here in New York City, on the east coast of North America, we’re used to a predictable weather pattern. Fronts move rhythmically from west to east.
Cyclones like tropical storms and hurricanes, follow a slightly different pattern. When they reach us up here, they typically come from the caribbean and travel north. But then they eventually pick up the jet stream and drift, west to east, out to sea.
When they call a storm “perfect” they’re referring to the presence of a low pressure front in close enough proximity to one of those cyclones such that it sucks the storm violently to the west instead of following the usual trajectory east. If you were following Hurricane Sandy as it made a dog-leg left turn off the coast of Delaware, you saw this in action.
The positioning of the storm was perfect for whipping the Atlantic Ocean directly into New York Harbor and that’s exactly what happened. When I saw that this would coincide with a full moon, I started worrying.
When I was in high school on Long Island, there were certain friends I couldn’t visit during full moons because the path to their house would be flooded. And those were clear, storm-free nights. This was going to suck.
Sure enough as the morning high tide approached, photos started streaming in on Twitter from Brooklyn Bridge Park, Dumbo, Gowanus, Battery Park… water was breaching the retaining walls. Looking at the storm’s path, we knew the evening tide would be worse.
Still it was barely drizzling and the wind was moderate all day. The sky even seemed to lighten considerably at one point. There was talk of the news media over-hyping the storm. But then the wind picked up and the tide came back.
I think flooding is up there in terms of things whose theoretical possibility and actual reality are very far apart. One foot of water doesn’t seem like much at all but it can destroy your belongings, six feet can wreck your house. We peaked at around 14 and a half. The ocean rose and submerged our tunnels, roads, and parks.
People’s lives were completely destroyed. Entire neighborhoods leveled. The stories of fires at hospitals with no power are excruciating to even hear about. And perhaps the worst part is the neighborhoods struck the hardest seem to be the ones housing the people who have spent their lives doing the most for the rest of us.
At some point last night our Time Warner television and internet service went out. We had been following the storm on Twitter anyway, but after we lost TV service, Twitter became our only link. It took all of three minutes before we realized that not only did we not miss the TV but it didn’t seem to add any valuable information whatsoever.
Twitter kept us in contact with friends, neighbors, officials, police and so on. We got everything we needed, sortable and navigable by our own interest and cognition. We saw the photo of the building in Chelsea whose facade had blown off and within minutes we had a youtube video of the moment it came down. There have been many Twitter moments over the past five years or so but for me, this was the big one. I don’t see any added value in traditional television after last night.
Late last night, after Meg was asleep, I smelled something burning. I then heard sirens careening through our neighborhood. It made me nervous. Would I have to wake her up and prepare to evacuate. We had already heard via Twitter that houses were ablaze in Breezy Point, people were in the water near Avenue L… Twitter was on it. There was a small fire a few blocks away in a basement. The FDNY had it under control. I slept soundly.
This morning, with our power still on I can say I’m happy to live up here in Brooklyn Heights, 70 feet above the river. I walked around the neighborhood earlier, stepping over branches and leaves, and saw our neighbors begin to reanimate, opening stores and restaurants and I thought, I hope I’m still here in a hundred years when the seas rise ten feet again for keeps.
One last thought - we live in a time where people are debating the value and function of government versus a free market-only economy. Sandy has made clear that the market cannot provide all of our needs. Efficient pricing for commodities, yes. Rapid mobilization for unexpected and rare catastrophes, not really. I am impressed by the civic, governmental, and individual motivation to mobilize a fast response. And that’s another reason to be genuinely happy with our community and our city.