Friday, November 02, 2012


When one wants to tell the story of a hurricane, there are several ways. First, there is the first-hand account of one whose house was destroyed, or whose dear ones were killed. Then, there is the impartial newsreader-style narrative: winds at x km per hour, y million affected, z gallons of water flooded the city, etc. accompanied by pictures meant to shock and awe. I realized this week that there is also a third way - that of a person who is affected just enough so that they do not have any means of knowing exactly what hit them, and how much. I am going to try and tell the story of hurricane Sandy the third way. I will give a chronological account of what happened, and stay away from superlative figures as much as possible, since I came to know those figures much later.

Thursday, October 25: A friend tells me there's a hurricane headed this way. Since I had seen the hype surrounding Irene last year, I hardly pay attention. Besides, I had too many deadlines to meet.

Saturday, October 27: I cancel last minute plans to go to Central Park to shoot fall foliage the next day, and to attend a special service at Ramakrishna Mission in New York City on the occasion of Durga Puja. predicts strong winds and rain over the weekend, but I am too busy with my other work to check a detailed weather report.

Sunday, October 28: My cousin calls me up from Edison to find out how prepared I am. He expresses concern that there is a 10-15% chance of his roof being blown away. In the meantime, my university announces a holiday on Monday. New York City closes all public transit within the city as well as to and from New Jersey. Deciding to make some preparations, I go out to the supermarket in the evening and buy a few cans of cooked beans. There are no candles to be found, and like last time, the bottled water shelves are empty. I also fill up all the pots and pans in the house with water and charge all electronic devices.

Monday, October 29 (Morning): I and my friend Atreyee go to our friend Amrita's house down the street around 10 in the morning for a lunch invite. Amrita's husband, who works in NYC, has his office closed as well. Amid strong winds and drizzle, the power flickers on and off as we have lunch and watch hurricane Sandy hit Atlantic City about 200 km away on TV. Around 5:00 pm, I and Atreyee return to our respective apartments. By now, it is clear that something is about to happen.

Sandy in action - taken from my room
Monday, October 29 (Evening): The wind grows strong and the drizzle turns to steady rain. By 7 o'clock the storm is already shaking the trees in front of my apartment like crazy. Then, the power goes. I switch off my laptop, light a candle and listen to the storm outside. My apartment building is a sturdy brick building and it does not budge; my only concern is the windows may be blown in. My ex landlord calls to check on me, and informs me that a huge tree has fallen in his garden, probably damaging the roof. My university declares Tuesday a holiday as well. Over the next few hours, I hear the wind make sounds like I have never heard before, and see the trees shake like I have never seen them shake before. There is also a persistent violet-blue light that lights up the clouds intermittently. It  is probably lightning, but it is unlike any lightning I have ever seen before.

My friends keep updating Facebook - our neighbouring city Harrison is being evacuated due to flooding. I suddenly notice that my new smartphone only has about 25% charge, and feel like kicking myself for not charging it since the morning and checking Facebook on top of that. I start up my old laptop and charge up the phone with that until the laptop battery goes dead. Then slowly, with a small battery-operated radio plugged in my ears, in spite of the most terrible howling outside, I drift off to sleep.

The reason why we had a 66-hour powercut
Tuesday, October 30: The sky is cloudy, but bright. The storm has stopped, and the rain is almost a nonexistent drizzle. The apartment is cold and without power or hot water. I step outside with my camera. Fallen leaves and broken branches everywhere, but doesn't seem like it did any real damage. I call home to let my parents know that I am fine, then wake up Atreyee and call her to my apartment. Together, we cook the most delicious mixed vegetables using whatever we had in our refrigerators, which included a large potful of pumpkin scrapings that had come out of my Halloween pumpkin. We also cook frozen chapatis until we lose count, fry large pieces of fish, and then have the most elaborate lunch in ages. We keep the leftovers out on the fire escape since the outside temperature is under 10 degrees Celsius.

That's the house where I lived before
The radio, in the meantime, has been spewing depressing news. Lower Manhattan is waterlogged, two major hospitals evacuated, millions of people without power - things seem bad. The storm, it seems, teamed up with the full moon to form the most magnificent storm surge ever recorded. The 13.5 feet surge had filled the subway and PATH tunnels with water and clean-up would be painful. After lunch, we decide to walk to my old house to see the damage. Here, we get to see what the storm must have been like. During the half-mile walk, we find eight full size trees completely uprooted. They have brought down electricity wires and poles with them, and the whole place is a mess. The tree in the garden of my old house has missed it narrowly, but fell on top of the lovely Japanese maple in the garden. On the way back, we realize that traffic lights are also out of power, and traffic is unusually unruly. Our university, meanwhile, declares that it will remain closed until further notice.

In the evening, my cousin's email tells me that the sidings of their house have been torn away, and they are staying with the neighbours, also without power. We spend the evening reading books by candlelight, something that I cannot say I did not enjoy. In the meantime, inquiries have been pouring in from my friends and relatives in India - they say they are horrified by what they see on TV. We do not have power or Internet; we don't know what they have been seeing. We have another elaborate meal and then Atreyee heads home to her apartment as I settle down for an unusually early bedtime.

Wednesday, October 31: Same routine as yesterday. Cook elaborate meals with still-intact materials. Use the fire-escape as fridge. Go for walk after lunch. Read by candlelight in the evening. Only difference - some stores are open today, as well as an ATM. Most stores are still out of candles, and people are buying the rest like there's no tomorrow. People are also charging their phones in the power outlets at the stores - something that had not occurred to me. I charge my smartphone in the morning using the charge of my laptop and then keep it off all day, switching it on every 5-6 hours to check mail. Walking is a pain - no driver wants to stop at an intersection with the traffic lights out, and pedestrians who want to cross must stop cars by their gestures and cross dangerously, India-style.

Oh yes, Halloween is postponed to November 4 by governor's order.

Thursday, November 1: Finally, at 1:00 pm, power returns. The weather is usually gloomy, with occasional sights of the sun. A squirrel finally tears through my packaging and claims his share of food from my outdoor larder. Our university says they will open on Saturday. We go for a walk in the park and see even more fallen trees. We also look at the images from the coastal areas, from New York City, and from other storm affected regions for the first time. Houses floating in the ocean, boats on the road, entire parking lots submerged, water rushing into subway stations like the movie Titanic. Horrifying indeed!

Meanwhile, Edison, Harrison and other parts of New Jersey remain without power, and there is a 6:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew in many cities.

Friday, November 2: Today. There was a half-hour powercut, but otherwise life is fast returning to normalcy. Trains to our university, however, are still not running and there is no news when they might start. Let's see if I can go to school on Monday.

Candle-light reading away from the Internet:
the only thing about hurricane Sandy that I truly enjoyed