Dispatches from a hurricane-torn New York

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Even before the eye of the storm made landfall you could see the destruction. Trees had fallen, power lines were on the ground and flooding in Lower Man- hattan and parts of Queens had left homes destroyed. Hurricane Sandy struck most of the East Coast of the United States: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, DC.

PHOTO/ Dave Bledsoe

My university wasn’t damaged, but it was in the evacuation zone. For those with midterms, it provided them much-needed additional time to study. Of course, it wasn’t just the university: government offices, the MTA (transport network) and most roads and bridges were shut down the day before. The city that never sleeps was at a standstill.

While the streets were empty and we were sheltered in our homes from 60-90 mph winds, social me- dia brought us closer together. Many of my friends posted pictures of the flooding in their area or trees fall- ing in their neighborhood. One in particular stood out: a picture of the broadwalk and docks near Battery Park completely submerged by the East River, taken by a friend in the evacuation zone. Even with a 25lb weight in front, the wind kept open- ing my side door and I had to add two gallons of water and another 35lb weight to overcome it. New York isn’t just skyscrapers: significant numbers of small houses were severely dam- aged in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. We had a hurricane last year, but not on this scale. While relatively inexperienced with extreme weather, we were quick to prepare, with store shelves empty of flashlights, water and survival supplies.

The President, the Governor and the Mayor did an amazing job at organ- izing and equipping police officers and fire departments to help, not to mention first responders. While it is sometimes hard to get collaboration between all levels of government in the US, in this crisis they have perhaps proven that they can go beyond poli- tics. Emergency services, of course, have been working overtime. The non-emergency number, 311, has proved effective in moderating the high volume of 911 calls, though could have been publicised more effectively. My friends on the West Coast and overseas were asking if I was safe; I guess from outside looking in, it seemed the storm was bigger than it was. Sure, many of us underestimated what would happen beforehand. Sure, the hardest hit will likely be the poor- est. But this is no Katrina, and I hope the mistakes will be learned for. The reconstruction can be an opportunity for redevelopment.

As an activist and community or- ganizer, I have been pointing people searching for resources in the right direction. I have been surveying my own neighbourhood, helping those in need and gathering volunteers to assist during the week. Most of the work involved pumping water and re- moving fallen trees. I also act as a link to keep the communication channels open between elected officials and constituents. Election-wise, reach- ing the polls became hard for some, so some states extended or doubled voting hours, and many community organizations helped people get to the polls. Those with electronic ballots had to hope power comes on in time, or ballots would need to be counted by hand.

Surveying the area today, I came across a large number of trees in Queens, my neighborhood, and called 311 about them. The mayor says ten lives in the city have been lost; a trag- edy, but it could have been a great deal worse. The storm, for all its ferocity, is nowhere near Katrina. It will take no more than a month or two to get everything running again. Of course, many of the subways are flooded, yet water can easily be pumped. Power is out in some areas, a lot of the street- lights in my neighborhood are out, but you can see many police offic- ers and fire officials out helping to mitigate the problems this causes. We receive updates from the governor, mayor and president almost every four hours. Friends have said water rose to 6 feet in certain areas. New Jersey seems harder hit. Across about 7 states, 7 million people have been deprived of power.

But most New Yorkers, as far as I can tell, were safe and had power during the storm. New Yorkers are always strong; such is the brilliance of our city. We thank all of our first respond- ers and everyone who worked around the clock to help one another. The next tasks are to make sure the flood- ing subsides and make sure electrical problems are fixed; especially the fall- out from the fires in Brooklyn. This is nothing that we haven’t experienced before. There were mercifully few lives lost in the storm and we thank every- one across the globe for praying for us!