Once the initial “I survived” phase of Hurricane Sandy is past, the real work sets in. Watching the posts of friends and family as they announce power restoration is like watching the bulbs on a string of Christmas lights finally wink on one at a time when you’re outside in the cold with dusk setting in. But then there are the bulbs that don’t come on and you tweak and you fiddle, but things aren’t going to be quite right until enough of them come on to make a satisfying glow. Otherwise you feel like you ought to go back to the drawing board.
If you’ve been following New Jersey’s progress in the news or on the radio, you’ve heard some disturbing things that aren’t going away very quickly. Hand guns wielded at gas stations, hours of car stop and go waiting for gas that terminates in the announcement “we’re out”. I heard a CNN report yesterday from a vehicle that waited two hours in the falling dark to fill up, and spoke to others waiting in line who had spent hours in various gas stations trying to get even half a tank to no avail. While we feel a surge of relief to hear about friends getting their power back on, there’s the danger that people assume life has returned to normal.
For 1.5 million people in New Jersey alone, this is not the case. Driving around the area where I’m staying since my coastal evacuation on Sunday night, there’s the illusory sense that things are back to normal. Shops are open, restaurants are packed, and some gas stations, at least, seem to have supplies. But it is an illusion for many. There are plenty of people who have returned to life as normal, and even to work as usual, but scratch the surface, and you find the immense difficulty of keeping up this facade. Clerks and waiting staff in shops and restaurants are more than willing to confess that they don’t have power or clean clothes, but are expected to turn up, bright and cheerful, to serve the consumers filing in. I can understand the need for this, but I also think it’s an immense stress to put on people who may be sleeping on cots and barely getting phone signal to check on their loved ones.
Why is there this dichotomy that we can’t admit that things aren’t better yet? It’s an American thing to put on a brave face and celebrate our victories, but if it’s at the cost of honesty, I can’t jump on board. Walking through a deserted mall yesterday, just trying to stay away from where I’ve been living to combat intense cabin fever, the high end shops were selling their wares to no one. Meanwhile, the more general public were scrambling at Walmart and Target to get sheets, towels, and groceries. And all of them, without fail, were expected to be back at work very soon as if nothing had happened, or was still happening. I’m aware that for some people, this helps keeps spirits up. It gives them something to do, maybe even a place to go that has heat and power versus where they’re spending their nights, but I’m not seeing a lot of outreach where I am to help them deal with this transition.
Then there’s the recent announcement in New Jersey that gas will be rationed, starting today. This will cut back on the disheartening lines, the let downs of waiting and then being denied, but it also raises huge logistical problems for people trying to meet their responsibilities to be at work on time. If you haven’t heard, the rationing involves even and odd number plates being allowed to fill up their vehicles on alternate days. What if your tank is nearly empty, you’re over an hour from your home due to evacuation, and you’re expected to be at work at 8 AM on the day you’re not allowed to fill up? Perhaps employers will be understanding, but I’m not getting that sense from the people I talk to. After a week off work, employers are expecting a prompt return to life as usual, and the slack has to be taken up by people already pressured to look after their families and their properties. I may be beating a dead horse here, but to clarify, there’s a vast difference between areas that had power a couple of days ago and those that still don’t.
I passed out of the illusion zone last night, having to take some country roads to smaller towns to get to my erstwhile home where generators and chainsaws are a constant litany. I went from the well-lit strips where stores and restaurants were open into a sudden deadzone where for 12 miles, not a light could be seen. It was eerie and dangerous, especially at large intersections where the occasional ghostly car paused hesitantly. In those areas, where giant tree carcasses are still littering the roads or hauled partially off of them, people are having to drive miles for food and maybe water (many of the homes here have wells that need electricity to function). I wonder how they’ll do during gas rationing? This post’s a bummer, but I’ll lay one more straw on the camel’s back: the expense to individuals of the hurricane’s impact. Daily costs are high and way out of the budget of the normal middle class family. Eating out and getting take out because you can’t cook at home is racking up the dough. Two people eating out at Panera, for instance, if it’s open, is at least 25 bucks. Spread that over two meals (to be conservative) a day and times that by six or more, and things are going to be a real burden on couples or families in the days to come.
I could talk about all the team work and positive energy I’ve seen, the ways that people are helping each other, and maybe I should. Seeing and hearing about those things helped me get through the initial shock and fear of the mega-storm and blunted the edge of the terrifying photographs I saw of devastation. You know those stories are out there, and heartwarming, but what we’re going to need in the days ahead is ongoing compassion and understanding. People want to move on quickly because it’s all been very upsetting. That’s human nature. But if the community is asking people to cover up the ongoing burden these events have caused, that’s dishonest and unhelpful. Keep looking out for your neighbors, please. Keep asking how they are doing. Speak up when unrealistic goals are being set and grant people the time to deal with things they may never have expected to deal with. There are going to be insurance deductibles people don’t know how to finance, homes that get power but no cable, internet, or phone, and plenty of people with bed-head (no hairdryers) and rumpled clothes (no laundry). A few days ago, that wouldn’t have mattered since food and heat were the main priority, but as we move onward, expecting those people to shift from refugee status into the mainstream is going to be all too easy and all too unfair.
Rant over. I hope you aren’t dealing with these issues from the refugee side of things, but even if you aren’t, your understanding is going to go a long, long way for those who are.