Reasoning and Rationing Post-Sandy

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.

Hell and High Water

I didn’t have the worst experience I could have had by any means- that’s reserved for lots of truly suffering people in the wake of hurricane Sandy, but such as it is, it’s been a week that exceeded my expectations in nutsiness. I tend to underestimate weather because I generally criticize overblown media hype. I didn’t think my coastal town in New Jersey would be evacuated and I truly did not expect the horrendous images of devastation that I’ve seen from New York, Hoboken, and points south in New Jersey. It’s still dawning on me that I’ll never see the Seaside Heights boardwalk, where I tend to go when there’s nothing else to do to play some skeeball and eat pizza, again. Or the Atlantic City boardwalk which I’m now glad I explored and went on the rickety and fairly dangerous rides there, coming pretty close to being hurled into the sea. Things are changing. When they are all rebuilt, there will be fewer traces of the roaring twenties in Jersey’s coastal scene and many people will remember Sandy with very real shudders and grief.

I made my way out from the coast by car the night before things got bad, and was surprised by the lull, but glad for a quick trip. I optimistically blogged about the books and comics I had brought with me for The Beat, which you can find here: “Frankenstorm Reading: Weathering the Evacuation Blues”. 

Before too long, the lights went out. When I stepped outside to look at the woods where I was staying on the night of the hurricane, a herd of deer fled by me, startling me and them. They had a look of fear. A flock of birds almost collided with me in the dark, too, getting out of the way for what was coming.  Despite this momentary awe, I slept fairly soundly, having had a rough couple of days, but when I woke, I was in the middle of a battle ground.

Hundred year old trees were thrown around everywhere, roots dangling. The narrow lanes of the near-countryside neighborhood were totally blocked by the giants, many of them teetering against flimsy power and phone lines. But the rain had stopped and the world seemed to be breathing again.

The general mundane annoyance of aftermath set in. No power. Stumbling around in the dark. No internet. No cell-phone signal. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally without phone access. That probably panicked me more than the devastation. It was hard to focus on anything to pass the time. Everything felt unhinged. That was Day 2.

Day 3 the sun peeked out, but not for long. A cold front had moved in. Took the car out under the leaning trees and past men working with chainsaws. A couple of restaurants were open. No word about the house I left by the shore except the power was out. We managed to rig up internet and the cell phone reception improved. My panic subsided a little.  Here we are in limbo, but it won’t be for that long. People are hauling New Jersey and New York back onto their feet.

I think what I’m going to remember the most are the images that have been trickling in of unbelievable scenes, havoc in human habitations, but also the stories I’m hearing of how people are helping each other, putting up multiple guests and looking after one another. I’ve never been close enough to an event like this to see the microcosm of what people do in times of stress and how it brings out the good deep down in an often jaded and distrustful world. I won’t forget these things easily and I doubt anyone close to these events will either.

photos by Russ Shannon