By James Robinson
Hurricane Sandy hit downtown Manhattan on Monday afternoon, and outside our offices in Soho, the flags and trees were being knocked about as easily as dune grass. But the rain was light, and if anyone from Northern Europe had been in the street, they would have thought it was a gale.
At 8:45pm, about when the eye of the storm landed, the lights went out. What we didn’t know was the main transformer downtown had been engulfed by floods, and had blown up like an atom bomb, exploding in a green flash that lit-up the sky. We thought it was only a blip on the electrical grid, which would be fixed by the morning.
That night I walked up Broadway under the silver moonlight. The wind was heavy, gusting close to sixty miles an hour, which flattened a building in Chelsea and collapsed a crane uptown. Scaffolding and street signs were torn down, and there was something eerie about being in the city of lights without any of them working.
Strangers were on the sidewalks – dark faceless figures with flashlights, finding their way home. Nobody had seen New York like it for nearly a decade. And then, it only lasted twenty-four hours.
This time was four nights, with every light bulb south of 39th street rendered useless. The explosion had knocked out the cellphone towers, wireless routers, refrigeration, hot water boilers and heating systems; even the subway system was shutdown. During the day, the streets were desolate. Iron curtains were locked across the shop windows and cafes.
Each morning we set out for midtown. On the fifty block walk north, we passed the office blocks along Park Ave South, which all had similar signs taped to the doors. Closed for business, and due to employee safety, would not be opening again until further notice.
We headed to the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Ave, to run the speakers bureau from big armchairs in the expansive lobby. Crossing 39th street every morning was like entering the world, feeling like refugees arriving from a fallout zone. The city was buzzing. Midtown hadn’t skipped a beat.
Each night a bus drove us back downtown to 23rd street, but when it crossed the border at 39th, we were once again back in the darkness, rumbling south without any traffic lights, flanked by the little white torches of pedestrians flickering on the sidewalks.
Union Square had become the world headquarters of ConEdison. Policeman were on every block. Patrol cars roamed through Soho all night, using their siren lights and head lamps to illuminate the streets.
And this was New York for the entire week, living without the luxuries we don’t even notice until they are no longer there. But nobody ever complained. People just got on with their lives, without all the bars and restaurants, hot showers and cellphone service. There was something almost liberating about the simplicity of last week, something distinctly old-fashioned about creating hot baths from boiled kettles on the gas stove, and eating dinner under the light of candles.
But not everyone was so lucky. Families in Staten Island were evacuated to shelters. Residents of New Jersey had homes swept off their foundations by the floods. And children were lost, which is somehow the biggest tragedy of all.
Tomorrow morning, Manhattan will inevitably grind into life once more, but the city has been humbled by Hurricane Sandy. Except that fabric, which weaves its way through our society, and at times seems so tenuous, has been woven a little tighter for now.