New York after Sandy: When the Lights Went Out in Manhattan

By Thomas Schulz in New York

From the lower tip of Manhattan to Midtown, many New Yorkers are struggling to make do without power, heat and water. They gather water in buckets from fire hydrants and walk more than an hour to work. A SPIEGEL reporter offers a glimpse into life in a Lower Manhattan briefly cut off from civilization.

Photo Gallery: New York Pumps Out the Floodwaters Photos
AFP

I had seen the water coming, as the waves crashed first over the lower flood wall and then over the top one. Our high-rise apartment building sits at the very front of Battery Park City, directly on the Hudson River, where the storm surge was first expected. For hours, I had seen more and more lights go out and bright flashes when the water reached transformers or power lines fell.

First, the New Jersey coast went dark, then the Statue of Liberty and then the southern tip of Manhattan.

I was sure that that was it. Soon everything would be gone -- power, water and heat. And that's what happened. Just not to us.

Instead, we and the inhabitants of a handful of nearby highrises were, for inexplicable reasons, almost the only people in all of southern Manhattan who still lived in civilization. Two streets away, nothing was working -- neither the power, the water, nor the heat. There were no supermarkets open and no functioning traffic lights, and what was the worst part for many people in this hyperactive city was that there were no cell phone signals.

Some Stories Seem Mild, Others Don't

It is amazing how street scenes can alter when suddenly there is no one yelling into their cell phones, busy texting or focusing on their smartphones, using Google Maps to find directions.

For a couple of hours, this trip back to the Stone Age might have been an adventure, even a pleasant one -- a break from New York's hectic pace and constant commotion.

But after, at the most, a day without heat and lights, without being able to take showers and flush the toilets, it's no longer fun. On many corners in the city, people opened up the fire hydrants and collected water with buckets.

At our friends' house, a tree fell on the roof, crashing into the bedroom of their four-year-old daughter. Luckily, the family had been holed up in the basement. One hears a lot of stories like that these days. Some seem mild, others don't.

Everyone here knows the conditions are not comparable to those after the earthquake in Haiti, or during the hunger crises in Africa, but many New Yorkers still get angry with the spiteful and condescending commentaries from other parts of the world, like those I hear again and again from Germany, which say that Hurricane Sandy was not much more than an average autumn storm, that not that much happened and that everything had just been overly hyped by the media. Many here are surprised at such cynicism. Do a thousand people need to die before one can call something a catastrophe?

On Tuesday, we took in our friend Kirsten, who after 24 hours in her cold, drafty apartment on the edge of Soho, had had enough. It will take a while for her power to come back on, at least four days, maybe a week. Over the course of that time, our apartment will probably remain a shelter for our friends, a place where they can go for a few hours to warm up, to shower and to charge their electronic devices.

Trapped in Manhattan

That's what a lot of people are doing these days. They are trying to at least get some accommodations with family and friends, but there are not a lot of options. In Manhattan alone, there are almost 300,000 households without power. That is comparable to the city of Stuttgart in Germany losing power and water.

And the New Yorkers can't easily flee to the surrounding areas, because there, too, most are without power, and the bridges and tunnels leading out of the city were still either closed or overwhelmed on Wednesday. And although some subways, trains and busses would go back into service on Thursday, many lines will remain closed for days if not weeks or longer. Given that few residents of Manhattan own cars, that will present a challenge for many.

Kirsten and I, like many in New York, walked to work Wednesday. It took us almost an hour and a half to get from the southern tip of Manhattan to Midtown, where the offices for SPIEGEL, and the Danish consulate, where Kirsten works, are located. Taxis are hard to come by. About 5 million people use the subway every day. A few thousand taxis can't make up the difference. Many taxi drivers don't want to venture into Lower Manhattan because they fear running into flooded streets.

Kirsten asked three drivers to take her to our place before finally finding a fourth driver who would. Buses are actually supposed to be running, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised as much, but we waited in vain for one, like most others. At bus stops everywhere on Wednesday, there were clusters of people waiting, but no buses came. The traffic police, too, were hardly visible, which is more than baffling, because in many parts of the city the traffic lights weren't working.

Conspiracy Theories

On a good day, navigating the traffic in Manhattan is not for the squeamish, but now total anarchy was ruling the streets. All of that led more and more New Yorkers to doubt the organizational structures of the city and the abilities of its leaders. Along those lines comes the question: Why did the city not try at all to protect its vulnerable corners from flooding, by building barricades or bringing in sandbags?

For almost a week, it was clear that Hurricane Sandy was coming, but nothing was undertaken. Sandbags were only placed around the Goldman Sachs headquarters. Maybe that was the reason why our apartment building still had power. It is located only about 250 feet away from the investment bank's central offices.

Conspiracy theories are circling about why Goldman Sachs continued to run at full speed, while just a few hundred meters down on Wall Street on Wednesday it was deadly silent. Even during the lunch hour, when the financial district normally looks like an ant hill from above, the streets were empty. Only the sounds of the emergency generators and pumps filled the air.

The stock market had officially re-opened, but bankers were not visible. Maybe they were staying in their offices, because outside there was almost nothing to eat. All restaurants and supermarkets were closed, with not even a hot dog vendor to be seen.

On Wednesday afternoon, the first supermarkets began putting their fruits and vegetables and frozen goods out on the street. The food would go bad after days without power. Groups of people immediately gathered around. Those who wanted to buy food had to travel long distances, to at least the "demarcation line."

As soon as one crossed 40th Street, the border where full electricity began, it looked as if nothing had happened. The restaurants were full and everyone was glued to their smartphones. In the first Starbucks after this "electricity border," there was a line going out the door. "Finally, civilization," said a customer, relieved, as he held his fresh coffee in his hand.

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