As happens with major disasters which we read about, the media turn the page. They move on to other stories, other catastrophes or points of interest. We cry over injured children in photos of war zones, or after an explosion, see women mourning their dead, or injured soldiers. We read about earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, which take over our lives briefly, and then something else comes along, and the media forces us to focus on something else. But the people in the affected areas, and victims of those catastrophes are living with the fallout of the disaster for years. I feel that way about Hurricane Sandy now. As I mentioned before, it hit close to home for us, when one of my daughters lost her home and everything she owns, so I have a front row seat on the tragedies Sandy left in her wake, not just for us, but for so many. Lives lost, homes destroyed, whole neighborhoods impacted, and that won’t recover for a long, long time. For us, the disaster is still our main and only focus, and how to comfort my daughter from her tragic loss. But thank God she is alive!!! Others weren’t as lucky.
I am reminded of many things as I hear the stories close at hand, and was in the affected areas in New York as soon as I could fly in. I am reminded of how soon people who were not affected forget and move on to other things, while the tragedy is still very much alive for those who went through it. How much we all cared about Haiti and Japan, Katrina and the tsunami in Asia, and then our own lives intervene, and the memories fade. Nothing has faded yet for the victims in New York and surrounding States. It was a disaster of epic and historic proportions, said to be the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. I was in NY with my daughter, when a snowstorm hit shortly after, pelting New York with sleet, ice and snow and high winds, and the threat of flooding again, and all I could think of was “Oh come on….you’re kidding….this can’t be.” Many people still didn’t have heat, or even water in their homes, or gas in their cars, and it was snowing? Please!!! Give us a break here. Most frightening of all is that because of the changed weather conditions on the planet, a devastating hurricane could happen again. Terrifying.
I heard the heartbreaking stories first hand, and lived them with my daughter. The entire street she lives on severely damaged, with many buildings closed for extensive reconstruction. The heartbreaking hole the police cut in the garage door across the street, trying to save a man trapped in the garage in the floodwaters, and reached him too late. The people you meet in New York who lost their homes and everything they owned. The discomforts, the fear, the terror, the loss. The photos of nearly a third of the city in total darkness, under water and severely damaged, with no power, while the other two thirds of Manhattan appeared totally normal, business as usual as soon as the storm passed, lights burning brightly. And conditions in other neighboring states like New Jersey even more severe.
I was reminded of many things. Other than the actual loss of my late son Nick, one of the sad sidebars of that is that forevermore I know that bad things do happen. Until tragedy strikes you personally, you/we always feel that things will turn out okay. Once you have come face to face with tragedy, you know that that’s not always the case. For the rest of my life, when the phone rings, my heart stops for an instant, terrified of what I might hear. Once you know the worst can happen, it changes your life forever. You no longer have that carefree confidence that nothing bad will really happen. Sometimes it does. And the knowledge of that alters our lives forevermore. This flood is that way too. If the worst can happen—-could it happen again? We all know now that it could.
This reminds me too of the aftermath of 9/11, when our lives were forever changed too. Travel is complicated and unnerving now, we will never again feel completely secure on our own turf or in the air. People who survived Hurricane Sandy know now that their homes are not completely safe, and they are not entirely safe from natural disaster. If a city like New York can be that hard hit, imagine what would happen in smaller cities or rural areas. Or an earthquake in California. We no longer feel carefree and safe and we aren’t.
I am reminded of another phenomenon too. Many years ago, I wrote a book about the American-born people of Japanese origin who were put in internment camps in the West after Pearl Harbor. The rest of the country treated them as American citizens, but in many Western States they were treated like alien spies and locked up in camps for several years. It’s a shocking piece of American history, and the stories around it were deeply touching. My father married a wonderful Japanese lady when I was young, and she wound up in one of those camps as a young girl. I tried to interview several people about it for a book, and what I found was that no one would talk. Everyone’s answer to my queries was “it was fine”. And reading the research and historical accounts about it, it was anything but fine, and a severe hardship for the internees in what amounted to prison camps (and all of their homes, businesses and belonging were confiscated. They were interned within 72 hours). But no one would say a word about it, even my stepmother who also just said “it was fine”. And the sense that I got in my brief unproductive conversations with the people who had been in those camps was that they had a deep sense of shame about it. Almost as though it had been a disgrace and they had done something wrong, which they hadn’t. The people in those camps were for the most part American born, and citizens, suddenly treated like enemy aliens because their origins were Japanese. Families and children were herded into those camps and kept locked up for many years. But I sensed the strong embarrassment they all had about it. I was going to call the book “Silent Shame” because of it, but in the end I called it “Silent Honor” because they were such proud, brave, peaceful honorable people and even later bore no malice for how they were treated. I am finding the same kind of embarrassment now among the survivors of Sandy. They did nothing wrong, there is no guilt here, but I find people loath to talk about it, even when they lost everything. There seems to be a kind of shame about it, maybe it’s survivor guilt, but the most severely affected victims seem to be carrying that burden as well.
The brutal effects of Sandy are still being felt, and will be for a long time. There will be blessings here, lives changed, good things that come after bad, which is often the way life works. But the eye of the grief storm is still here, facing the loss, repairing the damage, bad news from insurance companies that don’t cover floods. No one expected a storm or damage of this magnitude in New York, New Jersey, or the other states it affected. The newspapers have moved on to the elections, to other events, and the restoration process will be long, not only structurally, but in the hearts of those who lost so much, or lost people they loved. This is a deep wound that will take a long time to heal, individually and collectively. My heart goes out to all of those who were touched by Hurricane Sandy.
I send you all my love, Danielle