Waiting for the Big One
Well, it has certainly been an interesting week, full of unexpected adventures.
On my way back to Paris, I stopped in New York to see one of my daughters, and had heard of the hurricane warnings for New York. I have to admit, I wasn’t unduly surprised or concerned about it, because in late August/early September, there are frequently hurricane warnings in the East. And usually, the hurricanes blow themselves out at sea, or turn in some other direction, and I have never encountered one in New York. But this time, as we all know, Hurricane Irene stayed right on course heading for New York City. I took a red eye/overnight flight to New York, and arrived on the Friday morning, right before it was due to hit New York (on Saturday), and found my daughter in considerable distress. The hurricane was due to hit the city on Saturday night, and her apartment was deemed to be in the most dangerous zone for flooding, Zone A. An order to evacuate her area had been issued by the mayor and police, and she had to be out of her apartment by Saturday at 5pm. They were expecting up to 6 feet of flooding all around her, and police boats had already been brought into the area. No one was to be allowed to stay in their homes, or the entire area, in her neighborhood. She was in the dangerous Zone A.
I’d never faced anything like it before, and it was hard to know what to do. Get a moving truck and empty her apartment? Pile things up as high as we could? Cover everything in plastic? If her apartment wound up 6 feet underwater, none of our preparations would do us much good. And we were both torn between panic, listening to the news, or thinking it was all media hype and the hurricane would veer away in the end. We decided to take a serious middle ground, and respond to what we heard without going completely crazy. I went to the nearest hardware store after checking into my hotel, and stocked up on huge plastic tarps, tape to protect the windows, an attempt to buy flashlights was fruitless. I don’t think there was a flashlight left to buy in the city, and batteries had become more precious than gold. I watched people practically riot when a truckload of flashlight batteries arrived at the hardware store. So we gave up on flashlights (she had two anyway), and got to work trying to protect her belongings as best we could. We managed to close some ancient metal shutters on her windows, lock all the windows, and realized that putting tape on the windows wouldn’t do us much good. If the force of the hurricane was strong enough to blow in her windows, or some flying object came crashing through them, a little X of tape didn’t seem like enough protection anyway, so we relied on the metal shutters and her double windows. There was talk of winds up to l50 mph, and the hurricane was classified as a 2. (With 5 as the worst case). And there was real fear of flooding, as she lives literally across the street from the river, and if indeed they got 6 feet of water in her street, as expected, her apartment would be underwater. It was a very distressing thought.
We worked feverishly to move her furniture away from windows, as suggested, stack things on top of others, put what we could in valises and boxes, and stacked that on top of furniture. We filled the bathrooms with many objects, as they were even farther from the windows, and covered everything with plastic tarps (including her rugs) and taped it thoroughly. Many times during the evening, we asked ourselves if we were being ridiculous. The weather was warm and balmy, it had been beautiful and sunny all day, there wasn’t a hint of wind, and the idea that a hurricane was coming that might destroy major parts of the city seemed ridiculous. But we’ve all seen the destruction wrought by hurricanes, and Katrina is fresh in all our memories, so we continued to take it seriously, and protect everything we could. We emptied some of her closets, put clothes on racks and rolled them away, filled more suitcases, protected photographs that can’t be replaced. Within a short time, her apartment looked like an unrecognizable war zone, and as though she was moving out that day. The order was official by then, issued by the mayor that her entire neighborhood had to be evacuated by 5pm on Saturday. So it was very real.
We continued our work the next morning, and Saturday dawned gray and intermittently drizzly, but there was certainly no sign of a hurricane by then. I slept little the night before, as all you could hear all night were drills and hammers and people shouting, as local stores and restaurants and businesses in lower Manhattan boarded up their windows with plywood. Construction sites were being secured, cranes were being dismantled. New York was taking the threat seriously. Grocery stores were selling everything off the shelves in the morning on Saturday, and you had to wait on line behind fifty people to buy anything. People were buying water and food for the duration. Public transportation was due to stop at noon and 1pm. There were no buses or subways from then on, and there were rumors that taxis would stop working too. They closed the airport, tunnels, bridges were due to close any minute, and at 3pm we left her apartment with a few things and her dogs, and she joined me at my hotel. Those ordered to evacuate had to do so by 5pm, and everyone was strongly encouraged to be indoors and off the streets by 8 pm. By 4 pm, when we got to my hotel, every store, including drug stores and food stores, was closed, all restaurants, even in the non-evacuated zones. The only businesses that seemed to be open were bars, and city government also ordered that no alcohol be served after 8pm. We were indoors at the hotel well before curfew, and spent hours watching the news and predictions on TV. By then Hurricane Irene had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, and New York was still expected to flood in certain areas, and lose power extensively. Many hospitals had been evacuated. And the news was rife with reports of what was happening in states like North Carolina, as Irene finally hit land (which they said would lessen her strength, rather than if she stayed out to sea until New York). The hurricane was expected to hit the city sometime between midnight and 2 am. And it began raining hard as the evening wore on, lots of wind, some lightning, some rain, all of it pretty bearable, but everyone was afraid of what would happen when the hurricane finally hit in full force. All of New York was expecting the worst. And we had noticed all the big ships, and cruise ships, leaving the harbor on Saturday morning, the fear being that their moorings would not hold them, and they would then be in danger of banging into each other or the piers, so they headed out to sea long before the hurricane hit. (I would not have enjoyed being a passenger on a cruise ship, heading into a hurricane, or trying to outrun one!!!)
It was a long stressful evening, waiting for Hurricane Irene to hit, as we sat in our hotel room and watched the news hour after hour. By then, we were told it wouldn’t hit until morning, and we finally went to bed but couldn’t sleep. We’d been told to close shades and curtains and stay away from windows, in case they broke, but I kept peeking beyond the shades to look out the windows and see what was going on. Not much. Just rain and wind, but nothing I hadn’t seen before in lesser summer storms. The storm was due to hit the city around 9am by then. And around 3:30, I finally fell asleep. Other friends were waiting to be pummeled by Irene at their beach homes on Long Island, and they said they had a long night too, waiting for the hurricane to hit. (Living in San Francisco part of the time, and for many years, it is always unnerving to experience an earthquake, which gives no warning, and suddenly begins to shake—like the nasty one in l989. But waiting for a hurricane to hit, with lots of warning, as you wait to be slammed, is anxious-making too, in a different way.)
We had been told that the hurricane touching land, as it did in the Carolinas, would diminish some of her force, which was confirmed all that night on TV. And from time to time, I thought about my daughter’s once pretty apartment, and wondered what would be left of it, and her belongings, if the promised 6 feet of flooding occurred.
And then at last, morning came, and Irene with it, undeniably a big storm in the city, but not nearly of the magnitude predicted. No question, there were areas that suffered severe damage and floods, in New Jersey, Maryland, Long Island, other areas, but I don’t think any of it was as disastrous as predicted. It is always sad to hear of people losing homes in these events, or worse the accidents that cause loss of life, but on the whole, this proved not to be a disaster of Katrina proportions of a few years ago. And within a short time, on Sunday at mid-day, Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. The rivers had risen around Manhattan, by a foot or two, and then receded just as quickly. Flooding in the city did not occur as expected, and the evacuated areas in the city did not lose power and were not underwater. At 1pm the mayor addressed the city on TV, and lifted the evacuation order at 3pm, still urging people to be careful of objects that might fall or fly around in the powerful winds. (More like 50mph, with gusts of 60, not the 150mph expected, fortunately). It rained on and off on Sunday, but the weather was warm, and in lower Manhattan, we saw no real damage, except a few limbs that had been torn off trees in the wind, and the wind was indeed powerful when we stepped outside. On Sunday, the airports remained closed, as did all businesses, and many roads, and there was still no public transportation. Taxis or private cars were the only way to get around, and there were very few people on the streets, and still no restaurants or stores open. New York was a ghost town over the weekend.
We went back to her apartment and undid the protective work we had done, pulled off the plastic tarps and removed the miles of tape that held them, opened the metal shutters on the windows, put the furniture back in place and the clothes back in the closets, and the books back in the bookcase, and by the end of the day, it looked like her home again, and as though nothing had occurred. The storm never hit as viciously and destructively as they thought it would in New York City, although it did plenty of damage elsewhere, but again compared to the heartbreaking destruction during Katrina, Hurricane Irene did not compare. And we were very very grateful for that. The massive flooding in Zone A of the city never occurred, fortunately. I didn’t see any broken windows, and none of the buildings that were mostly glass seemed to have suffered damage. Irene hit the city much more gently than expected, although there was flooding in some of the outlying areas, and to the North (Massachusetts, Vermont, etc.) and the South (the Carolinas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, etc.).
Hurricanes are never to be taken lightly, and this one wasn’t. New Yorkers, and their mayor, faced this one seriously and responsibly, with lots of preparation and efficient planning, and warnings to the population. Everyone I saw cooperated, evacuations and curfews were respected, and I’m sure others worked as fiendishly as we did to protect my daughter’s belongings and brace for the storm. Everyone appeared to take it seriously, and we certainly did, and it was an extremely strange and stressful weekend, first packing everything up and taking her home apart, and then sitting and waiting for hours, for the storm to finally hit. We were stuck in our hotel room, watching the news for many, many hours.
Forty eight hours after we began packing up her apartment, with a feeling of panic and desperation about what we could save from a force of nature like a hurricane—–it was over, and her apartment looked pristine and as though nothing had happened. We didn’t over react, nor under react, we did what we had to, and what we were told to do. And Irene cooperated by not hitting the city as hard as she could have.
Tomorrow, Monday, the city will slowly get back on its feet again. The airport is due to open, public transportation will be restored, businesses and shops will reopen, and life will get back to normal, while others, in other places, will begin the sad task of repairing the damage Irene did to them, mostly with floods, and trees that fell in the strong winds.
Hurricanes unleashed are fierce beasts which no one can control. And this one proved to be less ferocious than she was expected to be. But seeing the force of nature unleashed, even in the winds and rains, I have a healthy respect for the destruction that could have happened. I think luck was on New York’s side this week. The city got off very lucky, considering how bad it could have been, but fortunately it wasn’t as bad as we had feared. And I am very, very grateful for that.
It was not the NY weekend I expected (of shopping and dinners in our favorite restaurants), but I was grateful to be there with my daughter, and to do whatever I could to help (which wasn’t much, just moving furniture, packing up, and covering everything with plastic sheets). For the most part, or at least in New York City, Irene turned out to be more of a lady than we had been led to believe before she arrived. She did some damage, but not nearly as much as she could have. And forty eight hours after we began taking my daughter’s apartment apart, with a light rain outside and some heavy gusts of wind (but no more than any late August storm), the weekend seemed even more surreal. Was it all hype? I don’t think so. I think there was a good chance that NY could have been destroyed, or at least heavily impacted, if Irene had turned her full force on us. But fortunately, she didn’t. And for that I am truly grateful. It was indeed a very interesting weekend in New York. And now, as I write this, the winds are diminishing, the rain is stopping, and by tomorrow I suspect the sun will be shining and the city calm again, and it will all seem even more unreal. And despite the damage she did do, I am very grateful that she didn’t do more and began to lose force as she wended her way north. It could have been much worse, and I’m glad it wasn’t. Goodbye, Irene.
And my love to you all, as always,
Footnote to the Storm:
It is the day after Hurricane Irene hit New York City, I woke up early to blue skies and a sunny day. I don’t for a minute want to minimize the impact of this hurricane on those who suffered severe damage and loss in the various places it hit, but in New York City, it was not the devastating event that was predicted and did very little damage.
It occurs to me as I look at the blue sky and dawning sunny day from my hotel room, that perhaps this storm is an analogy with life, at times. A catastrophic event was predicted, everyone was frightened. Enormous floods in the city streets were predicted, there was a strong temptation to panic, people were evacuated from their homes. On a personal level, with my daughter evacuated as well, we worked hard to protect her apartment, faced it squarely, were afraid she’d lose all her most treasured belongings, and then worked hard again to put it all back together after the storm. We did what we had to do, and were rewarded with the incredible good fortune that none of the dire predictions occurred. There was no catastrophic damage or floods in Manhattan. It blew like crazy yesterday in a shutdown, boarded up, fearful New York. And today, there is bright blue sky and dawning sunlight overhead. There will always be devastating events in our lives, heartbreaking moments that decimate us, broken marriages for some, the loss of loved ones, illness, and all the ills that challenge us to our core. But not all hurricanes are Katrinas, some are more like Irene passing through New York City, with very little damage, or none at all, and a blue sky the next day. That’s good to remember, that not all the storms we face will decimate us. Sometimes we will be lucky, and the storm will blow and frighten us, but not bring us to our knees and destroy us. If we do what we have to do, some storms will pass us by and not be as terrible as we expect. It is good to remember that some of the storms we face will turn out to be less devastating than we fear, or not at all, and there is blue sky the next day. May the storms you face be small ones. And if you suffered damage in Hurricane Irene, I hope it will be repaired and healed soon.
With love again,
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How great that you were there with her….so comforting…and such a big help….thank goodness you were both ok….safe travels to Paris….oh…now reading “The Cottage”…
Carol O. in Southern Calif.
I feel as if I know you because I have read all your books. My friend Marilyn told me about your blog, and as I read it I realized that you have the gift to write about life as beautiful as your books.
I had written to you before with the idea of a book of hardships about being laid of and finding a new life.
I have had the blessing of getting my job back a story not often told about.
I wanted to let you know that I enjoy Happy Birthday very much and look forward to all your other many stories.
My moto in life is that weather good or bad the sun always comes out the next day and there is nothing we can do about it.
Thank you for being so special,
wanted to also tell you that I am very happy your daughter and you were safe and all went well.
Salutations, I hope and pray that you and all of your family are ok and did’nt catch any ragged edges of hurricane Irene (or any of it for that matter) I love all of your books and I am a devoted fan of yours. I just finished reading your Book and Legacy about your son (Nick)… I can’t even begin to imagine the unbelieveable pain and agony of losing a child. I myself have 2 boys &2 girls.I met a man 22yrs ago and he had 3 girls and 1 boy .now we have 21 grandchildren. I just wanted to let you know that as I read your book about I felt all of your pain and at the end I cried so very much for the young man who loved his mother so very much and for the mother who tried to do everything possible & impossible for her son. I will always admire your courage and your devotion for your chidren. May God Bless and keep You ,Your friend Julie & her family and all your loved ones . God Speed to you all .
Rosemary S. Velasquez
This was a great article, and I loved your analogy at the end of it. I am so glad that you didn’t complain that too much fuss was made about it all, in spite of nothing much really happening in NYC. You prepared for the worst, and hoped for the best. I live about 60 miles from NYC, and luckily was ok, but alot of roads were flooded/closed all week around here and lots of people were w/o power/phones and still are. Further upstate, in the Catskills, was some really devastating damage. It is because there are so many rivers/creeks in our area and further upstate. And there had been a lot of rain this spring and summer. So for anyone who said it was nothing (and that certainly was not you) they really didn’t look further than their own backyard. Thanks again for a good article!