Disaster: Day One
Cil Burke BSN
Driving through the night into a heavily populated area with the electricity off is an eerie experience.
That’s what it was like as we drove into New Jersey on day 1 after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc. It was dark. It was cold. Did I mention is was dark and cold outside the warm cab of our truck? Though there were many cars on the road, it felt as if we were on the moon or some other uninhabited planet.
We realized quickly our plans for staying at or near the initial staging site on Long Island wasn’t going to happen-they weren’t ready for us. We tried to find a hotel with electricity that wasn’t full-none to be had on Long Island or the Newark region of NJ. And they have lotsa hotels….
We were almost to Pennsylvania on I-78 before we found the last room in a hotel that had just had power restored as we walked in the door-this was 75 miles from the coast. The folks at the Marriott near Newark International-where we initially stopped to get our bearings- couldn’t have been more helpful. Their hotel was full of stranded travelers-but only had minimal lights from generators. Just walking to the bathroom through dark halls was surreal. At least the toilets flushed.
The further west we drove, a few lights began to appear. At our hotel’s exit, there was actually a convenience store with lights. We later ate our dinner from the prepackaged sandwiches from this same store. It was the only choice we could find. The large generator humming at a ear searing decibel level out front was the source of the electricity for the lights, refrigeration and fuel pump. The line of cars waiting to fuel up wound down the dark street-we couldn’t see the end.
Cars lined up for blocks waiting to fuel up became a common every day sight for the next two weeks.
Sandy really did a number on the northeast.
It’s very strange, but our friends ask things like, did you see the reports about…? But, no, we saw nothing reported by the media-we had no TV/media exposure for almost three weeks-I did a search for the Presidential winner on my iPad Wednesday morning after the election.
Instead of media’s version, we talked to people who were living this tragedy first hand. We saw the aftermath of the flooding and damaging winds.
As anyone who has seen devastation up close knows, the pictures do not do destruction justice. Houses that were not knocked down, merely flooded, look so normal from the street. A closer look reveals the dark line 3, 5 even 10 feet from the ground-the high water mark-confirming the story behind the pile of rubble at the curb.
One personal story feels like a microcosm of the devastation. One of ‘our nurses’, and I do think of them as ‘ours’, gave us many nights of compassionate work at one of our first aid sites. She’s one of those people who makes a great nurse. People just seem to feel better when they talked to her-she had a ready smile and a word of support for everyone.
It was a couple of weeks before her electricity was back on and even the intermittent generator powered heat we offered at our first aid site was appreciated-”Better than I have at home” she stated with a laugh in her voice. She kept going to her day job even though she’d lost everything and was having to meet with assessors at odd hours. Her employer needed her and she needed the distraction, so she made it all work-sleep be damned.
Her car seemed to work OK, but flooded cars are dangerous and she would have to stop driving it. What would she do then? She said that of all the things she’d lost, it was when she put her soaked, mildewy sofa out at the street….that really hurt, brought it all home.
She’d thought, dreamed, and studied long and hard, saved and planned before she bought that sofa. Now it was smelly curbside rubble . “When will I ever be able to replace it?” she asked no one in particular.
Dark, windy, cold and snowy nights with a generator humming loudly in the background make such statements even more stark.
We met many really good people in the last month-making real friends. We also learned some things during our stay in the northeast.
- When you don’t have electricity, the traffic lights don’t work. That is very scary. In Georgia, people treat dead traffic lights as a four way stop, in New York it’s just a challenge for who is going through the intersection the fastest.
- When most places don’t have power or telephone, you become resourceful. The small business owner who doesn’t normally make name tags? Well, actually they really can. Laura at the Sign Source in Brentwood, Long Island was great.
- The UPS store, close to one of our first aid sites, did a rush job for something we needed. The owner was helpful, gave great suggestions, and was generally just a good guy.
- The Nassau Coliseum parking lot on Long Island is very windy. Always.
- Long Island is appropriately named. Very. Ask my truck almost 5000 miles later….
- Long Island has lot’s and lot’s of people-and traffic.
- Small airports make great staging sites. Very roomy with all the paved runways-but you are always looking up wondering if someone up their may not realize the airport is closed…..
- Generators are wonderful. And loud. They make you hoarse because every conversation is a shout… And they run out of fuel in the middle of very cold nights-it is written….
- RV stands for recreational vehicle. When you live in one for any length of time, say for more than a day, they become trailers. ‘Trailer’ is a bad word in my vocabulary. Lester from RV Land has become a friend-keeping the water running and the heat on.
- Tents can be cold or they can be warm. It all depends on the heaters and the generators and how big your coat is. My coat was not big enough.
- Yes, beef roast out of an aluminum pan above a sterno can is some of the best food I’ve eaten. How do those cooks do that?
- Nurses, even those whose homes have been flooded, are wonderful people. They give and give and give to those who are working hard to help others.
Someone asked if we’d be taking a vacation when we returned home and weren’t doing ‘relief work’ anymore. I quickly realized going back to my day job would be a vacation. I’m back to work at my real job but my heart and frequently my head is with those I met the last few weeks in New York and New Jersey.
To all of those who continue to dig out: may your generator continue humming and your coat keep you warm until something better comes along. And it will.