It is seventeen days after Hurricane Sandy. I’m sitting in my small home office bundled in three layers of clothing, with power but still without heat or hot water. Outside, the sun is bright and the flood waters have long since receded. Only water lines four to five feet high remain on the sides of homes and across garage doors. Many cars have still been left untouched since the storm surge, all with one rear wheel curiously hoisted onto the curb and windows fogged over. (My own car was a total loss.) Trash still piles high on the curb, partly from the ongoing cleanup of basements and partly from renovations already underway. City sanitation workers have been on the job almost every day since the hurricane, switching from garbage trucks to construction equipment and dumpsters to manage the volume of refuse in the streets.
There has been constant activity in my neighborhood. Several days after the storm, the National Guard came to evacuate people and relocate them to shelters, although few chose to leave. For the past two weeks, Red Cross trucks served hot meals and gave out food regularly, as well as cleaning kits and blankets. City council people and others contributed to the relief effort by rationing out meals to each household. One day I even received a military MRE (meal ready to eat), complete with a self-heating packet and elaborate instructions.
Plumbers, electricians, and other contractors park their vans and pickup trucks all along my street. Out of misfortune comes opportunity and a sudden surge of business; for some, work will last months, even years. Scrap metal collectors make more frequent rounds here, snapping up waterlogged appliances, rust-covered furniture, and anything else that might translate to cash. In the days immediately after the storm, looters also roamed through my neighborhood in search of evacuated homes, valuables left outside to dry, and unsecured generators, but nighttime police patrols and curfews helped curb their activities.
My neighbors — homeowners, business owners, and tenants alike — are faced with a new reality now: vulnerable homes, altered lifestyles, mounting expenses, and the sheer complexity of navigating the insurance claims process, federal assistance programs, personal finances, and home repairs, not to mention continued challenges with transportation and utilities. While some help is available from FEMA volunteers on the ground and the local Disaster Recovery Center, getting one’s bearings in the aftermath of a sudden disaster is a self-driven process aided by family and friends. To my surprise, neighbors who historically never spoke to one another were suddenly coming together as a community to help each other through the prolonged power outage (6 days for my street), sharing generator power, cell phones, food, and stories of shared loss. Whether that sense of community will last remains to be seen.
I may have lost much in the flood, but I still have a home and consider myself extremely lucky. I had family nearby who were largely unaffected and with whom I could stay until heat is restored (I have never appreciated a hot shower and a warm bed more than I do now). I had friends who provided supplies and transportation when I couldn’t get around. And I had my health and well-being intact so I could be on my feet to handle the massive cleanup of my basement and garage, despite the cold, dampness, and mold.
It will take me some time to fully process what I have experienced since October 29. Luxuries, conveniences, and necessities in life have been forever redefined. What does it mean to be secure? What does a comfortable life look like? And how much stuff is really enough? When I was packing my bag in case I had to be evacuated, I was forced to draw a very sharp line between what was truly important to me — for my safety, security, and livelihood — and what wasn’t. Never before had I confronted that decision so seriously. After the storm, as I filled trash bag after trash bag with everything from old electronics and housewares to soaked books from my treasured art and design library, it dawned on me how few of those things I actually made use of but simply owned because I could. Part of me wanted to keep everything and just dry it out somewhere (there was no room), but the more sensible side of me knew to let go and move on. Even my knowledge of what to do in an emergency situation is embarrassingly and inexcusably low, regardless of where I live.
In reflecting on this whole ordeal, I recall the words of change management expert Darryl Conner: “It is not the surprises in life that are so debilitating. The truly crushing force is being surprised that you are surprised.” He sure wasn’t kidding. Sudden, debilitating change can happen anywhere and at any time, whether it’s caused by nature or by humans. We can’t avoid it, but we can do better to prepare our person, our property, and above all, our state of mind, to get through it safely.