After the storm

I write to you this morning safe and sound amidst a seven hour layover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. I am enjoying with renewed appreciation all of the luxuries power can provide: showers, free Wifi, outlets, electricity, and fast food. (9:30 in the morning is a bit early for fast food, but there is a McDonald’s behind me and I am certain I will cave within the next hour or so.)

When I last posted here, I had just returned to New Jersey in time to meet the impending storm of doom with reluctance. But now that “Superstorm” Sandy (the tempest’s most recent title) has wreaked its havoc along the New Jersey coastline – and New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, etc. -, I feel guilty for abandoning my home state in its time of need.

I recognize that I am among the fortunate ones whose homes are still standing, more or less unscathed. I am immensely grateful that the greatest crisis to befall my family and home was a loss of power, and even that was quickly ameliorated when my dad set up the generator. At its worst, Sandy was an irritant. It prevented me from seeing the people I wanted to see and eating the food I had missed while being abroad. I’m not writing this to brag about being spared the vast calamity that the storm brought to millions. I’m trying to emphasize how grateful I am that I was lucky and have no right to complain about anything.

A tree down on someone’s lawn

It was frightening. We monitored the storm’s progress on the news right up until it made landfall two hours south of me in Cape May. Soon after, the power was cut. There wasn’t much rain, but the wind was powerful. Shar and I had trekked down to the bay earlier in the afternoon just before the police closed off the area. We ran from the car to the pier against what felt like a wall of wind. I felt queasy running into it. It was like running into a firing squad of XLerator dryers whose blasts of air displace your skin in ways that would make claymation characters shudder. Even before the storm, the waves were a force to be reckoned with. Before I went to bed, flood waters from high tide had reached the bottom of my friend’s front door – and this wasn’t even the much anticipated hurricane-full moon-high tide monster hybrid that was yet to come.

Waves crashing on the pier before the storm. (This was by the Port Monmouth Spy House, a reportedly haunted historical landmark that was built in the 1700s and withstood Sandy. Amazing.)

Highlands, NJ, before the storm even arrived

All night, the wind battered the house. It was deafening. There was a terrible, ethereal howling every time a gust blew in, and I couldn’t shake the thought that the old tree in the backyard might come crashing through the roof while I slept.

In the morning, I thought the worst of the storm was over. Patches of blue sky were already optimistically piercing through the fleeing clouds and the wind had reduced itself to the occasional gust. My father, sister, and I hopped in the car and did a cursory scan of the town.

And it was astonishing.

The storm had been unforgiving, rapaciously devouring the coastline.

I have never seen anything like it. Power lines sagged in the streets like slackened coils of rope; trees cut across lawns, roads, and car roofs, years of roots and dirt completely exposed; debris littered the roadsides; people stood helplessly on lawns, assessing the damage. The closer we got to the shore, the more harrowing the destruction became. Down by the bay, houses bore the mark where the water had risen: up to front doors, over garages, swallowing porches. It was mindblowing to even conceive that water could rise that high.

The day after

The pier from earlier, broken

The water almost covered the garage doors

A flooded road

Port Monmouth fire house

The pier I had photographed the day before was demolished. Boats that had been tied up on dry land on the opposite side of the marina were now cast aside among the trees, in the bushes on the other side of the dam, piled up well above the water. The mast of a sunken boat barely moved at the end of the jetty.

Each day brought more bad news: my friends’ houses in Highlands were unlivable. Dozens of people were missing, their homes swept out into the Raritan Bay. Bars, beach clubs, and restaurants that thrived during the summer months were completely swept away. A wedding venue that I spent two summers working at was destroyed. The boardwalks all down the shore in towns like Wildwood, Seaside Heights, Atlantic City, and Belmar were gone. Summer tourism sustains the Jersey Shore: the favorite places I visited as a child, worked in as an adult, were gone. Not just crippled or decrepit, but completely gone. Sinking somewhere in the ocean.

The worst of it was driving through Union Beach with Kacey a few days later, when the National Guard had already arrived and blocked off the residential neighborhoods on the coast. But we didn’t even need to get close to the beach to comprehend the level of destruction. Homes were completely torn apart. It was like something had reached down from the sky and ripped walls and roofs and porches apart and spewed the remnants back across the town. It was horrific. It was heartbreaking.

Cracked power line

Pile of boats in the marina

Another boat stranded in the trees

A sunken ship

When I left, there were still about a million people without power. FEMA had arrived. Hundreds of people were coming to terms with what it means to be without a home. People – myself included – were still struggling to understand just how much we as a state had lost. Homes. Jobs. Landmarks. Lives.

Of course there was looting. The gas pumps were mobbed. Taillights stretched for miles down the highways. People parked blocks away and carried gas cans down on foot. My mother sat in a line for three hours one day. My sister, hoping to beat the crowd at 2am, sat in line for two hours.

On the upside, as it does, tragedy can inspire the best qualities in people. Throughout the aftermath, I didn’t hear much complaining. (Maybe this was a result of being cut off from social media and news networks, but let’s bury the cynicism for now.) The people I spoke to were volunteering and donating food, money, and manual labor. Friends of mine who have lost things – homes, possessions – have been focusing instead on the support of family and friends. People seem set on restoring, rebuilding, and renewing. There is an overall sense of resilience. (And the overwhelming question of how.)

Still, I feel guilty sitting here in Amsterdam. The most I was able to do was finally sort through all the clothes I’ve been storing at my parents’ house and donate them. It seems wildly insignificant. Driving to the liquor store the day after the storm, Shar, Chris, and I all felt guilty as we listened to the radio announce that shelters were in need of dry socks, coats, and clothing because so many people were arriving soaking wet.

Despite feeling helpless, I know there are things I can do even from here. A very good friend of mine works for the Salvation Army, and she linked a page here that offers volunteer and donation options. (Apparently there has been some skepticism surrounding the Red Cross and the percentage of donations that actually go toward a cause. People seem to be more trusting of the Salvation Army.)

If anything, I feel more grateful and appreciative of what I do have and more conscious of what others have lost. And of course, there is that pervasive sense of pride that will hopefully inspire unity and cooperation between towns of varying social classes, all for restoration, progress, and turning over that new leaf.

2 replies »

  1. I had goosebumps reading this. Absolutely terrifying, but heartwarming to hear that for the most part everyone is pulling together. Best wishes for the eventual recovery of everywhere affected.

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