The PC360 staff is used to hearing and writing about catastrophes, but it is rare for so many of us to be in the middle of a severe weather event ourselves. For those of us who work out of Summit Business Media’s Hoboken office, we simply do not see the types of extreme weather that many of our readers to the south, west and even north of us regularly contend with.
So when “Superstorm” Sandy struck, it was jolting for us. Scarier still is the thought that other areas of the country are almost annually under threat from hurricanes with far higher wind speeds.
For those of us with access to power and computers, we decided take advantage of our firsthand experiences with Sandy by providing images and accounts of the damage and aftermath.
We begin with an entry from Mark E. Ruquet, who follows up on his earlier account of Sandy with an update from Staten Island, N.Y., as well as advice for insurers and officials about properly disseminating crucial information after a catastrophe.
When Power and Cell Service Fail, Insurers and Officials Need to Think Low-Tech
By Mark E. Ruquet, Associate Editor, PC360
Reporting from Staten Island, N.Y.
Above: The scene on Nugent Ave., Staten Island (Credit: Mark Ruquet, PC360)
FEMA officials showed up to review our request for assistance. They spent close to two hours reviewing the damage and comforted us as best they could. They said this was their first visit, and they realize their work is cut out for them.
For my car lost in the flood, my insurer is moving quickly and I’m just waiting to have it towed away. There is comfort in knowing how quickly they can get this all done, but it is also overwhelming having to deal with so much at once.
Our homeowners insurer is getting the thumbs-down. They are not returning calls and don’t appear to be cooperative. There’s been more help from the agent, but I guess everyone is overwhelmed at this point.
Some notes to insurers—don’t expect to get phone calls returned right away. Cell service is improving now, but it was very spotty for days. The industry really needs to think about this reality and look into text messaging, or perhaps lower-tech alternatives.
Communication is important and it seems that we have become so enamored with our electronic devices that we forget they aren’t very helpful when they simply don’t work.
Both government and private businesses need to get out and get boots on the ground to disseminate information.
How about some old technology—like leaflets, or just someone going around with a loudspeaker telling people where to go for help? Word of mouth is the only communication at times, and getting the word out is important.
Getting used to the dark at night is just one of the new realities we face. Peering down the street, where lights from homes and street lamps went on for blocks, it is now a wall of blackness. The blackness is broken only by the lights of emergency vehicles in the distance.
Looting is a major concern. People in the street say that neighbors had their apartments ransacked the night of the storm after they ran for their lives. The police are all over, but they can’t be everywhere. Families decide to remain in their homes without power for that reason, or because they have nowhere else to turn.
The cleanup has begun. It is tiring, smelly, dirty work. Without a generator, getting water out of the home would be impossible. But this brings up another concern for many—gas. Just finding it is a major challenge, and where it can be found, lines are long. It becomes an issue of preserving resources and it makes me wonder how smart those people were driving around a day or two after the storm viewing the damage.
Small annoyances continue to eat at neighbors. While Midland Ave. has dried up, a storm drain at the corner of Moreland St. does not work, and has not worked for years (pictured below). A note to self—need to complain to someone about this, but that will wait. There are more immediate issues.
Credit: Mark Ruquet, PC360
There have been a lot of tears and some arguments from those who have to release the stress—and there is plenty of it. The stress of the physical labor; the stress of getting in touch with insurers, government and utility companies; the stress of not knowing your future or how you’ll pay for all the repairs.
At least we are alive. There are numerous stories about people in the neighborhood who didn’t make it. So far, everyone we know is safe. But with the speed the water came in, one can’t help but wonder whether in the coming days there will be more bodies.
Close by, police found an elderly man dead in his home. Neighbors say he had muscular dystrophy and lived alone (pictured below, police outside the home on Nugent Ave.).
Credit: Mark Ruquet, PC360
The bodies of two young children swept away in a van that was trapped in the rushing waters were found the other day. The local paper, The Staten Island Advance, also reports an elderly couple trapped in their car was also discovered. The death toll on Staten Island stands at 19, according to a web positing this morning.
Lack of Power and Gas a Recipe for Chaos
By Caterina Pontoriero, Assistant Online Features Editor, PC360
Reporting from Bergen County, N.J.
Above: N.J. residents line up for gas as supply dwindles (Credit: Chad Hemenway, PC360)
It is Friday, Nov. 2, and I was just awoken at 7 a.m. by a police officer with a megaphone right outside my house. Cars were parked all the way down my street, waiting in line for the gas station on the main road. Unfortunately, he had to deliver the message that the station did not have any gas, and that they did not know when they would get it. I heard a few arguments, which resulted in more yelling into the megaphone explaining that if they did not move, they would be towed.
Sandy did not leave much major physical damage in Southern Bergen County, N.J. Surveying the area on Tuesday, we saw many trees that were uprooted, in some cases, bringing entire sidewalks up with them (pictured below). A lot of those trees brought down power lines with them, crushed cars, and blocked roads. Thankfully however, we didn't see a lot of destroyed homes. At worst, siding, awnings, shingles, and fences had been blown off, but the buildings were still intact.
Credit: Caterina Pontoriero, PC360
We live along the Passaic River, but the flooding wasn't as bad as we had anticipated. The homes along the river (which I've heard are rumored to be worth $0) experienced the type of flooding expected with a bad storm—in fact, the flooding had been much, much worse with Irene, with the water traveling up a few blocks towards the center of town, not just to the homes along the riverfront.
However, what we lack in physical damage, Southern Bergen County is making up for with total chaos. Almost everyone lost power, and while my family was lucky enough to get it back by Tuesday afternoon, there are many people who are still without power. I know a few people who work for the power company, PSE&G, and they have been working almost non-stop since Sunday. And even those of us who do have power aren't 100 percent as cable, internet, phone and cell-phone service remain widely unavailable.
In addition to those lacking power are those lacking gas (or panicking about lacking gas). It is impossible to drive anywhere, because there is so much traffic caused by people desperately trying to find an open station, and if they do find one, they are lining up and blocking roads (like the very, very narrow side street that I live on). Highways are also a disaster—the checkpoints at the Lincoln Tunnel allowing only cars with three or more passengers into New York City are causing traffic to back up miles and miles all the way onto Route 3 East.
Right now, I'm stranded in my home. We can't take the cars anywhere because we're saving gas to go out to get essentials (the nearest grocery store is in the next town). My tank is pretty low, but I'm just hoping things will get back to normal before I need to wait three hours on line for gas. I will say one thing, though: I'm grateful that is the biggest concern I have right now, considering the devastation we're seeing throughout all the affected areas.
Sandy Anything but Another Boy Crying Wolf
By Shawn Moynihan, Executive Managing Editor, National Underwriter P&C
Reporting from Staten Island, N.Y.
Above: Midland Avenue, Staten Island (Credit: Mark Ruquet, PC360)
“Surreal” is the only word I can find to most accurately describe the whole experience of Hurricane Sandy. Yet it seems inappropriate somehow. Glib, even. But it’s anything but that.
How else can you describe your reaction to seeing hundreds of homes destroyed in your hometown? The gut-wrenching feeling of knowing 19 people in Staten Island alone have died in what most of us thought would surely be just another “boy cries wolf” weather event like so many hyped by the media? The harrowing sight of so many of your friends and neighbors’ dazed looks as they assess their damage, some having lost everything?
It’s Sunday, Oct. 28, and I learn NU’s Hoboken, N.J., office is already closed. As I work from home on Monday—my 2-year-old son and my dog competing for my attention the entire time—you can almost feel the approaching havoc in the hairs on the back of your neck, the inevitable coming wave as the disconcertingly light rains begin to swirl.
It’s too late now, there’s nowhere to run. All we can do is keep our flashlights handy and strap in for the ride. Hopefully, this’ll be like Irene, or my divorce: Noisy, destructive, but over relatively quickly.
By Monday evening, it’s obvious we’ve all underestimated Sandy’s strength. The winds have picked up, and are getting louder. I’m giving my son Declan a bath and the lights finally wink out at 7:20 p.m. Minutes later, my aunt knocks on my apartment door, walks in and straps a small search light on my head. My son finds this highly entertaining.
As the winds grow ever louder, the transformer explosions begin—but for the most part, you can’t hear them. Bright flashes that you know aren’t lightning. One that can’t be more than a block away, bright as a searchlight. But that one, I hear loud and clear.
At that point I realize that never in my life have I felt such a powerful instinct that says GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE WINDOW, NOW. And I follow it.
The texts begin from my ex-wife, who’s determined to stay at our house, which sits on a picturesque wooded street that inevitably grows sinister in foul weather.
Tall beautiful trees are all well and good, until you realize one could fall and smash into your home. And tonight, fall they do.
Another hour of darkness, wind and sirens, and my phone’s battery is dying. People are signing off on Facebook, and after learning a good friend and his parents had to be evacuated from their home as the flood waters rose, I decide to follow suit.
I move my son from the couch into bed, blow out the one candle I still have lit and finally call it a night, thanking the Lord for safe, warm shelter. The last image I see before nodding off is an image posted on Facebook of Manhattan Island, dark as Death. The Empire State Building and the WTC Memorial provide the sole two points of light.
Dawn. It’s 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and eerily quiet outside as I head to my house to survey the damage. A short drive later the destruction becomes painfully stark. Downed trees and power lines litter the streets everywhere you look, and not a single business is open. There’s no cell service.
People are starting to venture out, shell-shocked. Major roads are underwater. I have to turn around several times, as trees block my path. Word spreads that all of the beach communities—of which there are many on Staten Island—were swallowed by the rising waters. Later that day, long lines will start to form for gasoline.
At my house, at least four trees are either split into pieces or downed completely. We had just finally found a buyer, a young couple—and they’re sure to balk now that they can see the apartment building that faces our yard.
Still, I know it's a sin to even complain. Our damage is far from the worst in my community. I’m already hearing that people have died, a toll that will rise in the coming days. I’m safe, my family is safe, and at least the trees didn’t smash into the house. Even the cat is OK. I have a lot to be thankful for. And I still have some sense of humor left.
“Bring your pretty face to my axe!!” I shout, echoing the dwarf Gimli from “The Lord of the Rings” as I take my first swings at fallen trees. My ex laughs, showing the first smile I’ve seen on her since I showed up.
The slow, painful road to recovery has begun.
As Access to Information Slowly Improves, Sandy Damage Becomes Apparent
By Chad Hemenway, Senior Editor, Markets, PC360
Reporting from Dover, N.J.
Above: A tree blocks the road in Dover, N.J. (Credit: Chad Hemenway, PC360)
My family and I were doing well late into Monday as the storm approached the southern coast of New Jersey. I had just finished a day of working from home. My daughters and I were watching the trees start to bend sideways out the window from our home in Dover, N.J.
“How bad is it going to be?” says a Tweet from a friend, whose family owns a beach-view restaurant in Cape May, N.J.
“If what they say CAN happen DOES happen…very bad,” I respond. “Board the windows and leave.”
Then around 8 p.m. a tree up the street came loose at its base and fell into the street, knocking out the power. We saw the bright blue flashes and heard the buzz of transformers exploding. A live power line blew in the strong wind—each time setting off another light show as it hit the wet pavement—until power was cut off to it a short time later, as more lines fell or transfomers blew.
We got out the candles and flashlights and hunkered down, getting periodic updates via our smartphones while assuaging the worries of the kids—billing darkness as fun.
Tuesday morning we remained dark. My entire family—brother, sister, mother, in-laws—were in the dark at various locations throughout Morris County. Breakfast and lunch was made on the grill (electric stove). The day was full of good news-bad news scenarios: Our power is out but the supermarket is open for food and supplies. The Target is open. So is Home Depot. But I can’t work—no Internet; no place to sit and get a signal. And it’s starting to get cold.
We kept getting pictures on our phones from various social media sites. Immediately, we realize the shore is never going to be the same. Kim Tallon, our senior copy editor, summed it up best. "I want to cry every time I see pics of Pt Pleasant, Seaside or Mantoloking," she writes in an email. "Lots of memories."
Our family’s home on the bay in Brick, N.J. got about a foot of water inside, we find out. It could be worse. Much worse, we find out later.
I took a ride in the car Tuesday—not knowing at that time the risk of wasting any amount of gas. Trees were down everywhere, some on houses or cars. It remained dangerous to be out. Live wires lay in the streets. Telephone poles toppled (pictured below). I got some food, and batteries for a radio, and went home.
Credit: Chad Hemenway, PC360
Late Tuesday I learned my brother had power. I knew, at least, I’d be able to work Wednesday. Our office in Hoboken was, and still is, uninhabitable. The city flooded and what’s in the water isn’t pretty.
Wednesday morning, for the first time, I get a real sense of the widespread damage from the TV news at my brother’s house. It’s worse than I thought. Amazing pictures of devastation—to many homes just repaired from Hurricane Irene a year ago. Places down the shore where generations of our families have vacationed are destroyed. Houses are off foundations and on highways. Boats are stacked on each other. The city is a mess and the subways are rivers. The office in Hoboken is swamped.
We find out other little things like the fact that there was no lightning Monday night, as I had thought and Tweeted at one point Monday night. Those flashes were transformers blowing everywhere, reflected in the cloudy sky.
As more people arrived at the house, it was interesting to see their reactions—each one seeing coverage on the TV for the first time. I become a valued resource on topics such as hurricane deductibles and flood insurance and filing claims.
We realize on Wednesday gas for our cars is going to be a problem. And others need it for generators, which is the overwhelming sound since Sandy. Gas stations that have power have run out and didn’t get deliveries. It’s a scramble—a game of chance. Lines to the pumps go on for miles at any station open. We were lucky to fill up one of our cars.
Credit: Chad Hemenway, PC360
Our power remains out Friday. We have plenty of company in that boat. We lost some groceries, but there are stores open. Gas might be the biggest problem going forward, but I was able to top off one car and fill two gas cans on Friday. It’s cold at night but nothing an extra blanket can’t fix. We’re lucky.
Saturday we go down to Brick. "All the carpenting has to be removed from the house. So look your best!" my father texts, adding that the subfloor and sheetrock will likely need to be removed too. And we need to research a good chemical solution to prevent and/or kill mold.
"Not bad," I reply, trying to keep perspective. "We could be trying to find a way to pick up a house from Route 35 and stick it back on its foundation."
Sandy Damage Adds to Irene Woes
By Phil Gusman, Assistant Managing Editor, Online News, PC360
Reporting from Monroe, N.Y.
Above: A pine tree uprooted in Monroe, N.Y. (Credit: Phil Gusman, PC360)
In my corner of Orange County, N.Y., we did not see the inland flooding we saw during Hurricane Irene, but the area was subjected to stronger winds than a year ago.
Last year just after Irene struck, I came home (eventually...I could not get back into my town the night after the storm and was forced to turn around) to a ruined neighborhood and a flooded basement, although my basement flooding was measured in inches whereas my neighbors contended with four-to-six feet of water. I had never noticed before, but my house apparently sits higher than theirs, and in fact one neighbor was able to save his motorcycle by running it up to my stoop and leaving it there until the flooding subsided. I was told that boats had been patrolling my street to evacuate people. My car, which sat in my driveway (we had taken my wife’s car when we left), had been almost entirely submerged.
This year, we all prepared for similar flooding. I bought an extra pump, I emptied my shed, and I got everything in the basement either off the ground or up to a higher level of the house. Some moved their cars to higher ground. My next-door neighbor had some workers over to take care of his koi pond, as all of his fish had turned up in people's basements after Irene, if they had turned up at all.
But the water never came. Instead we got wind. Not nearly as bad as southern New Jersey, or even Long Island, but enough to blow trees down onto power lines and onto houses (local news reported three deaths from falling trees). Today, some surrounding towns still have traffic lights that are not functioning, and the sound of chainsaws cutting up downed trees fills the air as people recover. Gas lines are getting longer as stations run out; many of the cars in line here in New York show New Jersey plates as people migrate from harder-hit towns to find gas. But the immediate area here certainly is in nowhere near the horrible condition that towns and cities further south find themselves in today, and we’re lucky for that -- although I’m sure neighbors dealing with fallen trees and damaged houses a year after contending with flooding from Irene do not want to hear that.
For my relatives on Long Island, it’s a different story. Luckily, they’re not in any areas that were washed away from storm surge, but they are still without power, and they are nearly unreachable due to poor cell service. They were also subjected to stronger winds than my area was, and, in the few communications I have had with them, I’ve learned how serious the damage is in certain areas down there, particularly near the coast. I’m thankful that my family is safe, though, and I do realize how fortunate I am that the storm was only a minor inconvenience for me, especially as I see striking images of the damage in other areas.
In Far Rockaway, Victims Without Voices
By Anya Khalamayzer, Assistant Editor, Risk, National Underwriter P&C
Reporting from Far Rockaway, N.Y.
Credit: Anya Khalamayzer, PC360
I could say that, for me, as it did for the rest of the coast, Sandy started at the beach. As soon as rain started to drizzle from the thick lead sky above my neighborhood on Sunday night, I decided to go for a run in the storm’s foreshadow. My mom, my little brother and our dog intercepted me as I looped back toward the house.
“Get in,” said my mom, rolling the window down. “We’re going to the ocean.” Feeling the dramatic weight that covers time when you’re waiting for something to happen, I grabbed my brother, pointed out across the water and told him, “Look. You will remember this for the rest of your life.”
I could say that Sandy began over the next couple of days when the real work started as we cleared trees from the front yard, chopped firewood for warmth and condensed all of our cooked food to prevent it from spoiling in the useless refrigerator.
Ultimately, Sandy really started for me during an accidental volunteer trip to the Far Rockaways.
There, humanity showed both its faces as people helped one another with food and supplies amidst destruction, dust and debris. Meanwhile, others banded together to loot their equally distressed neighbors. There, media coverage was silent, limited to a reporter from an independent leftist paper and two Democracy Now! reporters on bicycles scanning the food lines.
Credit: Anya Khalamayzer
Help from the city and insurance organizations was non-existent there. They offered call-in hotlines -- a cruel joke as phones were powerless.
I spoke to a local mortgage banker, a Rockaway homeowner for three years. The banker, who did not wish to be named, said that he had not yet made contact with his insurers -- Safeco for home insurance and Travelers for flood coverage -- about the extensive claims that he’ll have to make on the house.
“There is no gas and no phone service. The government of Manhattan and the services do not care about this part of town,” he said. “Nobody’s come by to help me -- not the police, not the insurance representatives, no one.
“Two days ago, finally, someone knocked on the door. It was the fire department, asking if we’d had a gas leak.”
The insurance company needs him to call for a claim, he said. Do you have cell service? I asked. No, he replied. Can he drive to a call center? There is no gas for miles. Besides, he told me, the entire block was looted two days ago, and he lost his electric guitars, a television, his silver and his computer.
“I guarantee you that if I leave my house for any period of time, everything will be gone when I return. Although some say this area is sketchy, or it’s the city’s dumping ground, I see the potential here. Every morning I can come out here on my porch with a newspaper and enjoy my coffee by the ocean.”
After being inundated by Sandy’s flooding, the tap water is unsafe to use for coffee, and a huge hole has formed below the deck of the house, exposing a precarious tangle of roots and pipes. “Ironically,” said the banker, “this street isn’t even in a flood zone.”
Up the street on Rockaway Beach Blvd., grocery-store owner Ali Abdulla peers through the padlocked window of his ruined shop. People are lined up outside, sliding dollar bills through a slit near the door to purchase what is left of soggy cigarettes and dented soda cans.
Ali lets me inside, where staff members wearing headlamps in the noonday darkness sit atop still-drenched aisles of food.
“The hurricane started on Sunday evening,” said Abdulla, who has owned the store for just over three years. “By nightfall, I was sitting on the roof [of the store], trying not to drown because the water had come up so high.”
He said, “I’ve lost everything: $10,000 in cigarettes alone, and $150,000 in total merchandise and damages. I can’t file a claim because I have no phone service; I’m afraid to leave because someone tried to loot me at 6 p.m. last night. And I can’t get help from FEMA because I have to dial a number. Otherwise, the only help I can get is food from a soup line.”
Another elderly local resident, a woman named Isabelle Diaz, has owned her Rockaway home for 10 years. She has insurance but doesn’t expect any monetary reprieve because the damage to her house mostly resulted from post-Sandy flooding. She says, “I’ve been away at my relative’s house all last week, and I returned to looting and a big mess. We aren’t as populated as the other boroughs, so I mostly see people turning to one another for help.”
It’s hard to measure how long the solidarity of a community experiencing shock will last, and as the days pass without gas, potable water or word of when the power will be back on, people are becoming increasingly desperate.
What I saw in the Far Rockaways has all the makings of a man-made tragedy, unless the city and national insurers start paying attention to the silence on the coast.