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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sandy's Aftermath (Part II)

In my last post, I wrote about Hurricane Sandy, and how the various inhabitants here on the mountaintop weathered the storm.

We had made it through the night as Sandy come through New Jersey. We lost  power at about 7:30 pm, but our generator kicked in and we were able to keep some lights on, and the house stayed warm.

The next morning, the winds were still going, but had settled in to a lighter roar. My neighborhood was truly a mess. Trees were down everywhere, taking power lines and transformers with them, and creating tangled webs of dangerous wires. Some trees landed on houses and some crashed down with their branches just brushing the siding or barely missing cars.

We were very lucky. Our home was barely touched. Here, Jasper and Tucker inspect some of the damage to my potted plants. Did I say we were lucky? Yes, I did.

After the storm. Jasper sits under the relatively safety of the tree. There he's safe from wet grass that might moisten his toes.

I took a walk through the woods behind our home. It was amazing to see the number--and the size--of the trees that had been blown down. I would guess that within a five minute walk diameter of my home, there had to have been at least 50 trees toppled by Mother Nature. And I'm not talking about your 6-inch trunks. Think more like decades-old trees one- to two-feet wide. Dozens of feet tall--the kind that tower over homes in this heavily forested neighborhood.

Sometimes trees were simply broken, like this small one. It's hard to imagine the power that snapped this 8-inch trunk like it was a toothpick.
Some trees that were knocked down by the power of the winds were huge, like this one.

The park behind our house had paths with markers on the trees. Here, the blue trail (notice the blue marker on one of the fallen trunks) is blocked by fallen trees.

Looking at the uprooted trees, you could almost hear the groans they must have made as they were falling.

One look and you knew it was going to be a Very Long Time before people had power again.

Neighbors on either side of me had trees down--one blocked a driveway. The neighbor on our right side, Anne, was okay, so together we went and checked on our elderly neighbors across the street. Luck or something must have smiled on them because four huge trees had come down in their yard, just missing their home and their cars.

Our next-door neighbor; a large pine tree fell across their driveway.

As this tree blew over, in another neighbor's yard, it took with it metal stripping that had lined their paved driveway.

Our neighbors across the street were actually lucky. None of trees that came down in their yard hit their house or their cars.

Some pieces from our roof wound up in our yard, as did shingles from my neighbor's roof. Here is one of the pieces wrapped around a tree.

Brian and I offered up our home to anyone who needed a place to stay or to get warm or to power up their electronic devices. We shared stories of what we heard on the radio, since we had no TV, no internet, no landline phones.

If we thought the devastation was real and scary in our little neck of the woods, it was even worse and more horrific elsewhere. Areas of New York were flooded--not just the beachy areas, but Queens, the Rockaways, lower Manhattan. Manhattan under water? This is the stuff of disaster movies, not reality. The Jersey shore of my youth--where I took my kids to play in the sand and stroll the boardwalks and play on the amusement park rides--has been devastated. In some places demolished.

One picture that I saw that stays in my mind shows the roller coaster from the Seaside boardwalk--in the ocean. The pier where the roller coaster was is no more. It's gone.

People lost their homes, their lives. The flooding from the high tide and the driving wind was unprecedented. And even though the forecasters said it was going to be bad, I don't think they could  have predicted the enormity of it.

Fast forward to two weeks later. Though believe me, the time did not go by fast. It took us days before we could travel off the mountain. There was only one road open for most of the first week. Streets were blocked not just by trees, but by downed wires. Two weeks later and some of my friends and family still did not have power.

It's a labor-intensive process to put the power back on; every tree has to be taken apart carefully, with the PSE&G (Public Service Electric & Gas, our power company) supervising and approving to make sure no wires are live. And once the trees are cleaned up, they need to make sure everything is connected before they turn the grid section back on. Assuming the substations haven't been flooded or transformers blown, which was the case in many areas of our town and our state.

The street we live on looked like this every few hundred yards. It took many days before the roads were all cleared in our neighborhood.

Sometimes they have to turn power off for one area in order to restore power to others. Our electricity has gone down four times since the storm. (Admittedly, that includes power lost due to the snowy nor'easter named Athena that hit our area a little over a week after Sandy. But that's a story for another post.)

At one point, we lost power again, and our generator didn't kick in like it was supposed to. When Brian got it to function, it started making weird noises. Afraid that something would explode, we shut it off for the night until we could find out if it was safe. By morning, I was wearing a hat and coat and scarf and blanket--and was very happy that Tucker and Jasper wanted to snuggle with me.

The whole situation is more than one state can handle. 2.8 million customers lost power in this storm. I've heard it reported that trucks from 36 states across the U.S. have been driven or flown to New Jersey.

The church parking lot about a mile from us became a staging area for out-of-state utility workers. These folks were from Missouri.

A common sight. Notice the transformers on the ground. Thousands of transformers were lost from Sandy.

I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb where Asplundh was a familiar tree service company. Their distinctive orange trucks were easily identifiable. It was a little weird seeing them here in New Jersey.

JCP&L (the other power company in the state) reported several days ago that they had removed 45,000 trees just to get to power lines. Now, I'm no statistician, but JCP&L served about 2/3 of the customers that were affected. If that many trees had to be cut up and removed by just them--and they weren't even halfway through the fix-up--and at most maybe 1 in 10 trees knocked down took out wires, I think I could safely say that NJ lost a million trees in the storm. At least. Ouch.

Repeat this scene over and over again and you can begin to have a picture of what it was like across New Jersey.

With power gone, and thousands of people using gas generators, and gas stations with no electricity and the entire gas supply chain knocked out in myriad ways--from shipping to refineries to distribution and beyond--the next issue was getting gas. Within days, there were mile-long lines at gas stations, as people tried to power their generators and go places where they can plug in and be warm. Police were stationed in any open gas station to prevent altercations; it wasn't long before our governor began a gas rationing system. Even with that, it was several days before the supply loosened up and we didn't have to make decisions on whether to "spend" our precious gas to get anywhere--to work, to the store (if it was even open), to a diner to eat a warm meal.

Long lines at the gas stations--lines for cars trying to fill up, and lines for people with their ubiquitous red gas cans trying to get fuel for their generators.

Since we had power, and our office didn't, I was able to work from home. A co-worker joined me, and the dogs and cats made sure we focused--on working and giving them snuggles and pets. In this picture, if you look carefully, you can see Elsa on a chair in the rear, Calvin on a chair in the front, and Jasper hanging out under the table.

This whole experience of being part of a major disaster--and being one of the extremely lucky ones who didn't get hurt or lose a home to falling trees, fires or flood (thank you generator)--has made me realize that I didn't have a clue about other disasters. I think about Katrina. Haiti. The tsunami that hit Japan. The media cover those events for a while and then other news took over. And maybe you hear or read a story one month or one year later. For the people in those areas, recovery isn't measured in weeks, but in years.

And, as they say, the devil is in the details, and there are so many things you don't think about.

The people in lower Manhattan who live in buildings where the basements have flooded, and therefore there is no power. No power means no elevators. This is a problem if you live on the 27th floor. And maybe you're told your building won't be livable for the next 3 weeks or 3 months. Because they can't get the contractors or the parts to fix the problem--because there are 34 other buildings in the same situation. Where do you go? Where do you stay? You can break your lease, but then you can't move your furniture down 27 floors without an elevator. And then, how do you go to work?

Which is another story, because so much of New York's transportation system shut down. Subway tunnels were flooded. Some of the main car and truck tunnels into the city were also flooded.  The same is true in New Jersey. Two weeks after the storm, and New Jersey Transit still has limited service in many areas. You simply can't get places you used to be able to. Hour-long commutes become two or three hours--each way.

And then there are folks like my neighbors who don't have city water; well water requires a pump, and without electricity, they don't have water. We helped them out by giving them buckets and jugs of water--and leaving our water hose hooked up to the front of the house so they could get water any time they needed it.

Schools were closed here for over a week. Some schools still haven't opened, and in some cases, classes have begun, but in different buildings. One school system has middle school students sharing the high school in shifts: middle school in the mornings, high school in the afternoons until 6:00.

The whole disaster has shown how important a reverse 911 or text messaging system is so critical to communication. How do you tell people what is going on and where they need to go for help if they don't have power. No power means no TV, radio or internet--unless you have a smart phone, until it runs out its battery. And with the gas shortage, where can people go?

Last Tuesday, when everyone went to the polls to vote for President (and others), here in New Jersey, we had to figure out where to go. Our voting location changed because it had no power. And the one we finally wound up at turned out to be powered by generators. I guess it's no wonder that this year's voter turnout in New Jersey may have been the lowest on record.

Lighting by generator outside the polling place on election day. My son Aaron (in the picture) voted for the first time in this election; it will be quite memorable for many, many reasons.

Last week, several New Jersey and New York musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Joel held a telethon to benefit the victims. I texted REDCROSS to 90999 to support the cause. But I can tell you, it was the weirdest thing to see a telethon to benefit my state, my neighbors, my city and the Jersey shore of my memories.

Elsa Clair encourages everyone to donate to the Red Cross. We've seen them around town and heard wonderful things about how much they're helping.

In all of this, I was able to get to know my neighbors better, as we all pulled together to help each other, offering whatever we could to those who needed anything. We all watched out for each other. And that was a very good thing.

We'll recover.  Things won't ever be the same, but we'll recover. And we'll have made new friends and strengthened bonds along the way.

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