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Post Hurricane Sandy and Still Not Home

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 03: A woman rides by a closed business affected by Superstorm Sandy in the heavily damaged South Street Seaport on December 3, 2012 in New York City. South street Seaport, an area popular with tourists which was about to go through a major redevelopment, suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy. Most of the buildings and businesses, including the South Street Seaport Museum, suffered severe flooding and remained closed. According to a new Siena Research Institute poll, most New Yorkers overwhelmingly agree that climate change was behind Hurricane Sandy.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Photograph by Getty Images

Last Monday, when there was a lull in the wind and rain my son and several neighbors and I took our dog Derrick to the East River, a five-minute walk from our apartment building where we live on the 9th floor. It was only 10 a.m. but the water, a furious roiling gray, was already flooding the runner’s path. That’s when I knew we were really in for it.

The wind was screaming when the power went out at about 8:30 p.m. that night, and 23rd Street turned into a river. Cars were floating by in the gloom, and we could see the wavering flashlight of some idiot who’d ventured out with trees crashing around him to check on the encroaching flood. It was too terrifying to sleep. And then I had to laugh. Through the raging noise came the familiar, dreaded sound of a car alarm, blaring endlessly on auto-pilot.

The next morning, my son Emmanuel was too scared to spend another night in the dark with the water swirling so close, and he wisely insisted we go to my sister’s, who lives with her family on the fifth floor of a smaller building across town. It was also terrifying for him to be walking up and down all the stairs with only a flashlight and the dog, whose anxiety level was as high as ours.

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Once we made it there, after our crazed taxi driver had maneuvered through unlit intersections, Emmanuel played with his cousins and I walked back home to get more clothes and supplies and clean out the fridge. Of course the toilet had to be clogged. I cursed and plunged until it cleared. There are some things you just can’t come home to!

That night we stared out the window at the brightness beckoning uptown in the promised land of light. It reminded me eerily of those awful days after 9/11, when downtown was a war zone and uptown was, shockingly, like nothing had even happened. And that eerie disconnect continued the next day, when we decamped to a Times Square Hilton to rooms my sister had miraculously managed to book. We landed smack dab in the middle of Tourist Universe, where a life-size Elmo and Cookie Monster stood on the corner, waiting to be photographed. Happy visitors bustled around, snapping photos and buying tickets to Broadway shows, oblivious to the devastation only a few miles away.

Believe me, I am not complaining. I am very, very fortunate to have family with financial resources. We have heat and hot water and electricity. Our building has no power, heat, or water but it’s still standing. We are alive.

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It has been hardest watching my son’s apprehensions mount, though. He needs to not have to worry about getting to school and back (or if his building, which is way downtown where the flooding was severe, was damaged). He needs his routine. He needs his room. He needs his home.

But while the power is back on for most of Manhattan, it could be weeks before the damage to our building is repaired. So tomorrow we will check out and go back to my sister’s, where everything is back to normal.

And in the meantime we sit looking out the window again. The views are spectacular, the Hudson River to the west, calm and flat; the trees of Central Park to the north a blur of autumn hues; and Elmo has been joined by SpongeBob and Minnie Mouse in the plaza down below.

We are strangers in our own city, and we don’t know when we can go back home.

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