The Domino Effect Of Hurricane Sandy: Why One Natural Disaster Changed Everything For Me

January has always been my least favorite month. It’s a No Man’s Land month and supposedly the saddest time of the year. Christmas and New Years festivities are over, the weather is biting cold, and the only holiday in the near future is Valentine’s Day, which both single and taken people often hate. I dread January as much as I dread the flu and dentist visits, but right now, I would like nothing more than for the first day of January to arrive. I want a clean slate after this disaster of a year. Besides, November has felt a lot like January so far: bleak, stressful, isolating, and joyless.

Two weeks ago, the New York City subway system shut down in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, a major storm set to hit much of the east coast. I figured Bloomberg was just trying to take necessary precautions because NYC hadn’t been ready for Hurricane Irene the previous year. Then I pulled up my inbox and found an email from my boss, who wrote to inform everyone that the office would be closed Monday due to the storm. We were all to work from home, he said, at normal capacity. I sighed and walked into the living room, where I found my roommate rummaging through the fridge.

“Do you want to go get some food?” she asked. “This will probably be your last chance to eat out for a while. Everything is closing at four today.”

Our winter coats in hand, we ventured down to 86th Street for our final big meal on the town. We were already getting thrashed around by the wind, which should have indicated to us just how serious Sandy was about wreaking havoc in our city. Traversing the crosswalk, I noticed a massive line streaming out of Fairway Market. Everyone was gearing up for the hurricane. Jen and I giggled, as we’d put together our hurricane survival kit the day before. Oh, how efficient and on top of things we were. The hurricane had nothing on us.

After scarfing down Chipotle, which hadn’t been particularly enjoyable, we made a pit stop at Duane Reade for some extra water jugs. Of course, the entire water aisle was empty. We had to purchase by the bottle, so we gathered a couple chilled bottles of Smart Water and Crystal Springs before retreating to the cash register. Before checking out, I grabbed the latest issue of Us Weekly, which had a smiling Jessica Simpson on the cover. The title read, “BULLIED FOR HER WEIGHT. MY DIET STRUGGLE. The new mom loses 60 lbs in 5 months the healthy way and ignores the haters — ‘I’m not a supermodel!'” I grinned, knowing all too well I’d need ample tabloid stories to keep me calm and occupied during the storm.

The following day, which was the day Sandy was supposed to barrel through NYC, my roommate and I worked from home. We spent much of the morning joking about how we were already going stir crazy. All would be well soon, though, as our offices would surely be back in business by Wednesday. At 10:30 a.m., I started to feel a pounding in my forehead. It was my caffeine deficiency. I needed coffee, so I phoned the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, stunned when someone answered.

“You’re open today?” I said incredulously.

“Yes,” the employee responded in a clipped manner, undoubtedly resentful about having to work the day of a hurricane.

“Great, thanks,” I replied, already dashing out my front door to pick up coffee for me and my roommate.

Few people were outside. A concerned-looking traffic director waved me across the street, and a male construction worker ordered me to get back to my apartment as soon as possible.

“Come on, sir, it’s not even that windy yet,” I joked, tugging at my Victoria’s Secret Pink sweatshirt.

“It will be. Just you wait.”

Nevertheless, my roommate and I had our coffee and were happy. All we could do after that was wait for the storm to pass.

Monday, October 29, 9:00 p.m.

Flooded subway station

My roommate and I were beginning to feel restless and uncertain. We’d spent hours scouring the Internet for stories on Sandy, which had apparently destroyed a few areas in Jersey and pummeled the lower east side. A shark was reportedly swimming through the streets of NJ, the Jersey Shore was battered, and portions of Brooklyn were flooded.  I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t moved to the east village as I’d considered in April. Would the upper east side come out of Sandy unscathed? Had we barricaded ourselves in our apartment for nothing? It seemed that way.

Then the wind intensified.

“There it is,” Jen said.

“About time,” I responded, wanting the storm to do her thing and leave already.

Our lights began to flicker, so I decided to play a movie while we still had electricity. I went with “13 Going On 30,” which I hadn’t seen in more than a year, and watched the rom-com until the power went out. I sighed and looked down at my fully charged phone. It wouldn’t be that way for long.

As my roommate fired up a candle, we heard a loud boom outside. Then screaming.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” she said. “Maybe it’s just a baby crying.”

There was no weeping child, though. The concrete wall separating our building from the one next door had collapsed. Here’s how it looked the following day:

After rushing to the living room window, I gasped. Our building was surrounded by water. The courtyard was flooded about eleven feet. I glanced out my bedroom window and saw waves just a few feet below me. There was also an inflatable toy duck floating around. If we were to get any more rain, I feared, the water would reach my window and flood our entire apartment. My heart rate skyrocketed and I headed into the hallway, where I found many of my neighbors huddled up.

“Jen, we have to evacuate right now,” I yelled from the doorway, clearly going through the fight or flight syndrome. “Our building is surrounded by water.”

“If we were going to evacuate, we should have done it already,” she replied. She was so right, but I didn’t listen.

“I have a friend who lives in Harlem. He has power. I’m going to go stay with him,” I replied, throwing on a zip-up sweater and my Hunter rainboots.

“You’re going to run 30 blocks in 90 mile per hour winds? That’s how people die in these storms, Laura. They go outside and get knocked out by a tree or something.”

“I don’t want to drown here,” I told her.

“Well if you’re going to go anywhere, you need to put on better clothes. Your hoodie and sweats aren’t going to cut it in this weather.”

That’s when her boyfriend stepped in and asked me to stay put. They didn’t want to worry about me weaving through the streets of New York during a hurricane — let alone in the eye of the storm.

“You know, Laura, for someone as paranoid as you, you take a lot of risks,” Jen said, inspiring all of us to roar with laughter. “You got coffee in the storm and now you want to run to Harlem, which is unsafe in broad daylight, during a hurricane.”

“I ran track in high school. I can do this.”

Of course, I was being utterly insane and ridiculous, but that’s the fight or flight response for you. When something is wrong, I need to see it in full. I need to know exactly what’s going on, so in my rain boots, I stepped outside. Every car on our street was under water and the road was flooded, with some of the water trickling into our building. It was coming from the east river, and it flowed to the end of 2nd Avenue. The perks of living at the bottom of a hill.

“Are we going to flood?” I asked the superintendent, who was tapping at his iPhone.

“I don’t know. The basement and courtyard are totally flooded, but you’re on the second floor, so you should be fine.”

Just then, a young-looking girl from the fifth floor approached me and asked whether I wanted to accompany her to the bar on our block. We could charge our phones and computers there, she said. I nodded and promised to meet up with her later, as I was receiving dozens of text messages and calls from family members and friends. Besides, I wanted to stay outside until all of the water returned to the east river. I couldn’t simply drink merrily while everything around me eroded and crumbled.

Meanwhile, I was frantically texting my New York pals, many of which were safe and had power. A new friend, who grew up in Florida, kept joking that Sandy was nothing compared to what he’d experienced in his home state. He told me I was welcome to stay with him, and I regretted not making the trip to Brooklyn before the storm to do just that. I was also starting to feel stupid about the hysterical texts and tweets I’d sent out. My vulnerability was palpable and out in the open, so I decided that anyone willing to help me during that time was a true friend. I was stunned by the number of people that came forward and assured me everything would be all right. I wasn’t sure I believed them, but as the water began to make its way back into the river, I felt myself ease up. We’d be without power and heat for at least a few days, but our apartment would be OK. We weren’t going to lose everything, unlike so many unfortunate souls in Staten Island.

Once our street was entirely free of water, I walked to the bar. At the end of the room, I found the neighbor who had invited me out. At one point, she spilled beer all over my iPhone, and because I was drained and still in a state of shock, I didn’t even react. I simply wiped down the device, which was totally fine. At midnight, we retreated back to the building and headed to our designated units.

My roommate and her boyfriend were still awake, and we laughed about my panic episode. The fridge was beginning to lose its chill, so we finished the provolone cheese while it was still cold and safe to consume. She said she’d finished my tub of Half Baked ice cream, as I’d refused her advice to eat it during my freak out session several hours earlier. Already in survival mode, we scarfed down as much as we could before moving to our rooms, where we slept soundlessly in complete darkness.

Before hopping into bed, I clutched my rosary beads and said a prayer — for me, for my roommate, for my friends, for all of Manhattan, for Queens, for Jersey, for Staten Island. The damage had already been done, but I wanted good energy to sweep through the east coast. Boy, did it need some love and light.

Goodbye, neighborhood tree

Tuesday October 30 at 11:00 a.m.

My roommate and I escaped our apartment in search of coffee and bagels. We wanted something filling, as we didn’t know when we’d have a chance to feast again. We went with Bagel Express, which was packed. While waiting in line, she called our superintendent, who said we wouldn’t have heat or power for a week or a week and a half. We groaned. My hair was already started to frizz up and appear greasy. Where would I shower that day? Getting my work done was out of the question. We just wanted a reliable power source to charge our phones, both of which wouldn’t stop buzzing or trilling.

After filling ourselves up, we went back home, where we slept another few hours. It was the only thing we could do. The next day, we vowed, would be devoted to work. Starbucks locations across the city were closed, but we’d go to Effy’s Cafe first thing in the morning for WiFi and coffee. And we’d have a semblance of a routine again.

Halloween

That morning, I had a phone interview for a position at a women’s website. I’d recently been told that my job was at stake, so I was on the lookout for new opportunities. I chatted with the HR person outside of Effy’s Cafe, horrified when a loud ambulance rushed by and completely disrupted our conversation. I decided that wasn’t a good sign about the position, which seemed like a poor fit anyway.

Later on, my roommate and I went to her friend’s apartment on 71st Street. We stared at her television in disbelief, unable to comprehend the destruction in Long Island and on the Jersey Shore. A roller coaster was under water, boats zoomed through residential neighborhoods, and thick-accented, inherently tough Long Islanders were now homeless, despondent  and resigned. I suddenly felt very, very lucky, and so did my roommate, who’d just told me how unhelpful my hurricane panic episode had been. I agreed and felt awful about creating an anxious environment when that was the last thing we needed. Desiring a break, I asked my friend Catherine if I could crash on her couch that night. She said yes, and I jumped up and down at the prospect of getting to shower.

Saturday November 3

We finally had power, but no heat, so I headed to New York Sports Club to work out and shower. After an hour-long treadmill session and freshening up, I got dressed in the locker room and checked my cell phone. I had two new emails, one of which was from a prospective employer. I’d interviewed with his site a month earlier, but with Sandy and many responsibilities to attend to, he’d had to delay hiring.

At any rate, he wrote to say the company had offered the editing job to someone else. While they’d all loved meeting me (and I them, very much), another applicant was better suited for the role. I understood but couldn’t stop the tears from pouring out my eyes. That was not what I needed to hear in the immediate Sandy aftermath, let alone on a Saturday, but I appreciated being given a direct answer as soon as possible. That’s what I’d nagged them for all along, and he’d done the noble thing to notify me right away. The truth just gnaws at your soul sometimes.

Hours later, a new friend invited me to smoke flavored cigars with him in Brooklyn. Public transit was sort of up and running again, and if I hopped on about four different trains, he said, I could get to Park Slope. I was lukewarm to the idea. All I wanted to do was stay in my neck of the woods until everything went back to the way it had been prior to the storm, but was that realistic? I was a week away from losing my job, so clearly, I was in for some drastic changes, changes that would have occurred whether or not Sandy barged into our lives. She just so happened to do it right as I was getting demoted. As they say, timing is everything, and hers was especially bad.

To boost my spirits, I went out with Catherine and Hillary to some neighborhood bars. We started our night early to beat the crowds, but the bars were already overflowing with people at 8:30 p.m. They’d been that way all week. Everyone needed an escape from reality, and with many off work and without power, what else was there to do but cuddle up with a beer or shot of Jameson? As much as I enjoyed sipping glasses of Stella Artois and Blue Moon, my throat started to hurt around midnight. I was coming down with a cold, which had undoubtedly been caused by the stress of Hurricane Sandy.

Tuesday November 6, Election Day

My colleagues and I worked until 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, studying our Twitter feeds and cable news channels to stay up to date on election happenings. It was my last week at work, so my mom suggested I take it easy and focus on my health, but I assured her I wanted to finish strong and report on the election to the best of my ability.

At 6 p.m., my boss presented us with two boxes of Arturo’s pizza and a bottle of wine. Famished, I devoured three slices, but barely touched the alcohol. Every few seconds, I sniffled and coughed, much to my own embarrassment and shame. I repeatedly apologized to my coworkers, Andrew and Meenal, for being a cesspool of germs and gross entity. They didn’t care, as they were delirious from working all day and covering an uninspiring election for an entire year. At 11:00 p.m., I told them I would be heading to a SoHo hotel, where I’d be staying for two nights. The room was a gift from my mom, who believed I needed some personal space and to recharge after a hellish post-Sandy week.

Andrew gave me his blessing but added that the winner of the election would probably be announced on my journey to the Four Points Sheraton. He ended up being correct. As I checked in at the front desk, the woman behind me answered her cell phone and shouted with glee, “It’s over!” Judging by the jubilant nature of her tone, I figured Obama had been reelected. I have yet to meet a New Yorker who supports Romney.

“Romney lost?” I asked.

“Yup!” she chirped.

“Fucking shit,” I spat, immediately covering my mouth with my hand. “I’m sorry for swearing.”

“It’s okay,” the man at the front desk said. “I wanted Romney to get it as well.”

“I just worry about the economy is all,” I replied, my voice raspy as ever.

“Me too.”

I waited until the end of Obama’s victory speech to shower and down some NyQuil. It took me less than a minute to fall asleep, but I woke up in excruciating pain.

Wednesday November 7

I could not move. My glands were inflamed, my face hurt, my throat was sore, my muscles ached, and I was full of phlegm. There was no way I could haul myself to the office that day, so I stayed at the hotel, where I ordered room service and worked in my flannel cat pajamas.

A Nor’Easter was headed for NYC that day, so after an early evening nap, I went downstairs for some dinner. It felt incredibly lonely to eat by myself, let alone during a storm, but I told myself no one needed to be around sickly me. I also cursed the weather for bringing us more problems. We’d barely recovered from Sandy, and now we were getting six inches of snow. It didn’t seem fair. I wheezed into my Kleenex, hoping a good night’s sleep would repair my embattled body.

A waitress came up to me as I skimmed the menu. I must have seemed upset because she offered, “We have pizza too, you know.”

I laughed. Did I really look so young and immature that I couldn’t select something from the adult menu? I’d most certainly acted like a child since Halloween, but I asked for minestrone soup and chicken Alfredo, grown-up dishes. As I waited for the food to arrive, I watched Piers Morgan on the TV set a few feet away, feeling an unexpected rush of sadness that I would no longer be writing about his network of employment.

Thursday November 8

I woke up with crusty, bloodshot eyes. It looked like I’d been sobbing nonstop. I’d briefly choked up in the shower the night before, but there was no reason for me to have a splotchy face seven hours later. Then it hit me: I had pink eye. I’d seen the same cycle play out before: person gets cold, person coughs up a storm, person contracts pink eye from virus brought on by cold, which evolves into something much worse. I left work early to visit Urgent Care, which confirmed my pink eye and virus. The doctor told me to stay away from work and not touch anybody until at least Monday. That meant no socializing for a while.

“Home Alone”

On my way home, I text messaged my friend to cancel our movie and wine night, which he’d scheduled a few days earlier. I swore I wasn’t blowing him off, and he didn’t question my story for a second. It was a shame we had to do a rain check, though. After all, he’d agreed to watch “Home Alone.” Only a saint would comply with such a request. It was then that I realized just how many opportunities I’d let slip through my fingers because of some Sandy-related thing. She was awful, but I’d let a single storm govern my life and made myself sick over it. What a mess.

Friday November 9

At 7:35 a.m., I rushed out of my apartment and practically sprinted to Urgent Care. I’d spent the entire night coughing, losing my ability to breathe several times. I’d coughed so hard and so much, it felt like I’d completed an intense Pilates session. My entire body hurt and my throat was ragged and sensitive. Who knew coughing could be such a good workout?

When I explained all this to the nurse, she shrieked, “Oh my GOD!”, as if patients love hearing blatant fear in their medical professional’s voice. The doctor burst through the door moments later, brusquely asking, “What’s wrong with you?”

I repeated the story I’d shared with the nurse, and after listening to my lungs for thirty seconds, he turned to her and said, “She’s got an upper respiratory infection. Get her some codeine, nasal spray, eye drops, and antibiotics.”

“Wait a second,” I jumped in. “Can you tell me a little bit more about what I have?”

“Acute bronchitis. You’re going to need to take cough syrup four times a day for ten days as well as some antibiotics. If you plan on sleeping with somebody, use a condom, as the medicine will counteract any contraceptive pills you may be using.”

“Believe me, there’s no way I’m going near anyone for a while,” I said with a laugh. “Look at me!”

I hadn’t been able to wear makeup in days, I was getting over cough attacks, and I’d spent the entire week sneezing. I was not at my finest, and I was a danger to be around. Sex was the last thing on my mind.

After retrieving my meds at CVS, I went back to my apartment. The moment I saw my roommate’s boyfriend, I broke down. I sobbed  onto the kitchen table, inconsolable.

“When will things be normal again, Bradley?” I asked, my voice scratchy.

“I know how you feel,” he said, adding that he misses his home country and would give anything to visit. “When I broke my arm, I thought my whole world had ended, especially since I had many other problems going on at the time. But I healed, just like you’ll heal.”

I nodded and opened my bag, desperately wanting some of my cough medicine.

“Just three weeks ago, I was going out to bars with my friends, meeting guys, and wearing skirts. Then Sandy happened. We didn’t have power or heat for a week. I have pink eye and bronchitis. And I’m losing my job.”

“You’re going to be fine, Laura.”

I smiled, thankful I didn’t have to be alone in my moment of weakness. The drowsiness kicked in, so I went down for a nap. When I woke up hours later, I noticed a new email from my boss. He offered to let me work an extra week as a full-time staffer before transitioning to a smaller role as a part-time freelancer. I took a chance and inquired whether there was any way I could stay on full-time. There was not.

I made myself look on the bright side, which was that I still had an awesome writing gig in NYC, something countless aspiring scribes would kill for. Maybe freelancing would be better for me, I said, or at least a necessary change. Many of my friends were supportive, but a few inexplicably stopped talking to me. That’s the tragedy of the life I’ve chosen. A lot of people only value me for the work I do, and once I’m without it, I’m useless to them.

At 2 p.m., I conducted a phone interview with an up-and-coming female comedian I chose to profile for work. We talked for 45 minutes, and for the first time in months, it felt really nice to have a long phone conversation with someone. It wasn’t simply an interview, but a truly engaging discussion, which I really needed after a couple isolating weeks. At one point during our chat, I asked whether she had any tips for aspiring young actors.

“Persistence is important,” she said. “I mean, you must have had to work hard to get into your industry, too. It’s not easy to become a writer.”

“Yeah,” I replied, squeezing my voice recorder at the thought of being forced to take a less influential role in the field nearest and dearest to my heart.

Saturday November 10 (today)

After twelve hours of rest, I sprung out of bed and headed to Dunkin’ Donuts, of which I’m the foursquare mayor (a brag-worthy accomplishment if there ever was one). I ordered a medium coffee with cream and sugar, a water bottle, and a semi-bruised banana, which was the first piece of fruit I’d had in days. I need all the nutrients I can get.

Gathering my purchases, I darted back to the apartment. I was set to have a phone interview for a babysitting job and wanted to be composed and ready by the time the woman called. She reached out to me in the early afternoon, and once I’d confirmed that I’m indeed comfortable walking toddlers through the city, she set up a time for me to come meet her little one. He’s four years old, the same age as my nephew Lukey. We’re going to get along swimmingly, I know it.

Later on, my mom booked a plane ticket for me to go home for Thanksgiving. I was initially planning on celebrating the holiday with my Boston relatives, but with my employment situation taking a dip and my childhood home going on sale, it only seems right that I return to the house one more time before it belongs to a new family and becomes the center of their memories.

If all goes well (and no storms bust through NYC), I’ll be in California a week from today. I’ll be where the weather is eternally wonderful and anything but volatile, dramatic, fatal, or heartbreaking. I’ll get to prance around San Jose with my adorable nephews, attend my sister-in-law’s baby shower, eat dinner with my grandmother, catch up with my older brother, go on burrito binges on the beach, vent about everything to my childhood dog/BFF Roxy, get lunch at Walnut Cafe with my mom, and act like a stupid idiot again with my closest high school friends, Lauren, Nikita, and Crystal. I won’t have full-time work to worry about, so I can just be for once. It’s exactly the experience I need to start feeling myself again.

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5 thoughts on “The Domino Effect Of Hurricane Sandy: Why One Natural Disaster Changed Everything For Me

  1. Pingback: My Sandy experience « MikeChimeri.com

  2. Pingback: When your grandma is way cooler than you’ll ever be « Laura E. Donovan

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  4. Pingback: Making the most out of my toughest Christmas on record, saying farewell to holiday traditions « Laura E. Donovan

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