Dispatches From The Eye Of The Storm. AKA Oh Sandy. Two.

On the morning of Saturday, November 3rd, I wake up at 7:30 a.m. to a dark room. The nightlight I plugged into the wall, a subtle alert to the presence of electricity, is still dim. I grudgingly push two down comforters aside and climb out of bed, wearing the latest in pajama couture: Long socks, shorts, sweats, and a hoodie layered beneath a ski sweater. It’s our sixth day without electricity and it’s 4 degrees in my house. But at least I have a house. I keep reminding myself. So many of my friends lost everything. But at least they are safe.

This headspace is surreal. I remember watching Katrina and her aftermath on the television, and being unable to process what I was seeing. Too much destruction and sorrow. Human kindness–as well as malevolence.

The night before, I sat in my friend’s living room, absorbing borrowed warmth, and watching the nationally televised Sandy benefit concert, broadcast from Rockefeller Center in New York City, where half of Manhattan still didn’t have power. Another friend who made the journey back through the Lincoln Tunnel said returning to the City was the strangest thing she’s ever experienced. It’s hard to fathom New York standing still.

Having been disconnected from everything except iPhone Facebook (which, for some reason, works even when phone calls are impossible), this was the first time I’d seen a lot of the photos and videos of the island. I technically live on the mainland, but I actually spend more time on that island, in towns like Lavallette–where I work–and Seaside Park–where I surf. Most of my friends in this state live on the other side of a bridge. Last night, I realized that I wouldn’t even be able to cross the Seaside bridge for months. When will I be able to surf my home break again? In six months’ time? The images of sand dunes and rubble where streets used to be, houses flattened as if they’d been hit with a massive wrecking ball, and the ocean meeting the bay were–are–heartbreaking. And I honestly think I’m still in shock.

My high school is closed indefinitely and has been converted to a shelter. People–even people who have lost all of their worldly possessions–are banding together and helping each other.

But then there are the looters. The bridges to the island are impassable, so people are going over on boats. They are desperate to get there. To assess the damage to their homes, businesses, favorite pubs. And steal things. Martial Law took effect Saturday at noon. Martial Law is “the law administered by military forces, invoked by a government in an emergency, when the civilian law enforcement agencies are unable to maintain public order and safety.” Anyone found over there can (and will) be arrested. Looters, allegedly, can be shot. Between potentially explosive gas lines and gun-toting thieves, the hazards have become too much for the police to handle.

On the other side of the Barnegat Bay, our street has been closed to “sightseers.” It’s unreal that people actually find entertainment in this scenario. But they do. The police have parked SUVs and set up barricades to limit access. They’re checking IDs: If you live here, you may pass. If not, turn around and go to wherever it is that you do live. A mile up the road, a traffic light at a major intersection is out. There is no one directing traffic. It’s like something out of a psychological thriller.

That night, I drag a mattress to the middle of the living room floor and sleep near the fireplace. My mom, dad, and the two dogs sleep in chairs and on couches in the same room.

On Monday, October 29th, I had intended to weather the weather with my parents in their house, which is on a plot of land I’ve jokingly rechristened “Point Danger.” I’ve seen the TV specials on the Queensland cyclones and the Gatton floods, and as a lifelong surfer, I know what water is capable of. When the wind and flooding surpassed those of last year’s Irene in the early afternoon (when the storm system was still several hundred miles out to sea) I fled to my friend’s house. They’re on higher ground, but their electricity was out from the moment I arrived. My mom left to go to her friend’s. My dad stayed with the dogs and his generator. He says he actually saw the wall in his bedroom sway with the 130-km/hr gusts. When the tide and the winds switched directions, he says you’d have had to run to outpace the flood waters rushing up the driveway from the bay.

When Sandy cleared, my dad and I used snow shovels to scrape six inches of mud from the driveway. On Saturday, he, my brother, and my uncle had to cut sheetrock from the first floor walls that were soaked in 16 inches of water. Muddy salt water. On Sunday, we carted destroyed shelves, books, and amplifiers to the curb.

Pro surfer and Billabong Marketing Manager Rob Kelly spent his Sunday gutting 7th Street Surf Shop in his home town of Ocean City, N.J., where he rode out the storm. Kelly’s brother, Chris, and Mike Losness had booked flights from California to New Jersey and by the time they realized Sandy would be more of an 1,800-km washing machine than all-time wave generator, they couldn’t change their tickets.

Because of their southern exposures, Cape May, N.J. and certain spots on Long Island (in New York) were the only places that got good swell on the previous Sunday, before Sandy hit. I drove over to check the waves in Seaside Heights, N.J.. Thanks to Jersey Shore, you know Seaside Heights, N.J. Unfortunately, that is not the real Jersey Shore. But the landmarks, like the boardwalk, and the pubs, and the ferris wheels, are all real. The waves were big and messy. The wind was already blowing so hard that tiny sand dunes formed on the northeast side of my jeans. As I walked up the ramp from the beach, which the thrashing sea was already beginning to swallow, a man asked me, “You taking the last photos of the pier?” I said, “I certainly hope not.” 48 hours later, the pier was gone.

The Kellys and Losness took photographer Ryan Struck and headed south to offshores in Cape May, but they had to make sure they were back in Ocean City by 4 p.m. “That’s when they were going to shut down the bridges,” Kelly says. “We actually left really, really good waves. We knew if we didn’t get back on the island, we wouldn’t be surfing at all.” They got back just in time.

The next morning was the first high tide. An already exceptionally high tide, courtesy of a full moon.

“That’s when the flooding started,” Kelly says. “In Ocean City, it flooded from the beach to the second block back, and then the bay also flooded. My house is kind of in the middle of the island, so there was water west and east of us, but our street was dry.

Photo: Rob Kelly

“Since those guys flew in from California, they were pretty set on surfing any day they could–even if it wasn’t that good, or was kind of out of control,” he continues. “On Monday morning, there was so much water in the streets, the only way to get to the beach was to paddle. So, we got on our boards and paddled two blocks on the street. When we got to the beach, there was the biggest, scariest surf I’ve ever seen on the entire East Coast. It was drifty, waves were on top of each other, and it was huge. There were easily 20-foot (6.09-metre) waves, breaking way out, on sandbars I didn’t even know existed. It was just massive.”

Since they were already suited up, they tried to paddle into the chaos. “We just got smashed,” Kelly says. “As soon as we got close, when a wave came, it just pushed us right back to the boardwalk.”

They conceded defeat and returned to their home, where the electricity had gone out. At that point, there was no leaving. The bridges were closed. And under water. “That’s when we realized, we’re kind of in this until the end.”

“On Monday night, as it was getting dark and the tide was coming up, water was starting to come into our garage,” Kelly says. “That was the scariest moment, because we knew it was high tide, when the storm was right on us, and it was going to be the worst, but it was dark and we had no power in the house. If waves started coming to the house, we would have had no way of knowing until they hit us.”

On Tuesday morning, Sandy had passed, and the beach in Ocean City was gone. The sand had washed over the boardwalk, into the streets. Beach front houses were severely damaged or demolished.

“At that point, we still didn’t have power and we weren’t really turning out phones on, because we wanted to conserve, so we didn’t really know what was going on,” he says. “We thought that we got hit hard. Then we turned on the news and saw Seaside and New York, we were like, ‘We got pretty lucky down here.’ A lot of people’s houses got destroyed and a lot of the businesses got worked, but in the big picture, Ocean City definitely got lucky.”

One of the worst-hit areas is coastal Queens, in New York. The Rockaways and Breezy Point, on Long Island, have been leveled.

New York Surf Film Festival and SMASH NYC Founder Tyler Breuer lives in Brooklyn, and has been driving out to the Rockaways (despite a serious petrol shortage), helping residents clean up and delivering much-needed supplies.

“Breezy’s bad. That fire–110 homes–is awful. It’s crazy,” he tells me, while driving, on Sunday night. He sounds drained. “Everyone’s got it bad, that’s the thing. But everyone keeps saying, ‘Well, I’m lucky. I’m alright. Someone else needs it more than me.’ That’s what I’m hearing a lot from people in Rockaway. It’s kind of wild. You have a guy whose whole basement’s filled with water and all of his stuff is done, he’s lost everything, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, butt I’ve got my house. It’s still here. It’s still standing. It could be worse.’ And you’re like, ‘Fuck, man, you got it pretty bad.’”

“One of the hardest things is going into homes with older people, who have lived in the area for a really long time and have accumulated a lot of stuff,” he continues. “And it’s all toxic. It’s all toxic and they don’t want to throw it out. It’s really hard, because you want to be compassionate, but at the same time, this is dangerous stuff. This is stuff that could really kill you. This guy today, he’s like Indiana Jones. He’s been all over, he was in the first wave of the Peace Corps, had these photos and memorabilia from all over the world. It was just extraordinary stuff. And all of that stuff has to be thrown out. It’s just… heartbreaking.”

Breuer says the support structure in the eastern section of the Rockaways, where there’s a lot of low-income housing, seems considerably weaker:

“You get near the surf break–like 90th Street up to about 129th–and it’s packed. I mean, there’s traffic. There are so many people helping, and all of the organizations are based out of there, with lines. But yesterday, I was driving through the eastern part, by Long Beach, actually, and it was just deserted. I didn’t see a whole lot of organizations or anything there.”

“Well,” he adds, “there was a lot of looting over there, too, which was crazy. I heard one story, where the National Guard was chased out of one neighbourhood, because they shot a few looters. And the whole neighbourhood just started throwing bricks and stuff at the guards.”

Ocean City residents are allowed to remain on the island. They’ve opened the bridges to residents and they’re checking IDs. “People who evacuated are back in town and everyone’s doing cleanup right now,” Kelly says. “It’s not like up north, where I heard they might not let people back on the island for six months.”

On Monday, November 5th, my mom calls me while I’m sitting in a Dunkin Donuts (pretty much a Donut King), using a “hurricane relief internet access pass.”

“You should see it,” she gasps into the phone. “You couldn’t fit another car in the high school parking lot. And cars are lined up from the Town Hall to the Parkway (about 3.2 km) to get triangular, yellow stickers, to access the island. Police cars and everything. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Photo: Taylor Butler

My brother, who’s a police officer, sends me a photo of the cars lined up to go over the bridge. They’re only allowed home for a few hours to gather essential belongings, and then they have to leave again. I never thought I’d be friends with so many homeless people, I said at one point. A feeble attempt at lightening the leaden mood. Sandy has displaced tens of thousands of people and left millions without power, water, heat. The damages are expected to exceed $50 billion (USD). The death toll is at 179 and counting.

To learn more about how you can help, please visit Waves For Water.

For more photos, click here.

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