This is six minutes that will make you rethink toughness and what it means to work hard. It's a compilation of some astoundingly high-quality footage of some of my predecessors in the Bristol Bay fishing fleet, which was entirely sail- and oar-powered until the 1950s. From the video's description: "In this excerpt from John Sabella's 1994 documentary The Great Age of Salmon, seafood industry pioneer Stan Tarrant describes the era when fishermen left the cannery dock at 6 o'clock Monday morning and lived in the open boats until they returned with their catches at 6 o'clock Saturday night."
It's been an incredibly surreal, trying, and tragic week in and around New York City, and even as many of us work back towards normalcy, there are large swathes of the city and New Jersey where "normal" is a remote, and in some cases unreachable, possibility. Up and down the Jersey shore and across Staten Island, communities have been destroyed wholesale, as you've no doubt seen, and many others remain without power or heat, without access to food or drinking water.
One of the hardest hit areas in the five boroughs of New York City was the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, where the scope of the damage is almost beyond words. This haunting video from Poppy de Villaneuve is a somber summary.
Yesterday I went out to Breezy Point, at the western end of the Peninsula, to try to lend a hand in my cousin's effort to clean out his own flooded house. The scene, sadly, made all the newscaster cliches about "war zones" and places looking "like a bomb went off" seem horribly apt. An electrical fire sparked during the hurricane's high winds burned 110 homes down to their foundations (visible in photos above and left, with better photos from WaPo here), and nearly every home that wasn't incinerated was flooded and damaged badly when, in the words of one resident, "the ocean came up from one side and the bay from the other and they met in the middle."
A former summer bunagolw community, Breezy Point consisted, pre-Sandy, of a tight-knit community built on a bedrock of about two-thirds full-time residents, many of them multigenerational families of New York City policemen and firefighters. There are few streets; the community is organized mostly around "Walks", narrow pedestrian thoroughfares slicing through the acres of tightly packed bungalows towards the dunes and the Atlantic beyond. The closeness of the houses means that everyone there knows their neighbors; it also meant that the fire spread rapidly.
Looking across the burnt out zone, one resident shook his head. "I never thought I'd be able to look straight through here, where all my friends' houses were, and see Sandy Hook." My cousin's house, a few blocks east of where the fire was finally contained, still had a basement full of water. Like most of his neighbors, he'd had to trash all his appliances and much of his furniture and cut the soaked drywall out of his living room, which had flooded with a few feet of water. We'd thrown out books and kids toys and beach chairs. Everywhere you looked there were piles of appliances and furniture, the contents of entire houses, the remnants of whole lives, piled up next to pools of standing water contaminated with sewage. Still, my cousin said, he felt lucky, comparatively.
And while there was a building National Guard presence on the Rockaway Peninsula yesterday, and the Department of Sanitation was hard at work hauling away tons of trash, residents reported that they'd been largely left to fend for themselves before that. Indeed, throughout the Rockaways, there had been persistent complaints about how slowly help had arrived from official channels--if it had even arrived at all.
And amid the area's urgent needs, there were urgent questions and building frustrations over the city's response. This NY1 video from Saturday shows frustrated residents of Rockaway Beach angrily confronting Mayor Bloomberg after he dropped in for a quick presser in their neighborhood. Coming on the heels of his boneheaded attempt to keep the NY Marathon on-schedule, Sandy will not likely be remembered as Bloomberg's finest hour. Questions about the recovery breaking down along class lines--the Manhattan vs. the "outer boroughs" dynamic--have already come up in things like this Times piece yesterday, and that will no doubt be a recurring theme as these areas continue to struggle towards some semblance of recovery.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there will be a lot of questions asked in the storm's aftermath, and hopefully it will be an opportunity to think seriously about the systems and infrastructure that keep this city humming, about how to prepare them for the future, and about how to make sure that those plans include all New Yorkers.
But for now, with a Nor'easter headed for the city on Wednesday, and with all the Sandy-related complications for voting in the election tomorrow, such questions will need to take a momentary backseat.
(I've posted some more pics from my travels around the city during this post-Sandy week on my flickr page here.)
The specter of long lines at filling stations and widespread gasoline shortages continues to haunt the city. I took the photo at left this morning, at a Shell station near my apartment. Early this afternoon, the station received a gas delivery, and within a half hour, the lineup of cars stretched blocks, snarling traffic and leading to shouting matches and honking as the cars jostled in line and others tried to cut in. There was a slightly more orderly line running the other way of people with red jerry cans. And trying to control the chaos: one NYPD officer who held her ground admirably throughout the day.
It should come as no surprise then that, as nymag.com is reporting, a lively black market for gas has sprung up on craigslist and on the streets.
Further aggravating the transit picture: tunnels that remain closed and a subway system that, while back online in admirably rapid fashion, is still running slowly, with fewer trains, and with a few crucial lines for Brooklynites (A, C, L, G) still out of service. This MTA photoset should help explain why: flooded tunnels take time to pump out.
There is someting in all of this that lays bare the fragility of these systems and this infrastructure we've come to rely on--things we never bother to think about until their absence reduces our city to near-chaos. One hopes that this wakeup call will lead to a more thorough discussion about the way we build, the way we think of our cities, the way we prepare for such crises.
Christopher Nicolson, head winemaker at the Red Hook Winery, is a fellow Bristol Bay fisherman and a good friend. Unfortunately, his winery, housed on Pier 41, jutting out into the water off the southern tip of Red Hook, sat directly in the path of Sandy's storm surge. Water flooded the space to near shoulder-height, ruining machinery, toppling barrels, and leaving in its wake a floor matted with crushed grapes and barrels strewn everywhere. And while Nicolson tried to put on a good face for us, the group of friends and volunteers helping him clean out, he was more candid in an interview with the website Nona Brooklyn:
In short, I guess we have to assume total devastation. Surely for the vintage – for all of the wine. We have to assume a total loss until we see where everything is at because the water level rose so significantly. Just about all of our barrels were submerged in the water that came through. The barrels were stacked three high in some places and higher than that in others, and the water just rushed in and floated and toppled everything.
In terms of the equipment, we lost all temperature control. We keep the barrel room here at a very steady temperature and humidity level at all times to hold the wines as they age, and that temperature control is completely gone. So even if some of the barrels themselves weren’t compromised, the loss of temperature and humidity control is devastating. Temperature and humidity control is critical when you’re making wine, and we’ve completely lost that. ...
And it’s not just the wines. The forklift, the pumps, everything was submerged, all the machinery, which means that in all likelihood those are all lost as well. The office, the computers, the files…everything.
Just awful. But knowing what an unstoppable, upbeat force Christopher is, I have to believe that they can come back from this, though it certainly won't be easy.
This morning, with all of lower Manhattan still without power, I got a text from a friend about a distribution center handing out food and water to the badly Sandy-affected residents of the far East Village and the Lower East Side. I biked over to find a schoolyard full of activity, with volunteers from several different groups distributing hot food, non-perishable food, water, blankets, and all sorts of other supplies to residents of the nearby buildings, who had been without power, heat, or water for the whole week. The desperation could be seen in the length of the line, which was never shorter than several blocks the entire day and often quite a bit longer, as people streamed in from all over. But as the day went on and the operation got better organized, teams were sent out into the surrounding towers to deliver meals and supplies to shut-in seniors. (I managed to make myself useful by helping unload National Guard trucks full of MRE's and a Humane Society truck full of pet food, and then by collecting trash and breaking down cardboard boxes for the rest of the day.)
Even amid all the sadness and suffering, though, there was real gratitude for all the volunteers, many of whom were from the surrounding neighborhood. And then, just after 5pm, there was a truly magical moment: the street lights flickered back on, and a few people noticed and began cheering. Soon others noticed and were cheering and clapping and hugging and high-fiving. Before long, people were literally dancing in the streets and on the balconies of the high-rises surrounding the schoolyard we were working in. It was unreal, a spontaneous celebration and a tremendous relief. (We didn't know at the time that electricity was back on, at that point, only east of Broadway, from 14th to Canal). More of my photos from that day and the rest of the post-Sandy week on my flickr page here.
Sandy has come and gone, but the devastation left in her wake remains, as you're no doubt aware if you're reading this or have wandered near a television or radio within the last couple days. As we begin to process what the city has been through and what it will take to get it back up and running, it's important that we begin to start asking those next order questions aobut as we look to the future, questions about how we rebuild and prepare for more frequently occurring superstorms and the contributing factor of climate change. Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn't mince words in an address on Tuesday (October 30th):
"I’m hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area but we use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter. There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a change in weather patterns I think is denying reality… We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns; we have an old infrastructure, and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination. That’s one of the lessons that I am going to take from this, personally."
In his amazingly lucid take on what it will take to "build it back smarter," my friend Cassim Shepard, on his Urban Omnibus site, concludes thusly:
No single weather event can be attributed to climate change. We’ve had big storms for centuries. The increasing frequency of these strong storms, however, can. As Governor Cuomo quipped to the president, “we have a hundred-year flood every two years now.” And with climate change – just like disaster relief and recovery – questions of scale complicate the conversation. Climate change is not really one challenge, but a series of overlapping ones that include consumption habits, settlement patterns, energy production and distribution, manufacturing and supply chains, and infrastructure investment....
Change needs to happen across scales. The “new reality” that Governor Cuomo invokes is one of an aging infrastructure unequal to the challenge posed by the stronger and more frequent storms that climate change promises. But this “new reality” also includes a pernicious and growing distrust in public works. Even if this distrust is belied by states’ and municipalities’ instinctive turn to the federal government for help when disaster strikes, it is a real factor in our public life, and it obstructs our ability to address the challenges we face.
The kind of coordination we have seen between federal, state, and local officials over the past few days points both to pathways and to pitfalls on the road towards multi-scalar collaboration. Financial, political, and practical collaboration will be vital to creating an infrastructure commensurate with the challenges ahead.... To “build it back smarter,” as Governor Cuomo has called for, will require a shift in understanding what infrastructure means, how it performs, and how – when it’s well designed, resilient, and responsive – its public benefits extend outwards across multiple and nested scales of citizenship, from community, to state, to nation, to planet.
It's really worth reading the whole thing and checking out the embedded photos and videos. And for an excellent collection of photos of Sandy's aftermath, check out this set at The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, in my slice of Brooklyn, where the storm effects were comparatively negligible, things got back to normal quickly, with kids out trick-or-treating for Halloween and decorations, guarded inside during the storm, put back out on stoops (see below). I've felt a sort of survivor's guilt this whole week, and in talking to similarly-situated friends have found the same feeling in them: we are high and dry, with electricity and internet and life getting back to normal, while so many other swathes of the city remain power-less or underwater or washed out entirely. Perhaps motivation for all of us to lend a hand where we can in the recovery effort.
I got back from Utah just in time to be plunged into the Hurricane Sandy hysteria that's been gripping New York and the rest of the East Coast for the past couple days. With the storm bearing down on NYC today, I took a walk over to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade this afternoon to see what I could see. The answer: not much. A light but steady rain and gradually building wind gusts, with a few other curious storm-peepers scattered about. Water levels were already higher than usual, though, and other areas in the city, like Battery Park in lower Manhattan and Red Hook in Brooklyn, were already flooded, while many of those living near the coastal flood zone were forced to evacuate. (See this handy zone map at WNYC for more details on that.) Wind gusts outside sound like they're getting stronger; windows are rattling and the streets are deserted. Hunkered down and waiting it out, with ample supplies of food, water, booze, movies, and books. So basically a lot like a normal night.
I'm in Utah this week reporting a story with photographer Corey Arnold. We had a few free hours this afternoon and decided to spend it productively with a drive out to a site I've long wanted to visit: Rozel Point, on the northeastern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake, home to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, seen above. This massive piece of land art, built in 1970, is comprised of a 1500-foot-long coil of salt-encrusted basalt rocks jutting out into the pinkish-purple shallows of the North Arm of the Great Salt Lake. It was a cloudy day, and we got there just before sunset after a brief stop-off at the nearby Golden Spike National Historic Site, but we had the place all to ourselves and plenty of time to walk out onto the jetty and climb the nearby hills for a better view. For more photos, check out my flickr set here.