Notes from the Storm, in Six Zip Codes

Photo by David Shankbone, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Back in July a flash rainstorm that hit New York City got me thinking about weather. “Weather is something not many of this site’s stories have touched on, but it is such an essential aspect of our experience of place — both expected weather and extreme,” I wrote in a post accompanying the incredible picture of the storm that a former NFL linebacker snapped from a plane leaving the city. I continued later,

Weather’s a universal experience of place, one of the few widely acknowledged things that everyone shares and can talk about. We think of it as mundane conversation because it’s so neutral, but it’s also strange and exciting to have that instant sense of camaraderie when you’re walking down the sidewalk and can trade exasperated smiles with some poor guy who’s sweating through his shirt as much as you are, or when you crowd around your boss’s desk with some coworkers and laugh about riding to work tomorrow on a Jet Ski.

Two weeks ago, the weather gave us plenty to talk about. Hurricane-turned-post-tropical-storm Sandy hit the East Coast and didn’t pull any punches. In New York City, unprecedented flooding and fierce winds left over half a million residents without power, 1,600 New Yorkers in shelters, and well over a hundred homes destroyed — 80 in a fire that broke out in Queens alone.

I’ve written four full news stories on the storm and its aftermath in the past two weeks, one of which had me wandering through the streets of powerless Downtown Manhattan in the dark pushing a bike with a flat tire. A weather event of such a large scale has only amplified my curiosity of weather’s role in our sense of place, and how a disaster can change this sense. If we thought we were safe from flooding but now sifting through the ruins of our basement, for instance, certainly we see where we are in a different light.

I’m far from the only one writing about this storm, of course, and not even the only one on this site. Mara put together a series of short reflections on the states of the places important to her in Sandy’s wake and titled it “Notes from a Storm, in Five Zip Codes.”  Her piece follows this introduction, and I took the liberty of adding my own zip code (in the form of one of the four stories I’ve written for Our Town) after that.

Together, the pieces start to stitch together the fabric of this shared experience on the East Coast — with its dramatic variations and disparate contours — and ask how we come to terms with the unexpected in our homes. Have a storm story? We’d love to read it in the comments section.



Notes from the Storm, in Five Zip Codes

By Mara Miller

Pittsburgh. Untouched. The wind blew a little, according to my mom, who emailed me to check in. My grandma called my mom to make sure she’d done so. Gram sent her own email a few days later: HOPEINGLY YOU ARE SAFE AT HOME. BLESSINGS GRAM AND PAP.

Bethlehem. I moved here twenty days ago, an hour.5 north of Philly. I hate moving, hate it, but this place suits me. Square footage went up, rent went down. Mountains and valleys and air that smells like air. As I drive to work, sailing, I listen for the Philly traffic report (the sedated-sounding woman on 104.5: “And we’re, ah, crawling on the Ben Franklin, crawling on the Commodore Barry and, ah, jammed on I-95 inbound….”) for my morning schadenfreude.

My new house is in a flood zone, I learn three days after the rain starts. Remember the cute creek out back? Well, shit. New roommates both went home. (Home home.) The power went out sometime on Monday. I don’t know anyone in this neighborhood or I might call them to make sure things are fine. I’ve met a couple nice ladies at work but they live somewhere else with their toddlers and Bichons. I drive back midweek to make sure the garage hasn’t become a swimming pool. Everything okay. Lights still out and too cold to stay.

Fairmount. My half of my city apartment now belongs to a girl named Stephanie. (Thank you, Stephanie, or I’d be paying two rents.) I still park up here when I visit the city, because the neighborhood pass stuck to my car is good till June, and free is much cheaper than parking downtown. I walk past the windows but am too short to see in. Walk past the locked gate. My hand shoots into my pocket for a key, maybe to sit and write by the window for a while, maybe to check if I left the stove on. Ah, right, gave Stephanie the key, and showed her how to jiggle the lock so it cooperates. She’ll have to check the stove.

This was the first place I knew I could’ve lived for a long time. I left for a job, dragging my feet. Wish I’d been there for the storm, watching my tree spasm and lean, watching the leaves flash past from the dry side of my glass.

Center City. The fortress where I buried myself for a week while the elements behaved strangely. Up high on the seventh floor in a cave, in a cement corner where you could’ve told us it was sunny outside and we wouldn’t have known the difference. Safe, warm. Host who cooks dinner with me and peppers my forehead with kisses. Nothing even flickered.

Ocean City. This is the one that worried me. (Poor me, I have a worrisome vacation home — well, Dr. Ralph Miller has one.) My family’’s vacation home was smack inside this storm’s crosshairs and somehow it is not now a collapsed kindling pile of two by fours and pastel siding, nor did it awake to find a lost-and-found yacht on the lawn.

Pictures of the Sandy-fied shore pinballed around the internet for days. I saw one where the bay met the sea, covering the whole Ocean City island with an unbroken blanket. Grotesquely peaceful, I thought. Like instead of chaos, it was a reuniting, a rightful reclaiming. (Hello, old friend.) Like the water, now whole, would rise and rise and, one story at a time, surround each door and pinned-tight window, fill up higher than each deck and roof, until the churned-up mess and off-season creaks of the whole town could slip hidden, could be cooled and healed like a fever. What a terrible thing to imagine, I thought, with all these people everywhere cold and scared, getting crushed by trees and floating away in the dark.


Still in the Dark: Why Hurricane Sandy Wasn’t a Surprise

By Paul Bisceglio

[Reprinted from the Nov. 8 issues of Our Town and West Side Spirit, two weeklies covering Manhattan’s Upper East and Upper West Sides.]

This week power returned downtown, kids went back to school and the crane dangling 74 stories above W. 57th Street was secured. In the aftermath of Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy, however, New York City is far from fixed.

71,000 residents remained without power on Monday. Inundated Brooklyn Battery and Queens Midtown Tunnels remained closed. Ruined homes and businesses along the city’s coasts left thousands of New Yorkers in emergency shelters. The city faces billions of dollars in damages, and billions more in lost economic activity.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg summed up the city’s recovery on Oct. 30, the day after the storm: “This is going to take a while.”

Looking down the long road ahead, though, New Yorkers are also looking behind, and asking big questions about the city’s readiness for a storm of Sandy’s magnitude. Did we see it coming? What more could we have done to prepare?

The threat of a massively debilitating hurricane in the city, it turns out, is nothing new to local weather experts. In fact, many have anticipated – with near-faultless accuracy in regards to damages – a Sandy-sized storm in the city for years.

In 2005, Aaron Naparstek, a writer for New York Press (this paper’s predecessor, now online at, interviewed emergency preparedness and response coordinators and weather scientists to find out just how likely it was that the city would soon be struck by a large-scale hurricane. The resulting article was prescient.

“A storm of that magnitude may repeat every 70 to 80 years or so,” said Mike Lee, then-director of Watch Command at New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. He spoke with Naparstek about the 1938 Long Island Express, a near-category-4 hurricane that hammered West Hampton and decimated parts of the East Coast. “Do the math,” he said. “Whether it happens this year, next year, or in five years, it’s going to happen.”

Naparstek’s article lays out the evidence for Lee’s claim: the city’s location at the apex of Long Island and New Jersey’s right angle is ideal for collecting water; its shallow continental shelf acts as a funnel for storm surges (New York City, Naparastek mentions, has some of the highest storm-surge values in the country); wind sheer and sea-surface pressure are low, and climate change is only making things more tempestuous.

“In the event of a direct hit by a category-3 hurricane,” Naparstek writes, “surge maps show that the Holland and Battery Tunnels will be completely filled with sea water, with many subway and railroad tunnels severely flooded as well. The runways of LaGuardia and JFK airports will get flooded by 18.1 and 31.2 feet of water, respectively.”

The article is all-too-convincing in light of the devastation Sandy wrecked, but it also was never an argument. Naparstek told Our Town that he began interviewing weather experts for the article when he received a standard-issue Hurricane Emergency Evacuation Map at his western Park Slope apartment. To his disbelief, he saw that parts of his home would be underwater in the event of major storm.

“A lot of people say, ‘How can you come up with these numbers? Thirty feet, that’s ridiculous. It’s science fiction.’ ” Lee told Naparstek. “Actually, it’s science fact.”

The question that motivated Naparstek is still relevant today. “How can it be that nobody’s talking about this?”

“I think people are aware of the threat of flooding,” says Professor Nicholas K. Coch, a coastal geology expert at Queens College who once boasted the nickname “Dr. Doom” for being the first scientist to widely publicize the city’s hurricane history and vulnerabilities. “But there are political negatives about forcing people to do things.” He told Our Town that people are reluctant to spend money on infrastructural defenses against disasters that are so unlikely and few and far between. The installation of storm surge barriers along the city’s coast line, for instance, could cost $10 billion.

When major storms do hit, though, Coch emphasized, huge amounts of money are lost in reparations, as made clear in Sandy’s aftermath.

“There’s a lot of blindness,” Coch lamented. “There are too many people refusing to face the reality of the situation.”

Ross Dickman, the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s New York office in Upton, agreed that New Yorkers, like all East Coasters, have a dangerously complacent mentality when it comes to the risk of natural disasters. “People have a mentality that they’ve lived through this before,” he told Our Town. “There is this ‘home’ mentality that needs to be overcome.”

Dickman noted that his team predicted Sandy’s severity well in advance, and gave presentations to emergency managers that detailed the storm’s anticipated behavior and effects. “From an outreach perspective, we did everything that we possibly could,” he said.

Professor Coch and Aaron Naparstek both acknowledged that the city’s immediate emergency response certainly went better than it could have, applauding evacuation notices and subway closures. It was the city’s big-picture infrastructural and planning decisions, though, that both questioned.

“Our defenses against flooding are abysmal,” Coch pointed out.

Local politicians also have identified numerous flaws in the city’s preparedness for severe storms, and have begun suggesting changes that need to be made.

“The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a recent radio interview. “We are only a few feet above sea level. As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills.”

Congressman Jerry Nadler has been outspoken about the city’s needs to invest in more comprehensive protection from extreme weather conditions. He supports “looking into barriers, levees, and other infrastructure and making the necessary federal investments to ensure that cities and communities are protected,” a rep from Nadler’s office told Our Town. “And we should do such a review keeping in mind the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, and the growing frequency of intense storms, as well as other areas of the country that are vulnerable.”

Coch and Dickman assured that money spent on storm preparation will not be wasted. “With expected climate change over time, we definitely need to prepare for events like these,” Dickman said.

Coch was more direct. When asked if New Yorkers should expect more frequent storms of Sandy’s intensity, he turned the question around. “The sea levels are rising, and parts of the city are sinking. What do you think?”