Trapped in New York by Hurricane Sandy, along with my wife, mom, and ever present companion and Guide Dog Echo, my thoughts were often of my family and friends back home in Denton. We were in Manhattan for an art talk I was giving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to promote my new book when the hurricane hit. As luck would have it we were right in one of the parts of the city hardest hit.
Gusts at street level were topping out around 75 to 100 mph, but of course the winds are always much faster at the peaks of the skyscrapers. As the wind wove at incredible speeds around the tops of the buildings the low hum of the hurricane mixed in with the sounds of sirens coming from emergency vehicles all over the city creating a sound I thought at first to be music. Notes would come and go as the wind was forced one way or another around the skyscrapers; it was like I was standing inside of an enormous wind instrument as it was being played. The effect was both hauntingly beautiful, and almost overwhelming at the same time when you realized that it was the incredible power of the hurricane that was playing these mountainous buildings like an instrument, and you instantly realized how small you were compared to the storm.
We were some of the fortunate ones because the people in buildings below us all were evacuated, and while buildings all around us were losing power and water our hotel, which was slightly shorter than the buildings around us, nestled in amongst the skyscrapers quite nicely and weathered the storm beautifully. Around us though people were not so lucky. The building next to us had to be evacuated because a giant construction crane had been blown off the top of the next building over and dangled over the street endangering all the buildings around it and everything below on street level. Going in the other direction the entire front wall of a building had fallen off exposing the rooms inside as if it were a doll house.
Having been born and raised in Texas I’ve been through my fair share of tornado seasons, and also having been in Louisiana during Katrina and Rita for art shows I was doing there, I have been through some large storms, but this one had a different feel to it.
If you have ever walked outside of your house just before a storm is about to break, and have experienced the near unnerving stillness where an almost unnatural silence has fallen over the landscape then you will know exactly what I am talking about. This is what Sandy felt like to me during the greater part of the storm, and it reminded me of the old adage ‘talk softly but carry a big stick.’ Sandy didn’t bring driving rain or hail, and the hurricane force winds whipping between the buildings were of course invisible, so there wasn’t much for anyone to see. What Sandy did instead was to bring the power of the ocean right up on land with enormous swells that rose up onto the island of Manhattan. The feeling to me was like being caught in a large tornado producing storm system, that we know all too well here in North Texas, but combined with that also a surging flood that brought together not only rain water, but also the rivers and ocean so that water seemed to come from everywhere at once.
It is easy to forget that Manhattan is an island what with all of the bridges and tunnels that connect to it. This concept was brought home to me though when just a couple of hours after my mom and wife rode the subway underneath the city, and listened to the subterranean band ‘Underground Horns’ that plays beneath the streets, the tunnels they had stood in were flooded all the way to the top.
The numbers of people effected was incredible – so much so that I had to think of everything in ‘Denton’ terms. In other words when I would hear that so many people were evacuated here or there I would think of it as three times the population of Denton were moved out of here, or ten Dentons are without power, three Dentons have to leave their homes from this part of the city, and so on. It may sound strange, but it brought home the devastation of the storm to me in a more personal way as news of the hurricane filtered in to us.
I was proud of the people around me and how they handled the storm. Most people, like the owner of Ray’s Pizza who decided to stay in his restaurant instead of evacuating to keep the ovens going to provide food for everyone, faced the storm with a fierce determination to fight back. Others, like the lady I met from Australia who had never been in a hurricane before were frightened at what the night might bring, but were also ready to lend a hand if needed. In this time of elections, where even small disagreements can lead to endless debates it was wonderful to see people of all backgrounds and beliefs going out of their way to help one another.
Of course there is also Echo, my guide dog. She has led me all over this country and others, never hesitating to be there when I needed her; always keeping me safe from cars and any other thing that might be in our way. I was concerned at how the hurricane might affect her, but I shouldn’t have worried. She was born at the Guide Dog program in New York, and was raised and trained at our Guide Dog School we have here in Texas so she is a tough smart girl, and when the hurricane rolled in she didn’t even blink an eye. My wife, Jacqi, and mom, Debbie, laughed and joked and did much to keep spirits light.
It took us almost a week to get back, but stepping off of the plane and exchanging the cold weather of New York for the warmth of Dallas it seemed like we were walking into another world. Behind us in New York lay devastated homes, food and water stations to feed those without shelter or power, lines that went for blocks of people waiting for a bus to get back home or to get to work and get the city moving again. I will never forget Sandy, and while its devastating affects might get most of the press; it is actually the warmth, and the spirit of the people that weathered the storm that I will remember most.