The world seemed to move on Friday. The political campaigns returned with vigor, with President Barack Obama stumping in Wisconsin and Governor Mitt Romney telling Nevada voters he was a businessman once.
Hurricane Sandy came and went. Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie graciously offered up to the ever-hungry media a dozen photo-ops of them walking the Jersey Shore, conversing in a helicopter, and surveying the damage with concerned expressions.
Meanwhile, on their fifth day without power, without elevators or hot water, without street lights in the night or cellphones in the day, for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and millions of other Americans up and down the eastern seaboard, the conversation turned to hard questions about government and responsibility.
We shared our apartment with some friends and neighbors in the past few days. New York University infrastructure meant that while our apartments went dark, there was hot water in our showers and gas in our stoves. For neighbors in non-NYU buildings, it was a welcome respite.
Our neighbor Daniel, an injured army veteran and an NYU law student, agreed with me that five days without power, cellphones, or preschools for one’s two-year-old son feel remarkably similar to the exhaustion of war. But even as friendships are strengthened in this interminable blackout, the hard questions about preparedness and the slow recovery began to surface.
“In Bangladesh we have typhoons that knock out the whole country’s electricity grid, but we get it back up in a day,” said a coffee shop worker on 34th street, noting his great luck – that he is 100 meters closer to Fifth Avenue than to the adjacent Park Avenue. Fifth had power on Thursday, but miles of buildings on Park continue to stand empty and powerless.
“It’s unbelievable,” he exclaimed, and, as we left with our first fresh cups of coffee in four days, he yelled after us with feeling: “Take care of yourselves down there!”
The scale of the crisis hits home when one leaves our blessed patch of high ground around 3rd Street in the island’s center. We are the lucky ones, scrounging around shared surge protectors for the lone working outlet on our floor to power our smartphones. Our water works. Our iPads and laptops keep our Twitter followers informed of our suffering. True, we’ve been eating too many noodles in recent days, with perishables hard to come by. But many of us have also trekked northward to friends or family in other parts of the city for fresh food and extra candles.
But down the street from us, in the poorer areas of New York’s boroughs and New Jersey’s waterfronts, hundreds of thousands shiver in the dark. Residents of public housing, many of them elderly and sick, can’t climb the long staircases to obtain fresh food. In the pitch-black alleyways unpatrolled by the police, residents fear muggers and worse. Small business-owners in the flooded areas must find ways in a stalled economy to claw back from the loss of inventory and upcoming repair bills.
“It’s unbelievable,” goes the refrain.
“It’s unbelievable,” said David, a 28-year-old Manhattanite whose 31st Street apartment faces south, offering a broad nighttime view of a pitch-black southern Manhattan and Brooklyn.
With the news filled with pictures over the past few days of patients being evacuated from New York City hospitals whose generators failed, David feels more than a little betrayed by those whose job it is to prevent the worst in a disaster.
“I’m astounded. Shouldn’t there be a second backup system for a hospital, when so many people could die because the first failed?”
One hospital manager told the Times of Israel on Thursday that hospitals were appealing to the military for gasoline to power the city’s ambulances as fuel runs out.
“In Mexico City, we have earthquakes and hurricanes, and we never have four days without power,” said Beatriz Munozcano, a student in her mid-twenties living in blacked-out southern Manhattan.
“The response is so bad because we’re not used to this,” said an elderly woman at Trader Joe’s supermarket on 72nd Street on Thursday night. With so few New York City supermarkets functioning, a line of over 100 people stretches around the block outside. “The city doesn’t know what to do about all of this.”
The New York Times published statements by all the major regional power and cellphone companies Thursday noting that large portions of New York and New Jersey might have to wait until November 11 for power to be restored, while cellphone reception is patchy at best, with no clear end in sight.
While New Yorkers continue to huddle in the dark, politicians seem to be tripping over themselves to praise one another in a bipartisan show of support for how great a job they’re all doing.
“I want to just let you know that your governor is working overtime to make sure that, as soon as possible, everybody can get back to normal,” President Obama told New Jersey’s residents about their Republican governor.
Obama “sprung into action immediately” to help those affected by the hurricane, Christie assured Americans.
“Officials and experts praising FEMA for its response to Hurricane Sandy,” declared a Washington Post headline on Friday.
Obama will tackle climate change, said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an endorsement of the president published Thursday.
“I do wonder what this would all sound like if it was taking place two weeks from now,” said one longtime political operative. After the hyper-sensitive moments just days before an election, would politicians be so quick to praise, as long days and nights pass without respite for the worst-hit areas?
“We’re in the middle of New York City and don’t have power,” a Manhattanite said Friday morning.
New Yorkers like to believe they inhabit the world’s essential city, the indispensable financial and cultural hub of urban humanity.
Speak to them now and you’ll hear a different story.