Letter from New York

The shrieking began on Monday, an unearthly, steady wail, and the clouds rolled in after, layers of roiling slate. From my Lower Manhattan apartment I walked down to the Battery to watch Hurricane Sandy arrive and I thought Fifty Shades of Gray. A blockbuster of sadomasochistic erotica might seem like a strange analogy for a storm, but after the power went out, it made an odd kind of sense: sometimes it takes a beating to make us connect.

Here is life in what was called “the powerless zone”: There were no stoplights, so people just stopped. There were no phones, so we knocked on each other’s doors. There was no electricity, so someone brought a power strip to the outdoor outlet on the Citigroup building—bank headquarters all had generators—and security guards looked the other way as people took turns charging their phones. There was no internet, so we gathered in a local bar lit by votives and the bartenders’ flashlights, sharing information and news. No one could stop talking about how great it was to see the stars. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to be without power.

None of this minimizes the suffering and loss that the hurricane brought. But like all disasters it brought good things too—people helping each other, the community experiencing itself as a community.

“I feel like I should do something,” I kept saying as we put on extra coats and lit oil lamps. Bob and I walked out onto the Brooklyn Bridge to get cell service, collecting our e-mail and reading the news standing on the crowded walkway. Everyone I knew was getting involved. They were donating coats and sweatpants and blankets; they were having bake sales and volunteering at shelters. So many New Yorkers wanted to help that the big aid organizations were turning people away. I went to the city website and tried to volunteer to help clean up city parks. They were completely booked. The Occupy movement took up the slack, not only getting aid to the hardest hit places but offering an outlet for frustrated volunteers.

The point is not that people pull together after disasters—Rebecca Solnit made that clear in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. The point is that we need to acknowledge that we have a deep desire that can be answered by a disaster but is not created by it: the longing to be part of our community. And by community I mean the place where we physically reside. Sure, it’s fun to connect with the hordes of like-minded avatars we find in the segmented pseudo-communities of the online world. But the truth is, that leaves us unfulfilled. Online, we move around in the mental equivalent of gated communities. It doesn’t give us the primal jolt we get from being part of a physical pack.

Kurt Vonnegut once proposed that a presidential candidate who ran on the campaign promise “Lonesome no more!” would win, hands down. There’s a fundamental loneliness to the way we live now, in cities and in suburbs, maybe even in small towns—anywhere we don’t routinely talk to the people we bump up against by the sheer coincidence of proximity. Where we know the names of more online friends than of people we meet face to face. We know this and we long to connect. The storm gave us that chance.

Everyone quickly adjusted to carrying flashlights wherever they went. We waved them at cars to alert them to our presence, waved them at other pedestrians, ship beacons in the ocean of semi-darkness. We stopped to chat with security guards, to say thanks to exhausted Con-Ed crews, to ask people we vaguely know how they were making out. On Sunday, after the power came on, Bob and I had dinner with some friends who work in banking. They talked about how they had gone to a local deli, just to support them for staying open. They had chatted with their neighbors at a restaurant that had a generator. They had built fires and given up on their cell phones.

They felt guilty, they told us, but they sort of missed being powerless.

Ginger Strand is a contributing editor of Orion and the author, most recently, of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. She and her partner, Bob, live in New York City. Image courtesy David Shankbone.


  1. Thanks for sharing this!

    Great to know that Sandy led not only to community building but also stargazing in NYC.

    Small things count.

  2. Wonderful essay! I live in northwest NJ and experienced Sandy as well. After the power went out on Monday we sat in the dark, listening to the storm. You could hear a deep growl rushing toward us from the east with each gust, building, hitting the house, windows crying in protest, and then the sigh of the big pine tree in the neighbors yard as it stood back up with relief, catching its breath until the next wave of wind crested and crashed down over the mountainside. Communication between neighbors during the storm consisted of throwing open a window and shouting at the top of our lungs and waving flashlights. In the week after, a car driving down our dead end street was enough to bring people out of their homes and to ask of the occupants what roads were open, how long it took to get from point A to B, which gas stations were open and how far did the the gas line stretch? The opportunity for a hot shower and an empty outlet to recharge at the emergency shelter was paid in kind with donations of crayons, coloring paper, and many, many, thanks. The evening routine of setting up light sources became second nature and eating by candlelight a ritual instead of holiday tradition. A pot of boiling water became a staple on the gas stove top. When our local firehouse offered a free hot meal, neighbors spread the word and together watched, many for the first time, the news coverage of the destruction along the NJ shore, Long Island, and NYC projected on a blank wall above the beverage table. In the long days and weeks after the storm we have all learned the meaning and value of community.

  3. We are a small Orthodox Christian women’s monastery in the Northern Catskills of Upstate NY. Sandy was a non-event for us, other than having a guest house packed with down-state friends (wall-to-wall sleeping bags with lots of giggling and screaming little kids). We don’t have T.V. and can’t get cell phone service here under the best of situations, but at least they were warm and could take showers.

    Because Upstate NY still has fewer services than the Palestinian West Bank, we’ve had time to make decisions about how we will handle being connected when God willing, it eventually becomes a reality. Satellite broadband became an economic possibility only this year when a new satellite system became operational.

    We’ve watched other monasteries become as addicted to distant relationships as their peers “in the world,” in the process often ignoring the immediate community life that we feel next to God is our primary reason for being. We have kept this an open topic and decided we want to go by another route.

    So you won’t see me here more than a handful of times in a year and most of the sisters are frankly not interested in the internet at all. I am the one delegated to keep everyone up to date on the environmental concern that we do passionately share. We hope we will be able to keep up our magazine subscription: it seems a bit of an extravagance, but everyone reads it…

    The biggest challenge this causes, of course, is in welcoming new women who come to test their vocations with us. They have a much bigger cultural leap to make than those of us did who have been at it for awhile. Especially younger women have to be open to learning what for us old timers are “normal” relationship skills. We are finding these are sometimes not only new but also personally challenging. Still, it is what some people are looking for and all of us have to be open to learning new ways to get our community life over this hurdle.

    In the Middle Ages, monasteries in Western Europe had the added task of keeping culture alive in a dark age of the black death, viking raids, etc. Perhaps today we have the similar yet different added mission to be places where humans who are still “of their time,” choose to live by what have very quickly become radically counter-cultural standards.

  4. No one can stop disaster although we have an instrument to detect where and when it will strike. All we can do is to be prepaired.

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