To commemorate the one year anniversary of Sandy, I thought I’d tell my own story of what I saw that night and how I felt.
I could probably write a hundred posts about the stuff I experienced during Sandy. I could write a book about the PTSD I experienced after…the fears, the horrors, the nightmares (which I still occasionally have). I’ve never told the full story, not really. I’ve told it in pieces, but I’ll do my best to recreate it here (not hard, since it’s still so fresh in my mind)
But I’ll start like this: I’ve never looked death in the eye until October 29, 2012.
And I didn’t blink.
Now, that makes me sound like a hero or something. I’m not. I’m not even particularly brave. But when faced with the prospect of dying–while just doing your job–you have to be brave.
So here’s my story, as much as I can remember it from that night, almost a year ago.
We were stationed out by the boardwalk, right next to the Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier. I was the 4pm-4am shift, but for these purposes, all you really need to know is that during that time the storm hit.
And boy, did it hit.
I got to the boardwalk to meet the news truck, which was already at the pier. I took my camera out of my work car, but left my tripod in the trunk. I never realized that was the last time I’d ever drive that car again.
I got in the news truck and began talking to the driver and reporter. All of the sudden, I felt the truck shaking. It kind of freaked me out, but I knew this wasn’t the worst it would get.
The truck operator told us that the truck was shaking too hard to put up the satellite dish. So we had to find a place where it would be sheltered by a building.
We decided to drive down along the boardwalk to find a better spot. The truck op and the reporter told me to leave my car in the parking lot, and that we’d come back for it later.
That was my first mistake, listening to them.
We drove down along a road that’s typically only used by pedestrians and Parks Department vehicles. Finally, we found a building that would shelter the satellite dish. We set up shop there, putting the camera on the boardwalk behind the building.
The wind was starting to pick up. There were people walking the boardwalk, some with their kids and dogs. At the time, I thought they were stupid–and how I wouldn’t be there at all if I had the choice.
Now I know we were all taking our lives in our hands.
We interviewed some people, but then the crowd thinned out a bit. The reporter and the truck op went back to the truck. I was supposed to watch the camera to make sure nothing happened to it.
Here’s the thing…I work with a small camera. I had only worked with the big camera they use for live shots once before–during Hurricane Irene. And the truck op had helped me out a lot. So I barely had any idea how to use the camera, let alone get it off and on the gigantic tripod.
So when the wind started picking up even more, I couldn’t take the camera down. Instead, I held onto it for dear life.
I also started yelling for the truck op, but because he was inside the truck several yards away, he couldn’t hear me.
Finally, the reporter and truck op came back out. By this time, the waves had picked up too. I pointed this out to them while the truck op took down the camera.
“We should get that on camera,” the reporter said, pointing to the gigantic waves, which were cresting nearer and nearer to where we were standing.
Thankfully, they let me use the small camera. But I had to do it handheld. So of course, being the spaz I am, I almost fell into the ocean.
But as I neared them, I noticed something. The water was coming up so close that soon it would be below us.
That was when we decided to move. We packed up the truck and headed to a nearby parking lot. By this point, the waves were spewing out under the boardwalk, into the lot.
It soon became clear that if we didn’t move, we were going to be stuck there indefinitely. So the truck op gunned the gas and sped through the water, down Father Capodanno Boulevard, which runs parallel to the beach.
Along the way, we passed by the fishing pier parking lot, where my car was parked. The water had risen so quickly, it was already up to the bumper.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the truck op said as we drove by. “The water is probably already in the exhaust pipe. You probably won’t be able to start it.”
I couldn’t believe it. It wouldn’t end up like that, I thought. We’d go back tomorrow, and the car would start. I was sure of it.
But as we turned onto a street heading inland, I wondered if I could really believe in anything anymore.
We ended up at a gas station. People were still filling up their tanks. At the time I thought this was stupid (which it was, because who fills up their tank in the middle of a hurricane?) but later I realized that they would have the last laugh during the gas crisis that followed Sandy.
The wind had gotten to be so intense that even a mile from the shore I felt like it could knock me over.
We went up to people in their cars and started interviewing them about why they were getting gas. I could feel the camera shaking. When we got back in the truck and replayed the feed, the reporter yelled at me about how shaky it was. I didn’t say anything, because I was altogether too terrified of what was happening to fight with him.
A few days later, he later had me retell the story to a coworker. When I mentioned the conditions, he softened up, and noted that maybe he shouldn’t have yelled at me, considering I was filming handheld during the worst hurricane to ever hit New York City.
Anyway, back to my story. The weirdest part of Sandy was that there was no rain. In my experience, hurricanes meant rain. A lot of rain. During Irene we had seen significant flooding–all caused by rainwater.
But there was no rain. Just strong winds, which picked up surrounding debris and made you feel like you were being pelted and pricked with tiny rocks.
Nearby, there must have been a major transformer. Every few seconds we’d hear a loud pop that made all of us jump. And following the pop, we could see power in nearby stores going out.
Then there was a loud bang, and the carwash in front of us lost power.
That’s when we decided to move again.
We drove down local streets, turning when we’d reach flooding. It was dark out, and the street lights had gone out. But I could still see cars submerged in water…sometimes reaching up to the windows.
I’d point them out with detached wonder. It was if I didn’t realize that these cars belonged to actual people. Or that if the flooding had taken out cars, that it would surely have infiltrated houses as well.
But it all came crashing down on me when we drove by a local hospital. There were fire trucks stationed in the road, blocking any cars from driving down from where the water was edging up towards Hylan Boulevard–the main drag about a mile inland.
That’s when a man came up to us, frantically screaming about his uncle, who was trapped inside his house. He was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get out. He begged with us to help him.
There was nothing we could do. We told him that. We told him to talk to the firefighters and EMS workers who were just feet from us. He said they told him there was nothing they could do.
As we drove away, we all made excuses as to why we couldn’t have helped him. And we were right. If we had done anything, we probably would have died as well. But there was an unspoken thought on all of our minds–that the man who was trapped inside his house would probably die.
A few days later, we heard reports of divers finding the body of a 67-year-old paraplegic in the neighborhood. When we heard, the reporter and I looked at each other, knowing that while we couldn’t have saved him, we both felt somewhat responsible.
Shaken, we headed inland once again. We parked next to a small puddle in a deserted parking lot. We were trying to figure out what to do next when we heard the crash.
A power line had been severed by the strength of the wind. It came down, hitting the puddle. Even through the sound of the truck, which was still running, you could hear it sizzle.
In that moment, I decided to leave my last mark on humanity, as I was sure that I was about to die. I sent out a goodbye tweet.
It said, “I love you all. Goodbye.”
Later, I found out one of my friends read it, and she was sure I was dead.
While I was tweeting, the reporter was shouting to the truck op, “Get us out of here!”
And to his credit, he did what he was told.
We raced up Todt Hill, to the safety of my boss’s house. Suddenly, I felt okay again.
When we got to my boss’s house, we realized there was no power.
I haven’t mentioned yet, but it was cold. This was at the end of October. For reference, several days later, it snowed. So we were freezing.
But it was nice to be inside, even if the wind was howling and we could only see by flashlight.
My boss asked me if I had called my parents. I hadn’t. This is particularly weird, since I am very close to them. But it was literally the last thing on my mind.
I called them and reassured them that I was safe inside with my boss and her family and the rest of our crew.
After we got ourselves settled, we went upstairs to talk with my boss. While the reporter filled her in on what we had seen, I entertained her kids while eating their Halloween candy. When one of the kids got too close to the window, I would try to distract them by calling them over to tell me something. No one wanted to say the truth, which was that the winds had gotten so bad that a tree could easily fall right through the picture windows in their living room and kill them.
Soon, I was tired. It was only about 10 at night, but I felt like it was 4am. I fell asleep on their couch, wondering how I was going to get home when my car was still at the beach and probably wouldn’t start.
At 1am, the truck op woke me up. The station wanted another live shot, and we were the only crew left in the field with a working truck.
So I trudged down the stairs and went outside. It was even colder now, and the winds hadn’t exactly died down.
My fingers were shaking and my teeth were chattering. I kept going back into the truck, using the excuse that I had to charge my cell phone. But the truth was, even in my sweatshirt and raincoat and rain-pants, I was cold.
It was about 2am when they finally said they would take us. We could hear the station through our earpieces. They were taking a phone call from one of our reporters, who was in City Island. From the sound of it, she was watching the storm through a hotel room window.
“They’re taking a phoner? While we’re freezing our asses off?” The reporter screamed.
I felt the same way. Finally, they took us. I wondered who was watching, since most everywhere seemed to be without power.
In our live shot, the reporter noted that we had gotten word that a teenage girl had died.
I immediately assumed she had been one of those stupid people walking out on the boardwalk during the storm. It was sad, but if you do something stupid, you risk the consequences, right?
I found out later that her name was Angela. She was 13. She had been in her house, when the water came up to the top floor. She and her parents huddled together, holding each other, until the house was completely swept away. Angela and her father died. Her mother miraculously survived by holding onto someone’s porch for several hours.
Their house once stood next to the beach, but was now gone completely. The houses next to theirs had stood, but only because they were made of concrete. Only the concrete slab that held the stairs was left…leading to an empty pit filled with debris.
But I didn’t know that at the time. I thought poor Angela was just being an idiot.
After the live shot, I went back upstairs and immediately fell asleep. I woke up several hours later, noting that my phone had died.
The truck had gone to another part of the Island to continue news coverage. The reporter had also left. I didn’t have to be back in until 4pm.
My boss and her husband offered to drive me home. We don’t live far apart–maybe 5 minutes. But the trip took a lot longer because there were trees down everywhere and no traffic lights.
I hadn’t talked to my parents since the previous night. I honestly wondered if they were still alive. We always lost trees during big storms. I had no way of knowing what I would find when I got there.
But thankfully, when I arrived at home, my parents were outside assessing the damage. I ran to hug them. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky.
We had lost part of our roof. A tree fell, thankfully away from the house, crushing the hedges. If it had fallen in the other direction, it probably would have gone through a window.
I sat in my bed, sort of explaining to my parents what I had seen. They tried to calm me down. But I couldn’t listen. All I could do was rock back and forth, in a state of panic.
There wasn’t anything I could do. But I would have to go back out, at 4pm, and see what had happened.
By now you know the ending of the story. Most of Staten Island lost power–some for up to a month.
Hundreds lost their homes.
24 people lost their lives.
It felt so weird that neighborhoods I had hung out in my whole life looked like war zones.
There were days when I didn’t think I would be able to face it. But part of me knew I had to. It felt right, sharing the stories of those who had lost so much.
As for my car, we found it several days later. It floated from the back of the parking lot, over wooden spikes, across four lanes of traffic, into a ditch. When we opened up the glove compartment, water fell out.
We did manage to rescue my tripod and a camera case. I still use the tripod, to this day.
They kept the car in my office parking lot for about 8 months after the storm. The bottom fell out, and the sides were bashed in. It was a daily reminder that I almost died.
As for me? I had pretty bad PTSD for a while. The worst was during the immediate aftermath, when I was staying at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. Once they got cable back, I watched the news obsessively, even though I was living it. A tree had fallen on their house, but was resting against the roof. One night, it moved, which made it feel like an earthquake. I woke up screaming.
I also tried to volunteer, but seeing all the donations and the people helping out gave me a panic attack, so I had to go home.
I considered going to therapy, but then it mostly went away. It still comes back sometimes though. Just the other night I had a nightmare that my house was unstable and about to collapse.
But even though there were so many bad things that came of it, I also saw so much good. People from all over the country came to help the victims. Neighbors helped neighbors. Strangers helped each other. Donations poured in by the thousands.
Even though there were bad things, there was so much that made me feel so good. And so even though Sandy was clearly the most traumatic thing that ever happened to me, it made me a stronger, better person.
So when I look back on that day, a year ago, I can still hear the transformers blowing and the power line sizzling. I can see all the dust and dirt and mold. But I also feel the goodness that came after–the human spirit that can never be knocked down.