Disasters

Memories of Superstorm Sandy: A First-Person Account

Sandy_cloudsAs the monster storm named Sandy approached New York my chief concern, as it was with Hurricane Irene the year before, was my living room window.  Measuring 8 X 8 feet, this large panel of glass shakes whenever strong winds come from out of the east.  With the forecast warning of winds gusting between 60 and 85 miles per hour, I lined the window with cardboard from discarded boxes collected from the supermarket.  I did this the evening before the storm hit while watching the final innings of Game 4 of the World Series (which would be the final game as the Giants swept the Tigers). 

 

Since Manhattan has no overhead power lines I wasn't overly concerned about losing power; therefore, I was thrown for a loop on Monday afternoon (Oct. 29) when Con Ed sent out a robo-call alerting its customers that power might be turned off as a precautionary measure because of the prospect of flooding where its generators were situated.  I wasn't prepared for this so I scrambled to find a flashlight and the few candles I had in the apartment.

 

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I stayed indoors all day keeping my fingers crossed as gale force winds shook my building and rattled the windows.  Then, early in the evening, perhaps because of cabin fever, I ventured outside with my friend Tom, who lives in the apartment building next door.  Perhaps foolishly, we braved the high winds and walked over to the Hudson River to see what conditions were like, dodging the occasional tree branch or trash can rolling down the sidewalk.  When we got to the Christopher St. pier the river was just beginning to splash and spray over its banks from the storm surge (which meant the water level of the river had risen six or seven feet).  This was at around 6:00.  A few hours later the water had risen high enough to cover the West Side Highway and flood shops adjacent to the highway.

 

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Back in my apartment, the lights flickered a few times as I ate dinner.  Then, shortly after I had finished eating and washed the dishes, the power went out at 8:15 - and stayed off until Saturday morning (a period of four-and-a-half days).  I went on Facebook where I saw status updates from friends reporting on the flooding that had begun in Manhattan.  A bit later I heard police announcements from speakers ordering people to stay indoors.

 

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Because three grocery stores are within walking distance of my apartment I rarely stock up on food.  However, with the impending storm creating panic shopping, on the Sunday before the storm I decided to buy provisions for a few days while there was still food on the store's shelves.  Now with the power off I regretted this decision as I now had a well-stocked fridge.  Luckily, the weather was on the cool side (40s at night, 50s during the day) so I didn't lose anything in my freezer and I ate the perishables I had over the next few days.  (I drank a pint of vanilla ice cream like it was a milkshake.)

 

 

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I awoke on Tuesday morning and not only was there still no power, but my cell phone and laptop needed recharging.  In my laptop's waning moments I read that most of Manhattan above 38th Street had power, so I called my friends Bob and Audre on E. 43rd St. in Tudor City to ask if I might stop by to recharge my devices.  Before I ventured up to their place I stopped by Tom's apartment to see if he had any interest in walking there with me to do the same.  He was very happy to see me because he had no cell phone service through AT&T and wanted to phone his boss.  Luckily for him, my cell provider was Verizon.  When he called he learned that the hospital he worked at on the East Side was closed because of serious flooding. 

 

As we walked to Tudor City from the West Village (40 blocks away, the walk took about an hour) we passed by Washington Square Park and surveyed the extensive tree damage there.  Tudor City, too, had large trees blown down. 

 

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Once at my friend's place I heard for the first time the extent of the damage suffered throughout the area.  Walking back home later that evening was a creepy experience because there were no lights south of 38th St., and the streets were eerily quiet.

 

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The next day, Wednesday, was Halloween but Greenwich Village's famous Halloween parade had been cancelled.  However, the gay bar down the street from my apartment, the Monster, was open.  It had a generator along with a plentiful supply of candles and stayed open as long as its supply of ice held out.  The darkness outside made for an appropriately spooky atmosphere.  I went there with my friends Andy, Maury and Tom and we stayed for about half an hour.  Because public transportation was still largely shut down the gathering of patrons was limited to people from the neighborhood, which was nice.

 

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Venturing back out into the pitch black night, we were curious if any restaurants might be open.  We lucked out on Christopher St. where a Peruvian place, Lima's Taste, was open - with a very limited menu.  To provide light the wait staff wore headbands that had small flashlights attached to them!  And although the streets were dark it wasn't too unnerving because very few ghouls or goblins were out - and there was a police presence.

 

After roughing it on Tuesday and Wednesday, once subway service was partially restored on Thursday, I decided to stay with my friend David who lived in Astoria in Queens.  It was wonderful having power, heat, hot water, and TV once again.  I stayed there until Saturday afternoon when I got a text from Tom telling me the power had been restored to our neighborhood.  Once home, the first thing I did was go to the gym - which I hadn't been to in a week.

 

Prior to this nearly five-day blackout the longest I'd gone without electricity was 20 hours during the blackout of Aug. 14, 2003.  However, that experience was more trying because it happened on a 90-degree day.  As with that blackout I considered myself fortunate.  Despite the inconveniences Sandy caused, at least I had running water (those living in high-rises weren't so lucky because of water pressure issues), and I only had to walk up five flights of stairs.  And, of course, I was so much more fortunate than those residents who lived near the ocean and had to contend with the loss of more than just their power.

 

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American Airlines Flight 191 Crashes in Chicago - Deadliest U.S. Aviation Disaster (May 25, 1979)

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May 25, 1979 was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.  For me, it was the first paid holiday of my working life as I had begun my career in advertising just six weeks earlier (at New York ad agency Scali McCabe Sloves).  I was going out to Hicksville on Long Island to spend the holiday weekend with a friend.  As I was on my way to Penn Station after leaving the office, I saw the headlines of the New York Post and Daily News reporting a plane crash in Chicago a few hours earlier.  American Airlines Flight 191 crashed less than a minute after take-off from O'Hare Airport.  All 279 on board were killed, making it the deadliest air crash in US aviation history.

 

What made this disaster even more chilling was the fact that there were photos of the plane as it crashed and exploded.  This was less than a year after another deadly plane crash was photographed, the mid-air collision between a Southwest Pacific passenger jet and a private plane over the skies of San Diego on September 25, 1978 (pictured, below).  And in later years there were a number of crashes captured on video, e.g. the crash landing in July 1989 of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, and the deliberate crashing of United Flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9-11, an event witnessed by millions on live TV.

 

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Years later I was reading an entry in Wikipedia about the singing duo McFadden & Whitehead, who were scheduled to be on Flight 191 but ended up not boarding because they were asked to stay in Chicago a few more days to promote their disco hit Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now.

 

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Another tragedy also occurred on May 25, 1979, and it occurred in New York City.  That morning, six-year-old Etan Patz vanished while walking to school alone in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood.  He was never seen again and his disappearance hung heavily on New Yorkers for the rest of the year.  But as the 33rd anniversary of this unsolved case approached in 2012 there were indications that a resolution might finally be at hand.

 

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Mount St. Helens Blows Its Top (May 18-23, 1980)

Of all the natural disasters that wrack our planet, a volcanic eruption seems the most exotic, something I expect in the Andes or Pacific islands (or Pompeii) - but not in the U.S.  But on the morning of May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens, a largely inactive volcano straddling the border of Oregon and Washington, erupted.  And although it was a frightening occurrence for those living in the Pacific Northwest, I don't think many of us living in the East appreciated how serious the eruption was.  One photo etched in my memory showed a young boy who had been asphyxiated lying face-up in the back of a pickup truck covered in ash.  In total, more than 60 people died from the eruption.   

 

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Provincetown_postcardMy memory of the disaster is linked to my first visit to Provincetown, a largely gay resort at the tip of Cape Cod.  It was Memorial Day weekend and I drove there with my boyfriend Gordon.  We left from Poughkeepsie (he lived there and I took the train up from New York after work) and drove there on Friday night.  This holiday trip was memorable because it was the first time I tried marijuana - and it wasn't a pleasant experience. 

 

Pepperidgefarm_logoRather than smoke it Gordon put the pot in a Pepperidge Farm chocolate sandwich cookie (which I don't think they make anymore).  I became paranoid, which wasn't a nice feeling, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, and I remember thinking that two female friends of Gordon's were witches.  (Alas, because of how I reacted I never became a regular user.)  The trip back on Monday afternoon was stressful because of heavy traffic on the only road off the Cape.  Throughout the weekend the news reported on the effects of the eruption of the volcano.   

 

 

 


"Storm of the Century" Immobilizes Eastern U.S. (March 12-13, 1993)

Snowtotals-13mar93 On Feb. 26, 1993 New York, and the nation, was shaken by the terrorist bombing in a parking garage at the World Trade Center.  Two weeks later Mother Nature was preparing her own assault as a monster storm swept up the East Coast.  I didn't pay much attention to news of the impending storm until the night before it hit, a Friday.  After work I had gone out with friends to Splash, a sprawling new gay bar in Chelsea.  Once home I turned on the Weather Channel to hear about the approaching "white hurricane".  (And the first day of Spring was just one week away).

 

The storm's full fury hit New York Saturday morning (March 13) and continued thru mid-afternoon.  (This photo, near my apartment in Greenwich Village, was taken at around noontime.)  However, after ten inches of snow had fallen a changeover to sleet and rain began in late afternoon, keeping the accumulation down.  I was outside when the changeover began and the sleet pellets really stung because they were being propelled horizontally by winds gusting between 40-60 mph.  The noise the sleet created as it lashed against the windows in my apartment was deafening.  I was concerned that my floor to ceiling living room window might blow in so I pulled down the blind.  

 

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Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village

 

 

Happily, I suffered no window damage, but after the storm subsided (at around midnight) that's when my problems started.  Hearing a dripping sound, I looked up and saw that the ceiling in one corner of my living room was cracking and buckling.  It turned out that the snow on the roof (I lived on the top floor) had piled up high enough to cover a drain pipe, so melting snow had nowhere to go and collected in one spot.  I was thankful to be home so I could move my sofa and TV out of harm's way.  However, I couldn't get in touch with my building super so I had to make due with a collection of pots and pans to collect the dripping water.  However, the steady "ping" of the dripping made sleep nearly impossible. 

 

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The next morning I got up early and found the super shoveling snow.  He was unable to go up on the roof and clear the blockage because snow was drifted against the door so he brought up two large trash bins to my apartment to collect the water which poured out when he poked a few holes in my ceiling.

 

Compared to other parts of the Eastern US New York was spared paralyzing amounts of snow (a nearby street in my neighborhood is pictured).  Elsewhere, however, there were record accumulations not only in the Northeast (Pittsburgh had 26", Syracuse 36") but in the South as well, e.g., Atlanta had 9"; Birmingham 13"; Chattanooga 23".  Even Mobile, Alabama on the Gulf Coast, reported three inches of snow!  The Weather Channel would later rank the storm, which affected nearly half of the US population and left more than 250 dead, as one of the top five weather events of the entire 20th century. 

 

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Waverly Place (March 14, 1993)

 

If you'd like to read about other New York City snowstorms I've written a post on my weather blog, New York Weather Archive, that recaps the snowstorms we've experienced since 1970.  To go to it please double click here.  And on this blog I've written posts on four other famous NYC snowstorms:  

The Lindsay Snowstorm (Feb. 1969)

Blizzard of '96 Brings New York & Mid-Atlantic to a Halt (Jan. 1996)

New York's Biggest Snowfall of All Time (Feb. 2006)

April Blizzard Stops New York, Puts Spring on Hold (April 1982)

 

Finally, snowstorm lovers may find the book Northeast Snowstorms by The Weather Channel's winter storm expert Paul Kocin of great interest.

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Space Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up Over Texas (February 1, 2003)

Columbia_disaster_TimeMagazine February 1, 2003 was a gray and chilly Saturday and I was immersed in my winter project, which was a makeover of my apartment.  I did it with the help of my friend William.  I supplied ideas and the capital and he made it happen, which involved painting the bedroom Arctic Blue, California Gold in the living room and the kitchen Antique White; hanging artwork; assembling a glass TV stand for my new plasma TV and drilling decorative shelving into the living room walls.  We had just returned from breakfast when we heard the news on the radio about the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia.  It happened over the skies of Dallas during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere - just 15 minutes before it was scheduled to land in Florida.  All seven astronauts on board were killed.  By eerie coincidence NASA's two previous fatal space accidents also occurred in the dead of winter: On Jan. 27, 1967 a fire on board Apollo 1 as it sat on the launching pad killed the three astronauts on board (pictured), and on Jan. 28, 1986 the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. 

 

 

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Space Shuttle Challenger Explodes As Millions Watch (January 28, 1986)

Challenger_explodes The morning of Jan. 28, 1986, a Tuesday, was a cold one in New York, following a surprise 1.5" snowfall overnight.  I was back at work (ad agency Young & Rubicam) after having been out sick on Monday and the previous Friday.  Shortly before noon my secretary, Voula, came clomping into my office to deliver the day's mail and blurted out that the space shuttle had exploded.  Then she made a snide comment about the teacher, Christa McCauliffe, who was on board, let out a little cackle, and walked out.  I left my office and walked over to the office of a broadcast buyer to watch the unending replay of the shuttle's disintegration against the clear blue Florida sky.  What was chilling was the crowd reaction at the launch site because at first they didn't understand what they had just witnessed but as the realization came over them their excited gasps of wonder turned to sobs of distress.  

 

 

 

Crrazy_eddie This date also sticks in mind because after coming home from work I went to electronics store Crazy Eddie near my apartment in Greenwich Village and bought my first color TV - a 14" Sharp.  I paid $329 for it, at the time the largest single purchase I'd ever made.  I was really looking forward to watching that evening's episode of Moonlighting in color.

 

 

 

(The book Truth, Lies & O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster provides a detailed account of what led to the shuttle's tragic demise.)  

 

 


Remembering The "Miracle on the Hudson River" (January 15, 2009)

Plane_on_hudson It was shortly after 3:30 on Jan. 15, 2009, a bone chilling Thursday afternoon, when I first got word about a plane crash in New York.  I had just returned home from the gym where I had done my weight workout for back and shoulders (I was between jobs at the time).  Checking my e-mails I saw a New York Times Breaking News Alert reporting that a plane had "landed" in the Hudson River.  I assumed it was a small private plane; however, after reading that it was a passenger jet I wondered how many had died (it brought to mind a plane that crashed into Jamaica Bay upon takeoff from La Guardia in March 1992 that resulted in the drowning of 27 passengers). 

 

I immediately tuned in to New York's cable news channel NY1 for further details and was shocked to see an intact USAirways plane surrounded by rescue boats, and then hear the remarkable news that there were no fatalities!  If I hadn't had a massage scheduled for 4:30 I might have walked over to the river to see the plane float by.  (Click here to view a news report shortly after the incident.)

 

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In speaking with friends over the next few days I attributed the miraculous landing to the aura of positive energy created by Barack Obama's upcoming inauguration.  I joked that if this accident had happened the year before while George Bush (and his eight years of bad karma) was still in office the flight would have been doomed and the plane would have gone directly to the bottom of the river.  I thought it fitting that this "miracle on the Hudson" dominated the news cycle, pushing from the headlines Bush's televised farewell address to Congress that evening.

 

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If you still haven't had your fill of this inspiring story you may find the first-hand accounts told in Miracle on the Hudson: The Survivors of Flight 1549 Tell Their Extraordinary Stories of interest.   

 


Air Florida Flight 90 Crashes Into Potomac River During Snowstorm (January 13, 1982)

Plane.crash.in.potomac.1982 Airflorida.logoJanuary 1982 was particularly cold and snowy in the Eastern half of the US.  On Jan. 13 a snowstorm paralyzed the Southeast and then moved into the mid-Atlantic states.  The storm proved deadly for passengers on board a Ft. Lauderdale-bound Air Florida jet flying out of Washington, DC in the middle of the afternoon.  Not properly de-iced, Flight 90 was unable to gain sufficient altitude and crashed into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport, its tail wing clipping a nearby bridge just a few miles from the White House

 

Dramatic TV footage showed rescuers desperately trying to reach some passengers in the icy waters.  Unfortunately, unlike US Air Flight 1549's "Miracle on the Hudson" 27 years later, very few passengers survived since this was a crash and not a water landing.  Only five passengers survived - 78 others (and four motorists on the bridge) were killed. 

 

 

  
Airflorida Although my office (ad agency Young & Rubicam) had closed early because of the snow (which began during lunchtime in New York) I was still in my office when I heard the radio bulletin reporting on the crash late that afternoon.  Because I briefly worked on the Eastern Airlines account at Y&R I knew the repercussions a plane crash had for media planners working on any airline account.  All media outlets carrying airline advertising had to be contacted to make sure all ads were pulled.  (Although most outlets knew to do this without being contacted, the calls still had be made).  However, this time no one at Y&R had to scramble because the agency had lost the Eastern account four months earlier (after 17 years).   

 


Bridge Disaster Mars Holiday Season (December 15, 1967)

Silver_bridge_collapses It was early Saturday afternoon on Dec. 15, 1967 when I brought in the afternoon paper (Pittsburgh Press) from the front porch and saw the headline about a bridge disaster the previous night in nearby Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  The Silver Bridge fell into the Ohio River during evening rush hour, killing 46.  It still ranks as the nation's deadliest bridge collapse.  Although I was just 10 at the time the tragedy resonated for two reasons: 1) It was incongruous to my young brain that such a tragedy could occur at Christmastime and 2) Because of its famed three rivers Pittsburgh was a city of bridges and every Sunday we traveled over one (the Wind Gap Bridge) to pick up my grandmother for church.  For some time after the Silver Bridge disaster I'd become nervous whenever we'd be stopped on the bridge because of traffic.

 

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Of course, all disasters are unfortunate but those that occur during the Christmas season are particularly tragic.  Some of the more high profile in the past 60 years include:

Dec. 16, 1960 - Two planes collided over Staten Island killing 134;

Dec. 29, 1975 - A bomb exploded in a locker at LaGuardia Airport, killing 11 and injuring 75;

Dec. 21, 1988 - Pan Am flight 103 bound for New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 on the ground;

Dec. 26, 2004 - The great Indian Ocean tsunami (pictured below) killed 230,000+ in multiple countries, many of them tourists on Christmas vacations. 

Dec. 14, 2012 - 28 persons were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, twenty of whom were children between the age of 5 and 10.     

 

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The Crash of USAir Flight 427 in Pittsburgh (September 8, 1994)

Usair_flight427_debris_field It was a particularly pleasant evening in Western Pennsylvania when USAir Flight 427 from Chicago crashed minutes before it was to land at Pittsburgh's new airport (it opened two years earlier).  All 132 passengers and crew on board were killed, making it the deadliest U.S. plane crash in seven years.  It was also the first air disaster to occur in Pittsburgh.  I heard the news shortly after I arrived home from work from my job at New York ad agency NWAyer.

 

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Although every deadly plane crash is distressing, what made this one particularly troubling for me was the fact that Pittsburgh is my hometown.  (I tried to reach my mother that night but the phone lines were tied up for well over an hour.)  The field where Flight 427 crashed was in Hopewell Township, where my godparents lived.  I'd flown USAir numerous times to visit my parents - and I'd be flying there a few weeks later to visit my mother.  (She lives in the town of McKees Rocks, 20 mies south of the airport.)  What was also sobering was the fact that Flight 471 crashed in good weather with no warning of trouble.  It would be five years before the FAA determined the exact cause of the crash.  And although I try not to, it's difficult for me not to think about that every time I fly to Pittsburgh in good weather.  

 

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