Hurricane Sandy: Caught between a flush, a charge and a dark place [PHOTOS+VIDEOS]

[VIDEO] Galfromdownunder interviewed by the New York Post (embedded above)

[STORY] Sandy survivor's letter from Manhattan  my op-ed piece for Thank you to the original editor of my book, The Handsomest Man in Cuba,  Barney Collier, for making that happen. Full text below.

[VIDEO] My video of Sandy approaching the Hudson shore on Facebook

38 people lost their lives in one of the biggest hurricanes ever to hit the east coast of the USA. I lost all power, water, heat internet and a bunch of stuff in the freezer for a week - I was one of the lucky ones. Below is my image chronicle of a week in the life of a New York hurricane, as seen from the Chelsea neighborhood (Zone 1/2) - neither severely endangered nor unaffected, but somewhere in between. Below that, the text of my op-ed piece for

Sat 10/27: This is the view of the sky in Connecticut, about an hour north of NYC, the day before Sandy hit the east coast.

Sun 10/28: 7pm: While yuppie Chelsea eateries are shuttered for Sandy, the unlovely Star Diner will not be moved

Sun 10/28: NYers shop for necessities before the storm. I can safely say Anthropologie has nothing you'd need unless it was an eco-ethno fashion emergency. Yes, there was a LINE!

Sun 10/29, 7pm: When all else is shuttered, the stalwart Ha Ha Fresh turns up its lights and tells Sandy to screw off (in Cantonese).

Mon 10/29: The Hudson is 6 feet above normal sea level and it's not even high tide yet. They predict it will rise to 12 feet. This is zone 1.

Mon 10/29: Sandy kisses the Hudson in Zone 1. I shoulda baked my pumpkin bread earlier instead of storm gawking (and endangering the life of my iphone)

Mon 10/28: Sandy comes ashore ...
Tue 10/30: This new business on a controversial corner of Chelsea had its cover blown - literally.

Tue 10/30: Ha Ha Fresh has the last laugh as people scramble to empty its shelves of whatever they have, notably essentials like Kettle Chips and candy, at Manhattan Mom & Pop prices.

Tue 10/30: Some stores in Chelsea transact by candlelight. If you had a cart selling crummy coffee you'd have made a killing

Tue 10/30: These were either blown over or someone laid them down so no one got brained by a flying newspaper box

Tue 10/30, 9pm: Chelsea below 34th St is like going over a border into a third world country (you can't see the boutiques and eateries)

Tue 10/31, 10pm: Right now no water, no power, no Internet, no food, I'm back in Cuba! This photo taken just now in Chelsea biking back from charging my gizmos at a friend's in Hell's Kitchen (where it was like, what hurricane?)

Tue 10/31: 10pm, Chelsea - You really need a decent bike light ...

Tue 10/31, 7pm: Thanks to Cat McGuire who loaned me her oven in (appropriately) Hell's Kitchen to finish baking my Sandy-thwarted pumpkin bread. It resembles leather but hey! It's survival food for a couple of days.

Tue 10/31: What I don't understand is how some places like Dunkin' Donuts have power and water while the rest of Chelsea looks for a place to take a dump

Wed 10/31: North of 26th St it's all systems go ... this hot buffet place was open 24 hrs right through the storm. Run by Asians of course ... they took away the tables and chairs 'cos peeps were charging their phones but not buying any Kung Pao chicken...

Wed 10/31, 3pm: on 23rd St and 7th Ave, darkened windows, traffic lights and confusion as to who has right of way.

Wed 10/31: a Photosynth panorama of the corner opposite where I teach yoga, YoGanesh Yoga 

Wed 10/31: a few places have coffee, tea, and if you're really hungry, candles.

Wed 10/31: Come in, we're open, just mind you don't trip over the laughing Buddha (available in three sizes) 

Wed 10/31: What's Rachel Ray without a working stove? Just another NYC survivor like you and me...

Wed 10/31, 8pm: Sullivan St Bakery's Eric not only knows his bread, he's also a dancer. And he was giving away bread to hungry nabes! 

Wed 10/31: some places are charging $5 to charge your phone, neighbors with power are running power cords to those who don't, and I'm carrying a mini power board to maximize electrical outlets ... I'm like Jesus dispensing loaves and fishes ... 
Wed 10/31: Frank Gehry-designed IAC building, usually a blazing fluorescent blancmange, is eerily dark.

Detail of Gehry's IAC building

Wed 10/31: the view up 19th and towards 10th Ave. The power outage makes you re-discover the Manhattan sky.

Thur Nov 1, 7am - No heat or light at YoGanesh Yoga but we do have romantic candles and a flushing toilet! What else do you need?

Thur Nov 1, 7.30am: I put out a special sign and we got 3 students at 10am, and 5 for Abby Paloma's class at 12.15pm. Now let's see how many show up for 6pm, which I'm teaching - more cowbell, more candles!

Thur Nov 1, 9am - doles out potable water at a little station on 9th Ave.

Thur Nov 1, 9am - the most popular restaurants are all boarded or duct-taped up.

Thur Nov 1, 9am - trash starting to pile up, and apartment corridors starting to get a bit on the nose . My mother in Sydney says she read about rats and mice "seeking higher ground."

Thur Nov 1, 9am - the insanely popular Cookshop restaurant is still closed.

Thur Nov 1, 9am - a fallen dish of the other kind near Moran's restaurant and bar.

Thur Nov 1, 9am - hiking up several flights of stairs to my digs. Thank goodness for my incredible Black Diamond Equipment headlamp!

Thur Nov 1, 9am - Ha. Ha. Fresh, a stalwart Asian run business, laughs at mother nature, bringing out its bunches of flowers for business as usual.

Thur Nov 1, 9am - Sullivan St Bakery is overrun with people looking for artisanal coffee. Or dammit, any kind of coffee!

Thur 11/1, 8pm: the Indian restaurant next to YoGanesh is selling candles for $5. Worth every rupee.

Thur 11/1, 8pm: look south down 7th Ave into the abyss of Chelsea.

Thur 11/1, 8pm: look east along 23rd St into the abyss of Chelsea.

Look north to the bright lights (heat, power, food) of Midtown! Not fair!

With reports of muggings, police install floodlights on main Avenues. Unfortunately, shady behavior is more likely in the pitch black cross streets. 

Thur 11/2: these are the guys we must cultivate a new respect for. When we turn on the light or flush the toilet, it becomes someone else's problem - their problem. It should make you re-think your perceptions about blue collar jobs.

Fri 11/2: with mass transit stalled and still dead traffic lights, there's a surge in people bicycling to work. This is the 8th Ave protected bike lane.

Fri 11/2: signs of life- Whole Paycheck, sorry, WholeFoods is opening later today...

Fri 11/2, 7pm. The power's back on on Chelsea! Lesson: the most important piece of social networking equipment you can carry when hunting the streets for electricity:  the power strip.

One of the hazards of a power outage: stumbling over the dirty work of people who don't pick up after their pooch. And why you MUST do like the Japanese and remove shoes before stepping into people's apartments (often the same room as their bedroom)

The Chelsea Wholefoods serves fresh baked optimism

This was posted a week ago! Billy's Cupcakes

My mother in Australia says she heard reports of rats and mice "seeking higher ground." 
The pet store in Chelsea (Barking Zoo) welcomes back all the shut-in pooches and pussycats for a fre nail trim today. Love the light bulb! 

And now a message from southern restaurant, Tipsy Parson. They say they lost their entire inventory - as did many other Chelsea freezers

Tipsy Parson had a special Post-Sandy brunch. 

Now how much did Duracell pay to pop up on the sponsored section of my Facebook page today?
Let's let Mitt Romney have the last word! 

Caught between a flush, a charge and a dark place 

By Lynette Chiang 

Late one night, while schlepping my way across Manhattan's darkened avenues, I came across a familiar and mundane sight: a parked truck, a whirring generator and a hard hat bobbing up and down in a brightly lit hole. For no reason, I stopped to peer into the hole to watch a man with giant gloves performing some kind of macrame with a brace of massive, steely cables.

It suddenly struck me that whenever you reflexively throw on a light switch, flush the toilet or toss a bag of soggy kitchen refuse down the chute, it becomes someone else's job or problem. It becomes the problem of people standing holes at ungodly hours, wearing hard hats, deciding what to do with your dirty dishwater.

Fast forward to the Chelsea neighborhood in middle of Hurricane Sandy, where I sat in the dark, sneezing from both the cold and odious scented candles. It's was all they had left at Ha. Ha. Fresh, the stalwart, Cantonese-run local bodega.

I was one of the lucky ones, living in Chelsea, a gentrified former slum a single subway stop south of Manhattan's Times Square, and bordering Zone 1 of both recent hurricanes. It's an area known for contemporary art galleries, good restaurants, the Chelsea Hotel and lots of little designer dogs on leashes.

When Sandy hit Chelsea, I only had to deal with no water, no power, no internet and eventually, no food (save for sticky nut bars from Ha. Ha. Fresh).

I only had to drag my bicycle up several flights of stairs in lieu of the elevator, and keep tabs on what bucket of water was for brushing versus flushing – not to mention coordinating taking a dump with having a full bucket on hand. (A neighbor with a garden hose provided the water source. The overhead tank for the apartment building was empty after everyone filled their bathtubs, and now power meant no electricity to pump water back up to refill it.)

A friend helpfully texted some useful camping tips, like "do a #2 in a baggie like a Chelsea chihuahua," and "put your cellphone airplane mode to save battery, turn it on only to receive messages."

I was not one of the tragic victims who lost their lives, loved ones, homes and possessions to this massive, 943-mile wide, spinning circular saw of destruction.

In fact, I was almost smug, gleefully donning waterproofs and heading out to the water's edge as the storm approached, joking about endangering the life of my iPhone.

Many thought that the inconvenience of camping in a big city would last just a couple of days, rather than a week or more. But as the dark and cold and crackers for dinner wore on, the good and bad side of the human survival instinct came to the surface.

Residents became progressively tribal, hunting the streets of shuttered businesses for cellphone charging opportunities, looking for hot showers and flushing toilets and gathering batteries and shelf-stable food to squirrel away in warm refrigerators. Vegan, organic and preservative-free preferences were quite possibly thrown to the raging winds. Made in China candles eclipsed "I Heart New York" as the most visible sidewalk souvenir.

The universal bonding amulet became the humble power strip. Carrying one of those into a cafe with a free electric socket turned you into a Jesus handing out loaves and fishes. I exchanged more business cards on two nights in Sullivan Street Bakery than in an entire year.

One eaterie that miraculously remained open 24/7 throughout the entire storm removed their tables and chairs when hoards of people charged their phones and left without so much as a stick of gum. I heard grumbling about businesses charging $5 for a charge and $10 for a simple flashlight. But while many grumblers were being paid their salaries even with Sandy keeping them from their desks, many businesses had lost at least a week of earnings and as we know, banks and landlords rarely loosen the choke chain for natural disasters.

Bizarrely, north of 34th Street, it was all business and pleasure as usual, with no power outages of any kind. With the entire subway system shut down, it was mystifying how workers got to the restaurants unless they were sleeping in the kitchen or staying with friends. Just as my relative safety buffered me from the suffering in outlying areas, having light, heat and food in abundance seemed to frame the perceptions of the storm for friends living uptown.

"I've not been affected one iota - it's just been one great relaxing week for me!" whooped a friend on 46th St, adding somewhat annoyingly, "and what a perfect thing to happen at Halloween!"

She offered to take a power walk to visit us down to the dark side, where the sudden plunge into darkness reminded one of crossing the border between a rich and poor country. I felt obliged to warn her of a new danger: muggings in the dark cross streets had been reported, with police installing floodlights to illuminate certain avenues. Some people were apparently posing as cops, shining flashlights in people's faces, asking for ID then making off with their wallets.

The IAC building as you have never seen it before - normally a blazing fluorescent blancmange, now a spooky outcrop in a dark landscape.

The yoga studio where I teach,, was one of the first businesses on 7th Ave to open for classes by candlelight. Surprisingly, we got good attendances, no doubt people feeling the hurricane-butt of being shuttered in their houses.

When the lights finally came on in Chelsea, the first sensation was a feeling of warmth, even though heat was hours away. Other areas must wait at least a week or more to regain full power.

There are reports from upstate of people pelting utility workers with eggs, believing that wealthier residents are getting preferential treatment on the schedule to restore power.

What I learned most is that resilience is the most useful item you can pack in a disaster. The best training for that? Spend time in a third world country or traveling self supported under your own power - on a bicycle. Failing that, turn on your television and see what is happening in Syria.

And never forget the hard-hatted man in the hole who, day in, and day out, connects our flick of a switch with light and heat, and our press of a button with jettisoning our own fetid waste. He helps us never have to think about a flush, a charge, and a dark place.

Three most useful pieces of post-hurricane equipment:
  • Black Diamond Headlamp - left my hands free for hunting, gathering, reading
  • Folding bicycle (any kind) - enables travel independent of the stalled mass transit; can out-pedal most would-be muggers
  • A power strip – carry one and create instant community and connection wherever you go 
Oh, and using a couple of liner bags and kitty litter for a makeshift toilet. My gung-ho sister informs me that the litter deactivates bacteria and breaks it all down. Thanks, Sis - next time.


LeeS said…
You completely captured my Chelea-Sandy memories Lynette! Thanks for chronicling it!
LeeS said…
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