Superstorm Sandy: Our Experiences in Hoboken and Jersey City

The view from my front stoop in Hoboken the day after Superstorm Sandy

The view from my stoop in Hoboken the day after Superstorm Sandy

We’re sorry we haven’t published any posts lately. Susan and I live in New Jersey and Superstorm Sandy knocked us out for over a week; we were both without heat and power for many days. In a week or so, we’ll write about how climate change might have “supersized” this storm. It was a freak storm that would have hit hard regardless, but we think that global warming contributed to the devastation it wreaked. This week, however, we thought we’d share our experiences of Sandy.

Here is Mary Jo’s account of the storm (mostly borrowed from her husband John’s email that he sent to concerned friends and family):

On Monday, as Sandy zeroed in on South Jersey, we watched continuous TV reports. We got almost no rain out of the storm, the winds were strong but not excessive in our area, and our sandbagged basement remained bone-dry. Although the forecasts of a dramatic storm surge of six to ten feet for New York Harbor remained in effect, everything seemed quiet into Monday evening. Several people even called in to local news stations calling Sandy a “dud.”

We made periodic checks in our basement starting around 7:00 p.m.. Around 8:15, we were watching weather reports on TV and noticed for the first time a small wet spot on our basement floor. Within five minutes the spot had doubled in size. My son came in from the street and said, “Come out and take a look at this.” Strong streams of water carrying lots of leaves were flowing fast up our street, in the gutters on each side of the street. The surge was here.

At first everyone in our building and neighboring buildings who came out to look at the streams of water was more fascinated than scared; people took pictures and walked around. But the water didn’t stop. Within minutes the whole street was covered with a thin coat of water, and then the water started moving onto the sidewalks. My son Jeremy and my brother-in-law Mark went down into our basement to remove our sump pumps from the windows and nail plywood over them. By now the water in the basement was several inches deep, and Jeremy repositioned the sump pumps as Mark tried frantically to finish nailing the plywood.

Outside, the water was rising fast, starting to cover up cars’ hubcaps. Several people who had left their cars parked in the street ran out and drove away in the mounting water, but many cars remained behind. Water started gushing off the sidewalk into the five-foot stairwell leading to our basement. The caulked door held, but the water filled the stairwell within seconds, and after that kept rising.

In the basement, Mark and Jeremy were well aware that five feet of rising water was just outside the door. And with the water already roaring through our neighbors’ cellar, they saw small jets of water shoot through the mortar of our side wall from next door! They wrapped up their work and ran, splashing, up the inside staircase to the first floor, outside our apartment. Jeremy later said he felt like he had been “in the boiler room of the Titanic.”

We all went out on our stoop and saw that the water was now above the first of our four front steps. Then the lights went out. Several transformers (we counted three) exploded. Fire and police sirens wailed nearby. All the cars still parked on our street began to honk and wail with their automatic alarms (headlights blinking on and off) as the salt water of the surge gradually fried their electronics. As these cars died, they released large amounts of gasoline and oil into the water. In the dim light we watched debris sailing by, still headed up the street.

The water eventually penetrated our basement door. The door’s caulking held, amazingly, but the surge was so strong that it took the door off its hinges and sprayed in. Water soon filled our basement and headed up the inside stairs. Our door is at the top of those stairs. My younger son Tim and one of the women from the second floor splashed down them, grabbed a laundry basket of clothes they saw bobbing in the water, and ran up with it as china and furniture crashed behind them. The backyard, meantime, had also filled as the water flowed through the basement into it; it was soon six feet deep out there, and the water was almost up to our deck. On the street, the parked cars, most of which had now succumbed and were no longer bleating their alarms, were almost up to their windows in water.

We began to realize that the time had come to evacuate our apartment. We started to throw together what things we could, planned how we would transport our cats, and head up to our in-law’s apartment. We thought that our apartment would probably be flooded within a short time. But by 10:30 the current had slowed noticeably. And around 11:00 it slowly came to an almost complete stop.

The water was two steps below our stoop; two steps down the basement stairs; and about two steps short of our deck out back.

Shell-shocked, we lit candles. The immediate danger had ended, but we knew any further rise in the water level could still lead to another evacuation, and we had another high tide in the morning to get through. We slept fitfully all night, getting up about once an hour to look out at a submerged car in front of our building, to see if the water level would change at all. It never did. By dawn, the water level had actually subsided an inch or two. Things were eerily quiet, with only the occasional distant sound of a car alarm disturbing the soft lapping of the waves of what was essentially a huge lake.

On Tuesday the 30th we spent the day marooned in our building. We had no idea when the waters would go away – but by midday they had definitely started falling. The water out front was never more than chest deep, but it was filled with petrochemicals and sewage and was obviously toxic. The water reeked of gasoline and we could see large multicolored sheets of oil atop it. But we were well provisioned and passed the day sitting on our stoop and chatting with our neighbors on both sides of us, who were sitting on their stoops, equally stranded.

At one point a raft with two firemen sailed past. People stuck their heads out windows and yelled questions at them – When would the water go down? Is the pump station working? When will power come on again?

We awoke on Wednesday morning to the sound of helicopters and large trucks. I looked out the window to see that part of the street was dry! National Guard trucks were driving by. We threw on some clothes and ran outside. Freedom! We could walk on a sidewalk again! The waters continued to recede, and by Wednesday afternoon Hoboken’s clean-up had already begun.

Eight days later our power and heat were restored and things got back to normal. I can relate to how Susan describes it below. At some level, it was kind of nice to read by candlelight, while listening to the radio, to unplug from all TV and electronic devices. But it was COLD and we were ecstatic to get heat, lights, and power again. After a week, I was happy to find a store that had fresh milk. I am so appreciative of things I took for granted before.

Here is Susan’s experience:

I know not to mess with Mother Nature. I was mostly worried that the big picture windows in my apartment would crack and come crashing in and we’d be helpless.

Hurricane Sandy made her way to Jersey City Heights and the winds were so strong that I held a glass of wine in one hand and a pillow against me with the other. We weren’t getting much rain but the street lamp outside was swaying back and forth to such a degree, I don’t know how it didn’t just snap.

All of a sudden there was a big crash and I ran to look out the windows, which were wet, so it was a bit hard to see what had happened. Next the fire engines and police raced toward our street just a few doors down. Joined soon by a dump truck trying to remove “stuff” that had landing in the street. I heard sawing but it wasn’t a tree I was seeing.

Then the lights went out. It was about 9 p.m. and I had positioned a flash light on the coffee table so it would be within reach. I grabbed it, walked over to the candles I had set up and started lighting a few.

Outside the activity continued as they were trying to clear the street.
It was too dark to read and too noisy from the wind, to do anything but listen to the storm.
I finally tried to go to sleep and figured I’d go out in the morning and see what had happened to my neighborhood.

When I woke, the first thing I did was email my friends that live around me both up here and down in Hoboken to see that everyone was all right. No answers. Then I texted everyone.
I finally got messages from all, those up in Heights had no power or heat, those in Hoboken all had terrible flooding.

When I went outside the next morning, the first thing I noticed was black roofing pieces all over the place… I walked the few doors down and saw rolls and rolls of roofing material. A few people who live in the red schoolhouse (now condos) told me the entire roofing flew off the building and landed in the street. So that’s what had happened.
The rest of my full account starts on Day 5 of no Power or Heat, writing each day.

Hurricane Sandy came through and life has changed. Even “Sandy” has been rebranded. As I listened on the battery operated radio, she went from a Hurricane to a Hurricane Superstorm, to either a hurricane or a superstorm, depending on the program.

I didn’t start writing this detailed account until Day 5, but here’s what happened so far and my thoughts. Some of the simple pleasures I’ve discovered, how I’ve grown, coped, and of course some anger too.

Day 5
It’s Day 5, Friday and the power and heat have been off since Monday at 9pm. I have a stove that works and can be lit with a match. I also have hot water. I’ve never appreciated those two things as much as now.

My next door neighbors and my close friends, we’ve shared things that we had, that the other needed. Candles, candle oil, food, wine, and car power to charge our phones and get some supplies from a local store that we found open.

The new hardware store across from me was open and being generated by the church behind him, so he let me charge my phone, which turned out to be my only connection to others not right here.

My two cats have slept up against me for warmth and one even under the covers! They are so smart and sometimes will snuggle to keep each other warm.

As I write this we are gratefully sitting in the kitchen with sun on us to warm our bodies and hopefully the apt a bit.

My friend, Thomas lent me a little battery-powered radio and so I have been able to listen to the news since Tuesday.

I have many friends down in Hoboken and it sounds just awful, hopefully they are all right, although no power or heat either.

I am also grateful for “down!” I have a down vest that I wear during the day and a down comforter that really helped at night.

It’s been a strange experience being in the home with no power. Obviously, I cannot work and it’s been interesting finding things to do. I cleaned the apt, sorted receipts, and cleaned out the fridge, throwing food away. I did find lots of stuff that was just fine like many jars of jam, peanut butter, soups, and more.

One morning I started writing the content for an upcoming webinar presentation.

I walked around the neighborhood to see what happened the day after and saw terrible destruction. One store on Central Avenue, “Kennedy” had somewhat collapsed. Not sure exactly what happened but we’ll have to see if it can be repaired.

Saw a huge tree that fell over, bringing up the sidewalk and landing on 3 houses and a car.

Tree lands on 3 houses and a car

Down tree crashes into 3 houses and a car in Jersey City Heights

The view outside my windows has changed. I can see the Wiley building in Hoboken on River St and I could never see that building before, so trees that were there blocking it, are gone.

Yesterday a friend told me of an atm that was working so I walked there and got some more cash. Just a few stores are open and accepting only cash.

I will say that I’m quite disappointed with the response effort from Mayor Healy and the local government and CASID (Central Avenue Special Improvement District).

There is no news from anyone about anything. We have street lights out and no one directing traffic, we have minimal cops in patrol cars except maybe every 2 hours?

As I listen to the radio, on the show WNYC “All Things Considered” I hear news about New York, Hoboken, Bayonne, Staten Island, South Jersey, but nothing about Jersey City. It makes me realize the local government has no plan in place to keep the public informed after a disaster like this. Where is the help? How are we to know when we might have power back on to even make plans? Central Avenue is a string of small businesses and restaurants and they have all been closed and dark for days.

Everyone is losing money being “out of business” right now including me.

I’m also quite concerned about the election. It should be postponed for 2 weeks, so that everyone has a chance to vote.

Day 6 – Saturday
It’s morning after a freezing night in here. I can’t believe how many layers of clothing I have on and at night the layers of comforters.

Meanwhile, I just got a text message from my friend Thomas, and he has power. It went on in the night but only to one side of the house where his tenant lives. Hopefully we’ll have power too?

It’s sunny in here again today so we’re warming up.

Last night, just like the last few nights and days, I have been listening to WNYC for news and music. As I was listening to people call in and the stories they were telling, along with the songs being played on “sound check,” I realized how I miss LIVE visual stimulation. I’m not saying the shows weren’t enjoyable—they were. But then I also realized how I should use my imagination to visualize what they are talking about, just as one would when reading a story.

Do I miss the TV where the stories and way too many ads are provided for us? Well, no, but I do miss being able to watch the news in the evening and especially not being able to see what’s happening so close to home.

As an artist who both loves and creates visuals for others, this has been very hard.

I’m imagining we’re living in a different time, like my grandmother. Gathering around the radio for entertainment, or reading and writing during the day while the light is available.

Each day shopping for fresh groceries that will keep for just a few days and what can I cook that will not make leftovers that won’t keep.

What I’ve discovered about the Jersey City government and local CASID. It’s pretty much a do-nothing or at least a non-informative local government. The street lights are still out, stores up and down Central ave are still closed, and all I see is an occasional police car patrolling at night.

No cops to direct traffic, no announcements. Finally as I was headed to the hardware store across the street again, I saw this piece of paper on the window, that power might (“might”) be restored by Sat. or Sunday. So far that’s 6-7 days without the power being restored, and unacceptable.

I heard one listener on the radio call in and say it’s because the unions do not let workers from certain areas in; even though they want to help, so the effectiveness is too slow.

It has made me even more upset from PSE&G, who has been collecting money from me all these years and when it’s time for them to step up and deliver when we really need them, they’re just not there.

Where are the emergency services? Where is our local CASID and government, Congressman, Senators, to help with the citizens? I’d say more than losing heat and power is losing the connection to the community. Hearing what others need or sharing what I may have. Obviously we need a better emergency infrastructure in place.

My neighbors who left to stay in Brooklyn emailed to tell me they heard through a community site that our power was restored, but I emailed them back the reality that no, it’s still off. I’m sure they want to come home.

Headed across to charge phone again and Omar is so nice to help folks like me out!

I walked down Congress street toward the elevator that brings Jersey City Heights residents to Hoboken, and the light rail systems below and of course the elevators were out. I walked down the stairs which are about 14 stories. As I walked crosstown I really started to see the devastation. So many stores and restaurants with most of their flooring, walls, and contents out on the sidewalk. You can also see the water line on the outside of the buildings which was about up to my head, so that’s 5’ + at least.

Church on 9th Street in Hoboken clears furniture and more to sidewalk.

I could hear motors here and there of generators, pumping water out of buildings, people cleaning, repairing, replacing.

Near Hoboken H.S. were lines of people and the Army or National Guard with trucks.

I had called the bank 800 number each day until I finally was told the bank was open in Hoboken and after walking all the way there it was closed. Maybe time to move my bank to the Heights.

So, walking back I stopped by my friend Florence’s to see how she was coping. We hugged and chatted for a little bit and she shared a few precious items from her stores, rice, and soup with me.

Back up those same 14 flights—phew that was tough—and headed back home. I will say after seeing the destruction of Hoboken I’m glad I moved up here to the Heights and higher ground. I know how much worse it could have been.

I did get another email from PSE&G that we may get power today or tomorrow. Didn’t happen. I’ve heard great advice from business entrepreneurs that say a business should always under promise and over deliver, not the other way around.

It’s 3:45 pm and it’s getting cold in here again. I’m wearing 3 layers.

After seeing the destruction in Hoboken today, I know it could have been much worse up here, we at least don’t have water damage and the huge problems the people in Hoboken and other destroyed areas have.

Sunday, Day 7 – no power
I live on Central Avenue which is a shopping district. Bakeries, delis, cleaners, all sorts of small businesses. Our building is residential but I thought that because we need these small businesses open, that the power would have come on sooner.

I run a small business from my home studio and it’s been 7 days now without being able to work. I’m going to call my insurance once the power is on and talk with them about what options I have. It’s a terrible loss for all considering we’re all trying to make a living in this slowly recovering economy. Once the power is restored what am I supposed to do then? Start working 18 hour days to catch up? Also I will need to list out the projects and clients and prioritize like never before. They will have to be patient as I was with getting power back.

I also thought the power might be off for a day or two but a week, I just can’t believe it. I know the workers are now working around the clock, and I commend them and know it’s tough, but why didn’t they mobilze immediately, the next day, why were they finally bringing in more workers 5 days into this?

I will say I have lost my confidence in pse&g. At least after 5 days they started sending daily emails which told us something, not specifics but some general idea of what they were doing. I loved hearing what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said about holding all the utility companies accountable.

The sun is shining brightly through the kitchen windows helping to warm us again.

Yesterday I picked the Jersey Journal and read the entire newspaper. Can’t remember the last time I did that. Not enough photos and information about what’s happening in all the surrounding areas. There were shots (photo opps) of support workers who’ve come to help. This is important of course, but without TV, we need visuals like we would see on the news. I also read a few magazines each day and cleaned the inside of my fridge! It is off and mostly empty so the perfect time.

Another change has been eating dinner very early around 5:30pm and washing the dishes before the light is gone. Thanks to that one powerful flashlight, it helps light the room. Tom suggested pointing the flashlight at the white ceiling and resting it inside a glass, and it illuminates the room, that is so true.

I’m hopeful the power will be restored but if not, I’m headed to Tom and John’s for the evening, because I can’t stay here one more day. I hate leaving my cats behind but know they have fur coats and will snuggle together.

Tom and Johns
As I enter their home at 2pm, the warmth hits me right away. I’m remembering what the inside of our homes is supposed to be like. I started to peel the layers off. First my coat, hat and gloves, then in an hour the down vest, then in another hour, the boots…

I pulled out this laptop and plugged it in, along with my phone and ipod, all recharging. I was finally able to have enough power to call my family, each separately, and talk.

Tom and John and I talked and listened to music and shared the latest news we knew. Then I started writing this all up in Word while John went off to work and Tom did other things for a bit… and I will transfer this at a later date, when the power is finally back on.

We drank some wine, had a lovely dinner, and then relaxed in their livingroom, and I finally got to watch the news. BUT? It was all about the upcoming election and not much about Hurricane Sandy. The problem of being out of touch is that once you are back you’ve missed it all, and now I’ll have to search Google and look at days of news. It’s such a weird experience to see the news again, the “live and visual” experience of it.

So we settled in and watched a movie and I so enjoyed the warmth, wine, and good company. When it was time for bed, it was so nice not having to wear so many layers, my head on the pillow (without a hat), my feet against the sheets and comforter without socks. Not having a freezing cold nose peaking out of the covers.

I slept all right but woke a few times as I was concerned about my cats and how cold it must have been in the night.

Monday, Day 8
I got up around 8 a.m. and made some hot tea. My friend Florence called from Hoboken that she has power as of Saturday night. So glad.

I was hopeful that I might have power also. So packed up my stuff and walked the few blocks home, and no, Central Avenue is still dark. All businesses are still without power, no street lights.

I’m now back sitting at my kitchen table working on this laptop but via battery. I will listen to the news via my radio, get myself ready and head down to Hoboken to take care of some errands.

Restoration and Exhilaration
Walked to Hoboken along Paterson Plank Road as it winds down the hill. So many bent, hanging and downed trees, one leaning into the thin walkway where I almost couldn’t get by and thought I was going to have to turn back and go to stairs again.

As I get to the bottom and start walking crosstown, I see the same kind of devastation I saw on Saturday. Garbage lining the streets, the furniture and insides of the homes and stores. I hear generators giving some power and others are pumping water out. And the smell, just awful.

A few stores are open and others not, with steam-filled windows; I also see cars like this.

By the time I get to the main drag, Washington Street, it’s full of activity, with the National Guard, large trucks with satellite dishes. Next to the Office Depot store there is a large tent set up and a big FEMA truck outside. People can come to this command center to find out information and charge their devices.

I bought some more vegetables and other groceries, and headed to the bus stop for the ride back up the hill to the Heights. The wait is only 15 minutes while I bask in the sunshine and really warm up and off we go. Back on Paterson Plank Road and there’s a tractor trailer stuck in our lane. The police have blocked traffic coming the other way so we can go around him. We make the turn onto Congress Street and as we make the climb I’m looking out the windows ahead of us a think I see a street light on at the top.

I’m so excited! I exit the bus and practically run to my house. I open the door and the hallway light is on! YES! I run up the stairs, opened my door and could already feel the slight change in temperature. I dropped my bags and sat down on the kitchen floor against one of the radiators.

Slowly but surely as the heat continues to come up, it’s taking the chill away from the rooms and from my body. I made a nice warm dinner, poured some wine and turned on the TV, to reset it and watch the news.

This experience has changed me so much. I appreciate the things I have now that I had to do without for 8 days. I’m planning to make a list of things to buy and have should this ever happen again.

Time to plug back into the world and catch up.

Day 9 – The Nor’easter!
After not having power or heat for 8 days and having it finally come back, you can only imagine my shock and disappointment when I woke in the night to see the power and heat off again. When I woke in the morning I then texted everyone and found they all still had power, only I and all of Central Avenue were off again. I hadn’t even left my phone charging so in the morning it had 3 of 5 bars.

I went over to my friend John’s in the afternoon for tea and a recharge… and by the time I came back around 3:30, the power was back.

Phew! I hope this isn’t going to happen each time we get a snowstorm.