by Laura Lidija Lenz
The first time I heard about ‘Sandy’ was when I found a letter from my landlord under my door. It said that a ‘superstorm’ is approaching and that residents are advised to buy plenty of food, water, pocket lamps/candles and to stay at home between Sunday, October 28th, and Wednesday, October 31st. I thought to myself that this was certainly artificial panic mongering. We know it from Germany, right? How many times have we heard about horrible things going to happen and in the end, we got nothing more than a gentle rain? Exactly! I did not take it seriously, at least not yet.
On Sunday, October 28th, the news was filled with warnings and satellite pictures of ‘Frankenstorm’. At that point, I started to believe that there was really something approaching us. But as I live in the middle of Manhattan, in one of the most modern parts of New York City, I was convinced that I had nothing to fear. I went to the supermarket, where I wanted to buy noodles and water. Buying enough food for maybe two days would certainly be enough, I thought to myself. When I arrived there, it was like in a Hollywood catastrophe movie: Empty shelves, keen people all over the place, long lines waiting at the cashier. Candles were sold out and I did not even dare to ask for a pocket lamp. However, on Sunday evening, nothing happened. Still, I stayed home and worked.
On Monday morning, there was something in the air. The sky did not really lighten up; it was so foggy that I could not even see the near-by skyscrapers. ‘Sandy’ was expected to hit us at 8pm, so from now on, it was a countdown. Nobody knew what we had to expect. I cooked half a kilo of noodles and filled my tub with water. At 6pm, the winds became crazy – and it was still two more hours to go. I hid myself in the bathroom, where there was no window since I was afraid that the one in my studio would break. At 8pm, just as announced, the horror started: Manhattan’s skyline went off, a complete blackout; it was pitch black outside and all you could hear was the wind and the stuff it was chasing around. I wanted to call my mum, but there was no mobile coverage. I was scared like hell: the dark, the horrible noise – and I was all alone. I did not dare to walk over to my neighbors as there were no windows in the hall and the scenario was already creepy enough. It was the longest night of my life.
Day 1, Tuesday: Luckily, my window survived and in the morning, I even had minor mobile coverage. I called my mum who told me that houses collapsed, Queens was burning, lower Manhattan was flooded, that two electric power companies exploded and that they already found several dead bodies. Compared to what could have happened, I was well off, was I? And somehow, I was very thankful that I was cut off any information during the storm. How could I have stayed calm if I had known what was going on out there?
I went on my balcony to see how bad the damage was. As far as my eyes could see, it was not too bad. “Hello?” A voice from the balcony next to me. A pretty woman was standing there, which I had never seen before, holding an adorable puppy on her arm. “Do you have any information concerning how bad it is?” I told her everything I knew from my mum. The lady’s name was Grace and she was evacuated from her place at Battery Park and now stayed with a friend. We agreed to keep in touch but when I tried to summon her a bit later, she was apparently gone.
I planned to go downstairs and out for a walk though I was hesitant: The pitch black hall and a stairway without any light, 13 floors ahead. I forced myself to go and lighted my way with my mobile. Down on the street, it was chaotic. Pieces of cars, roof tiles, branches and all kinds of stuff were lying around; nobody was outside. I was chatting with the doorman of my building who told me that the power would probably not come back within the next 7 days. This meant: no water, no cooking and no phone charging. And it was ice cold outside. Back in my flat, I had a minor mobile coverage again and texted my friend Charlotte, who is an RA at a near-by NYU dorm and responsible for around fifty freshmen. She replied, that they were evacuated because their fire alarms were run by power, not batteries, so it was not safe. They needed to go to Weinstein Hall and sleep there. 2.000 more students were evacuated to Kimmel Center, another NYU facility. I was hungry, but I had my noodles. I only ate as many as totally necessary. Who knew how long this situation would remain.
Day 2, Wednesday: I had a horrible night. The wind outside was still crazy, and it was ice cold in my apartment. I felt dizzy, my bones hurt and I knew that I was getting sick. I ate some (in the meanwhile quite crunchy) noodles and went downstairs. The first supermarket re-opened and sold its stuff in the dark. Of course, only basics like water and butter roles. I did not dare to buy much as I had some noodles left and there were certainly people who needed it more urgently than I did. I saw that NYU was giving away free food to its students and that Bobst Library was having emergency power. That way, one could charge electronic devices and use the internet. They even opened the library for the public, which was why there were soon long lines of people waiting for a plug.
Back at my place, due to my coverage, I messaged my Professor and employee Martha Rust. I asked whether she was okay, told her that I was fine besides the dark and a cold approaching. I should have known that this would alarm her. Shortly after my text, she came by, carrying candles, six bottles of water and medicine. She is a real angel! We went for a walk to distract ourselves and found a place where they were selling ‘emergency-power-pizza’ for 1$. What a pleasure!
In the evening, I saw, that there was light at Bobst Library. I went in and ran into John Sexton, the NYU President, who was wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. We talked and he felt sorry about my situation. No water? No toilet? That is of course hard, but he assured me that the NYU staff was doing everything in their power. Then, he gave me a big hug. Out of a sudden, another man came in, who looked familiar to me. Maybe, I had seen him around NYU? He approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself: “I’m Alec, nice to meet you!” Alec Baldwin! What a surprise! A former NYU student, who came over to talk to the President (his close friend) to brainstorm about what to do next. Alec told me that he even got married in an NYU facility. An awesome person, really.
Day 3, Thursday: I was hungry. The pizza place was closed, a rumor said that NYU was out of food (a mistake as it turned out later, but I did not know) and I could not eat any more butter rolls. I was sick, everything hurt, the apartment was cold, still no water (and thus no toilet flush) and I felt stinky since I had had no shower for three days. It was my personal low point. None of my New Yorker friends except Martha seemed to have mobile coverage, Charlotte needed to take care of her freshmen and I was alone, cold and sick. I became desperate and felt how my body became weaker.
Later that day, I was sitting in my building’s lobby after I had returned from an unsuccessful search for food, unable to walk up the 13 floors right away. I was tired, desperate, hungry, alone. Of course, my family and boyfriend tried to send me good vibes, but they were so far away and had no idea how bad it was and how awful I felt. Silently crying, I noticed an adorable puppy walking by. Grace! A familiar face! She noticed me as well, came over and tried to comfort me. “Come with me, come to my place at Battery Park, you can sleep on my couch.” I did not want to bother her, but she insisted and I was desperate enough to move in with a complete stranger. I activated my last power reserve and went upstairs to pack my bag. Back down, Grace was already waiting in a taxi. God knows where that taxi came from, I had not seen one in days. We went through Financial District, which was still flooded, buildings were damaged and everything was closed – except for the last two streets of it, which were lighted. Grace’s place was in a wonderful building, very elegant, a concierge approached us to grab our bags and bring them upstairs into her flat. She told me that she went back home on Monday right after the storm since her place was not damaged at all. She had only returned to Washington Square Village (my dorm) because she had some stuff left there. Thanks God she had come back!
Her place was beautiful, feminine, clean and simply perfect. I took a long hot shower and when I was done, she had already cooked lots of food. We talked and it turned out that Grace was the CEO of a major New York fashion and lifestyle magazine. I ate two huge plates of all the good things she had served. Afterwards, there were desserts and tea. I was full, freshly showered, happy – and extremely tired. After a movie I chose from Grace’s huge library, I slept for almost 12 hours on her warm couch. It was like heaven.
Day 5, Friday: My first good-morning-kiss in New York City – and it came from Barclay, Grace’s cute little dog. Somehow, Grace had managed to give me a sense of normality. After breakfast, we went to her office, where there was still no power to see whether everything was in order. Luckily, it was. We met some of her employees there and generously as Grace is, she invited us all for lunch. I had such an enormous food coma afterwards that I almost fell asleep when we went to the dog-playground with Barclay. In the evening, Grace and I did a ladies’ night, watching movies in our pyjamas, eating popcorn, gossiping. What a wonderful woman.
Day 6, Saturday: Saturday started with some good news from my place. Randall, a guy from my dorm, texted me that the electricity and thus the water was back on. Wohoo! As I did not want to bother Grace any longer, I packed my stuff and went back to Washington Square. Mass transit did still not exist, which is why people shared cabs. Back home, the heat was already on, there was warm water, and everything worked except for the internet. But so what, the library was right across the street. Life in Manhattan came back as sudden as it had disappeared: On Saturday, most stores were open, food was available, and many people went out for walks. Finally, there was some normality, which I had needed so desperately.
Day 6, Saturday (evening): In the evening, we heard that the New York Marathon, which was supposed to be on Sunday, November 4th, was cancelled. Actually, I think that was good news as I thought that all the helping hands and resources were needed to help those, who were still suffering or lost everything. Shortly afterwards, Grace informed me about an initiative, ‘New York Runners in Support of Staten Island’. It was created by would-be marathoners, who planned to run to Staten Island, the area, which got hit by ‘Sandy’ the worst. Everyone was told to carry as much food, batteries, toiletries and clothes as one could carry. The meeting point was Sunday at 8am at Staten Island Ferry.
Though I am not a marathoner, I wanted to be part of this. I went to the supermarket and bought 10 kilos of durable goods. The next day, the Staten Island Ferry hall was filled with 1.200 runners, all wearing orange, each of them carrying huge backpacks. As I was still weak due to my cold, I was happy that there was a walking group as well. The ferry brought us to Staten Island for free. The atmosphere was impressing. A ship full of helpers! At Staten Island, we had no time to lose. We split up into numerous groups to cover as much of the area as possible. It was a long way to get to South Beach.
When we arrived, the things I saw were beyond my imagination: destroyed houses, cars, furniture standing around in the middle of nowhere. People were trying to clean up, many were crying, the misery was indescribable. We did what we could and they were incredibly grateful, kissing and hugging us, some were crying for luck. Fortunately, most of them had enough food, but many needed a helping hand or a listener. Later, we brought all the food left to a drop off station. When we got there, there were around forty helpers, packing boxes, sorting stuff. Some were even delivering amenities by car. The helpers told us that you could call them so that they would bring you whatever you asked for in case you could not come yourself. We joined these incredible people and helped them for hours. On our way back to the ferry, we were messed up and exhausted. A bus took us to the ferry for free because the bus driver had heard about the orange helpers.
Back home, I found out that the New York Runners had made it into the NBC evening news, the New York Times and numerous other news channels. I need to say that I am proud that I was part of this. After Grace had helped me so warmly, I felt that I needed to give something back now that I was better. And I think that 1.200 runners carrying supplies really made a difference. Not a big one, but we gave the people hope – and that is what counts.
All in all, I need to say that it was a horrible time and the worst thing that I’ve ever been through. Nonetheless, I feel that the worse things got, the closer the New Yorkers came together. I witnessed so much warmth and friendliness in the (literary) darkest hours. Americans have the biggest hearts in the world and I will be thankful forever, especially to my new friend Grace, who came out of nowhere to rescue me. I will never ever forget that; she will have a place in my heart as long as I live and I hope that she lives to be a thousand years so that I can one day make it up to her. I trust that she is going to serve as a good example and make us more open-minded and recognize when help is needed the most. Open your heart to strangers; you may be surprised of what you will find.
For information on the run, visit: