Sandy: The Weather Tilt-A-Whirl

You know that tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag
I got on it last night and my shirt got caught
And that Joey kept me spinnin’ I didn’t think I’d ever get off
“4th of July (Sandy)”, Bruce Springsteen

Week of October 22

We’re hearing reports of a superstorm brewing in the southern Atlantic, another perfectly awful confluence of tide, sea surge, tropical storm, cold weather front and good old fashioned nor’easter that makes everyone refer back to the “big one” of their own personal timelines. Tropical Storm Sandy is still a weaker news item buried between the latest local scandal and the Jets (and no, they don’t always resolve to the same thing).

Saturday October 27

We have a house guest visiting from Israel who has never seen the interior of a casino and wants to visit Atlantic City. Despite the increasingly accurate and dire predictions for the incoming storm, we drive the 120 miles south to “America’s Playgrond” where we enjoy a White House Sub Shop cheesesteak, some Formica Brothers biscotti ends (the extra-crunchy, semi circular residuals from the biscotti loaves, sold in bags so you get a cross-section of flavors) and a stroll along the Boardwalk. There’s a mandatory evacuation order in place for 4pm Sunday, but things appear relatively normal although quieter than you’d expect when every hotel was sold out going into the weekend. The hotel formerly known as the Atlantic City Hilton and Golden Nugget is teetering on the edge of insolvency (again), the empty lot where the Sands stood has some heavy equipment and a shaped sand berm rising from the debris, and the former Visitor Center has been turned into a remote police station. The latter disturbs me the most, because it means I cannot pay a ritualistic visit to Mr. Peanut, the seated, monocled, top hat sporting sculpture that graced the tourist information area. Rumor has it my favorite mascot has been busted back to Cherry Hill, not for failure to wear pants on the Boardwalk but because he was damaged or vandalized.

Mr. Peanut dots my personal beach narrative timeline, and his absence leaves me perturbed in a McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies kind of way.

The ocean looks angry. For late October, there is too much surf, the waves are clearly in the 5-6 foot range, and the sky has taken on the grey, flat tone that subtracts light and confers an unseen layer of grime to every surface. The casinos are boarding up their boardwalk-facing doors, stores are closing early, and I’m unable to pick up some salt water taffy for the trip home. Coupled with the fact that Caesars has the audacity to charge $30 to park, it’s a hat trick of bad omens.

By the time we’re back on the Parkway, the highway signs scream “State Of Emergency In Effect” to nobody in particular yet informing everyone equally, that, in fact, something Big Is About To Happen. I’m reminded of a game that my sister and I used to play called “Tornado Watch” whenever we heard those words on the summer weather forecast — we basically went outside and threw basketballs at each other’s heads until one of us connected and it ended in tears. Personal timelines again.

Sunday October 28

Every store is out of water, batteries, anything that could remotely be used to pump water, hoses, blankets, and ice. I need to pick up a few things at Home Depot (why I decided I need to replace my rusted Torx wrench set is entirely debateable in terms of my sanity and priorities) and see people buying dropclothes (to protect their windows?), sheets of plywood (to board up said windows) and extension cords. There’s a light rain failing, the parking lots are crazy and people are incredibly stressed. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1983 made-for-TV movie “The Day After” when people see the ICBMs arcing their way out of silos and realize they have half an hour left to go shopping before the world ends. So of course they buy steaks.

Most of Sunday morning is spent setting up my “emergency command center” – flashlights, battery powered lanterns, extra batteries, heavy duty construction sheeting, hammer, stapler, nails, hacksaw, chisel and laid out in the middle of the best-lit room so I can find them when needed. As I check the water levels in the sump pumps, I find out that one of the three has died of old age compounded by 20 years of silt ingestion. I set up a few buckets by that sump, and manually drain it only three inches of standing water. All of our deck furniture is tied down (basic knot making from years of sailing comes in handy), I move some outdoor plants into the living room, and pronounce the exterior of the house storm-ready.

I’m back inside in time to run the dynamic range of exhiliration, exhortation, exhalation, and threatened ex-patriation as I watch the Giants game. The sky is nearly black by kickoff. The Giants win, I meet our guest and my wife for dinner, and we’re all in bed for the absolute calm before the storm. I wish I had some salt water taffy as comfort food.

Monday October 29

I get my morning coffee and a Dunkin’ Donuts Box of Joe to go, so I have iced coffee to last the better part of a week. Stores are open but clearly calculating when they’ll close up for the day. It’s windy, but maybe nothing more than 20 MPH gusts. But the sky continues to darken, and the cloud cover is thick, grey and foreboding. Subtract out the computer generated effects of swirling clouds over national monuments and it could be a set piece for “The Day After Tomorrow” (the global climate disaster movie, not the nuclear exchange one). My sister calls this the “Gotham City look,” where the albeido of glass and steel buildings removes color and sharpness, like someone who has discovered the saturation, contrast and sharpness controls in a digital picture editor.

By lunchtime it’s raining hard, and the wind is gusting in the 40 or 50 MPH range. I can hear the rain pounding the back of the house, but it seems much milder than forecast for us. On the other hand, news coming in from Atlantic City and the barrier islands like Long Beach Island is bad — huge increases in sea level, parts of the boardwalk swept out, and in Beach Haven, reports that our favorite wing place (Chicken or the Egg) had two and a half feet of standing water in the store front before they lost their internet camera feed. I do another round of bailing in sympathy, but we aren’t (thankfully) taking on that much water in the basement.

The ATMs are out of cash. When the networking infrastructure is under duress, credit card readers become inoperable, and cash rules the day.

At 3:45pm we lose power, but it’s back on again with 20 minutes. I’m confident that we’ll survive power-wise, as we made it through Irene and the Halloween snowstorm without incident, having underground power and utility lines. The power flickers on and off a few times, but I chalk it up to switching issues and recovery from breaks in service in other areas.

We don’t get our mail delivered. This is a bad leading indicator.

My over power over confidence lasts just under three hours, as our power goes out, hard, at 7:15pm. We eat dinner by latern, using matches to light the gas range to finish off the rice and chicken. I disconnect my Mac backup drive, and move it and some other valuable items out of the most vulnerable parts of the basement. The wind is really blowing, and the rain is coming down at a 45 degree angle.

We open the shades in the living room and watch the electrical fireworks around us, a combination of what I imagine is lightning from inside the storm to power lines emitting long, blue arcs as they collapse to the brilliant orange flames and sparks of transformers that explode. From my couch, I can see the flashing blue lights of police cars racing up and down South Orange Avenue, and then the power transmission system going pop, pop, pop as trees hit lines, water penetrates equipment, and failures cascade. I try falling asleep around 11:30pm, only to get up at 1:30am when the wind picks up again to do a visual inspection.

Thankfully, all of the post-Irene repairs (new windows in my office, excavated and resealed portions of the foundation in the front of the hosue) seem to be doing their job. I go back to bed, only to be woken up at 4:30am wondering why the front of the house is being power washed. When I reassemble some mental context and remember we’re in the midst of a hurricane, the wind has probably shifted, and that it’s pitch black for a reason, I realize that water pressure is coming from Sandy, not a compressor. Falling back to sleep isn’t nearly as easy as I hear the furniture groaning against the tie-down ropes, and any number of strange shearing sounds. When I check the sump pumps, I can hear the wind whistling across the top of the chimney and the furnace exhausts, a sad, keening pipe organ to make me think of what the morning will hold.

Tuesday October 30

I’m up at 5:45am, and walk around the interior of the house to assure that in fact it’s held together. I toss fitfully for another hour, and by 7:30am I decide to see how the neighborhood has fared, starting with a walk around the exterior of our house. Damage assessment: skylight cover shredded and ripped (but didn’t tear out the skylight footing, from what I can tell). Blue spruce trees in the front and side are both knocked down, sad because we just planted the front of the house a few years ago. Big pine tree on the rear of the property line is listing at a 45 degree angle, a tall ship headed for the wood chipper, and most upsetting, a line of pine trees along the driveway has been knocked all the way over, blocking the end of the driveway and taking out our Verizon Fios line that now dangles from a root ball, both of them unceremoniously sheared off by the wind.

If that’s the extent of the damage, it’s all repairable between now and the spring time, although getting our cable (and phone and internet more importantly) back will need to wait for our power to be restored.

There’s a streetlight that was snapped off of its stanchion, laying at the end of the block. Our neighbors have an old spruce tree leaning up against their roof line. As I try to make it out to Northfield, I find my main access road bocked by a downed tree that took power and telephone lines with it. I backtrack and see that the gas station and traffic lights at South Orange and Hobart Gap are out, and there’s a huge tree blocking Hobart Gap with power lines wrapped around it, a fishing line snarl reminding me of the power of wire tension, wind pressure, and twenty feet of lumber leverage. I manage to get out to Northfield and drive by the Dunkin’ Donuts, where about 100 people are queued up for coffee and breakfast. The power outage follows service areas neatly; JCP&L customers have no power while PSE&G service seems to be in good shape, aside from houses where the main feed line was taken down by trees.

JCP&L won’t provide an estimate for service restoration, but it appears there’s a substation failure, which means about a week. “Didn’t think I’d ever get off…..” Oh, Sandy, indeed. Add another week to schedule Verizon service, and I’m looking at mid-November to be on the air again. My office is without power.

We camp at a friend’s house for an hour, getting caught up on the news and downloading email and work projects. The Jersery shore was decimated. Boardwalks swept out, bricks from the newly paved esplanade in Long Branch tossed like balls, entire houses sliding off their foundations. During one summer on Long Beach Island, the women who owned our rental house showed us pictures from “the big one” of 1962, the hurricane that joined the ocean and bay in Harvey Cedars, and left parts of Beach Haven submerged. That’s my personal history; it’s a storm to which I’ve felt some association in that it happened right around the time of my birth, and the reconstruction after that storm led to their vacation destination status. Sandy has moved front and center; 2012 replaces 1962 as the shore reshaping event. My fear is that rather than duplexes being rebuilt on higher pilings, there will be defaults, abandonments and a lot of washed out real estate for the next decade. It took Long Beach Island nearly 15 years to recover economically from the ’62 storm.

Facebook becomes a primary group communication vehicle. I’m getting greetings and well wishes from friends around the world, and they are all much appreciated. Some of our favorite shore spots are posting dispiriting news — Cool Beans, my favorite coffee shop on Long Beach Island nestled next to the Crust and Crumb Bakery in Bay Village reports that they had water floor to ceiling.

As the afternoon wears on, it’s filled with the sounds of recovery: chainsaws, wood chippers, cherry pickers moving line men into position. Crews have been out since early in the morning, as have township employees who are clearing roads and setting up barriers on major streets where the traffic lights are out — you can only turn right onto the majors, eliminating cross traffic and backups from left turns. Inconvenient but lets the police put bodies where they are needed.

Hats off to the fire, police and first aid squads. They are all working double-double time and things appear to be smooth, although seeing four national guard Hummers go by was a bit disconcerting.

The refrigerator is starting to revolt in both smell and staleness. Eggs, milk, raw food, and something that might have been from either the Cretaceous period or last Thanksgiving need to find a heavy duty garbage bag.

Supermarket is running on a generator. Most businesses are without power. It’s another dinner of reheated chicken, by latern light, followed by some planning for the next few days. I pick up JK Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy,” which I’d started before the storm, and suddenly find her characters shallow, her writing cloying and annoying and the storyline full of emotional unidimensional exaggerations. My whining sensitivity has gone up 20 decibels, probably because our house has cooled to 58 degrees. It’s dry, but dark and cold. I call JCP&L again before bed, and get no further information. They are simply buried.

Wednesday October 31

There is a small age bracket of kids in New Jersey who will think that Halloween is a horrible time of year when you have to stay indoors for fear of live wires, falling tree limbs and foul weather. We have no candy in the house, no doorbell to ring, and although our walkway and driveway are clear, there’s no light for trick or treaters to navigate.

The cellular coverage wavers between random and archaic. Enough people must be building mobile hotspots, or reverting to mobile devices for all communication, that the congestion is overwhelming. It’s the Parkway on a Sunday afternoon in radio form.

The sun shines for the first time since Saturday, fighting with remnant clouds to set the mood for a day. We are safe, we are sound, we are mostly intact, albeit cold and reling on good old fashioned face to face communication. We aren’t going to broadcast news of our misery, no whining, no being the down-trodden guy who narrates “Sandy”.

It’s time to get off the weather Tilt A Whirl.

2 thoughts on “Sandy: The Weather Tilt-A-Whirl

  1. Karen Smith

    Thank you Hal
    I’ve just read this and was hit by a dose of reality and feel a bit ashamed and humbled here in comfortable California. We read and watch the news but the reality of it can’t be fully
    understood until reading your story and others like yours.
    My prayers are with you and the many others experiencing great loss.

  2. David M. Fishman

    Thanks for sharing this, Hal. NY/NJ always felt like one of my homes away from home, and as is always the case with home, the connection is through the people and places you care about and have visited, not the news media.


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