Thursday, November 1, 2012

'Storm-troopers' do NY proud

Nov 01, 2012

Sandy fails to thwart spirits of resourceful residents

By hoe pei shan for the straits times

NEW YORK - As he stepped into a tiny cafe with a queue stretching out its front door, a man yelled into his iPhone.

"I've found power and food," he said, clearly excited. "We can charge our phones here."

It could have been a scene out of some poorly written movie about a less developed country. But this happened just across the street from the iconic Grand Central Station, right smack in the heart of trendsetting New York City.

This was a man whose downtown Manhattan neighbourhood had gone pitch dark only hours earlier when super storm Sandy triggered an explosion in a power command centre and caused a blackout in half a million households in the city's five boroughs.

But New Yorkers did not sit around mourning the loss of wi-fi in dark rooms, or cursing inept city officials.

The ones I saw emerging in the aftermath of possibly the most devastating storm ever to hit the north-eastern United States had packed their laptops, phones, even coffee machines, and set out through whipping winds and flooded streets in search of spots in the city that still had power.

They were determined to regain some semblance of normalcy in a world blown completely upside down on Monday night.

However, much of the city was still shut down on Tuesday, and there was an unfamiliar peacefulness.

Schools, the New York Stock Exchange and Broadway's famed theatres remained closed for the second straight day, claiming more than a few historic firsts. Restless tourists milled around Times Square, unsure where to go, or if they should venture anywhere else.

The storm and ensuing floods had also all but ruined the city's extensive public transport network. Only limited subway train services are expected to resume today. Sandy triggered the worst disaster in the history of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, according to its chairman Joseph Lhota.

That left me to make my way around town on foot as I attempted to cure a mild case of cabin fever from having been cooped up with three roommates in our cramped one-bedroom apartment while riding out the storm.

Manhattan, where I live, was one of the hardest hit areas - the storm claimed some 22 lives here. Surveying the area, I realised the storm had spun New York into a tale of two cities - the half that had largely escaped unscathed and the half that had lost electricity, water and even homes.

The city's power grid system meant there were distinct borders to these two halves. Along 39th Street, on the east side of Manhattan, it was possible to walk the line between so-called "civilisation", where restaurants could still provide cooked food and homes were lit - and on the other side, utter darkness.

As I walked to the financial district where Wall Street had turned into a river the night before, the city I have called home for five years was barely recognisable. Stores, apartments and cafes were empty.

Nothing worked - not the street lamps nor traffic lights. Yet the typically reckless New York drivers were slowing down for, and even giving way, to pedestrians as night fell and it was every man for himself in the dark.

Back along 39th Street, some people huddled around a pillar outside a building, trading storm stories in the light drizzle.

Suddenly it became clear what had brought them there; they had a dozen electronic devices plugged into the pillar. Two strangers who had been uprooted from their homes had brought power strips, or extension blocks, with them. When they found a working wall outlet, they offered to share their power strips with others.

The helping hands did not stop there either. Those whose showers still ran and fridges still worked opened their homes to others in need of a wash and food, posting invitations on their Facebook pages.

It was almost as if the storm had washed away some of New York City's least likeable traits - its cut-throat, business-like manner, over-confident stride, and centre-of-the-universe solitude.

Indeed, Sandy had forced one of the world's brassiest, fastest- paced metropolises to slow down and humbly embrace life with a united resilience.

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