Sunday, 4 November 2012

Notes from New Haven and New York: hurricane Sandy edition

Manhattan over the East River at Dawn, from Roosevelt Island
[Just an opening point: I didn't mean this to turn into a diary of my last few days - but one way and another it has. My ramblings simply got longer in the writing. More words than pictures, I'm afraid.]

Preface: Monday October 2012, New York.

I am in the US this week for work. As I write, I am sitting in my hotel room on a Monday afternoon, on the 19th floor of a building on York Avenue just by the East River. Rain is pounding on the window as I look out; hurricane Sandy has come calling.

I flew into JFK last Thursday, and took the subway straight to Grand Central to get the train to New Haven, CT, for a conference at Yale. We were well on the way there, when the guy sitting in the seat next to me started exclaiming about a hurricane coming our way. Being British, and with memories of Michael Fish, I was tempted not to take this too seriously. But he showed me a map on his phone of the track of a hurricane approaching the coast: a 600 mile wide monster trekking up from the Caribbean with a projected landfall somewhere between Washington and Connecticut. The guy felt particularly aggrieved because he had only just moved up here from Florida and thought he'd left all that kind of thing behind!

New Haven: Friday and Saturday

For the two and a half days I was in New Haven, there was no sign of the hurricane; in fact the sun came out for much of the time. That did not stop the local TV stations talking of nothing else: they'd suffered from hurricane Irene previously, and were sensitised to the idea of a repeat. However, with the autumn colours on full display, New Haven looked lovely on peaceful fall days.

The conference in New Haven finished at lunchtime on Saturday, which gave me a chance to spend a bit of time exploring some of the open areas of Yale University and the colonial centre of town.

The juxtaposition of the foliage with the stonework of the buildings was very beautiful.

But, then again, some things are the same wherever you are:

On the corner, on the phone
On lunch, on the phone
And as elsewhere, people are on the phone, on the street.

New York: Saturday and Sunday

Satuday evening, I took the train back to Manhattan and made my way to the hotel on East 62nd Street at York Ave. The receptionist greeted me with the wonderful words "... and I'm giving you a complimentary upgrade to a suite." So I now have one television for each eye :-)

The view from the 19th floor is wonderful, even though the skies have been uninterrupted grey: I can see much of the way up York Avenue and over to the East River.

I spent much of Sunday walking. There's something about New York that makes me want to get out and just walk, and look around, and visit favourite haunts. I was motivated to get up before dawn and take the Tram across to Roosevelt Island. Even though the light was very dull – Sandy's influence was extending to us even then – I love walking along the riverfront opposite Manhattan on an early morning.

I took the same panorama of the Eastside from the UN Building up to the 59th St Bridge that I've done more than once previously. Probably the most miserable example in terms of the light, but still one of those things I feel the need to do, and it never looks quite the same twice. The opening picture above shows the resulting pano (a very small version of the original: stitched from 24 D700 Raw images).

Back in Manhattan, a proper breakfast was called for, so I strolled over to Lexington Avenue to Eat Here Now, a diner I've been to for many years, to have a proper breakfast. Sausages and bacon, two eggs, toast, orange juice and coffee. A great breakfast in one of my favourite places.

Sunday morning skating on the Wollman Rink

Looking over the Pond to Central Park South
Then over to Central Park. The colours were in full fall display there too, and like all the other tourists, I took far too many pictures; the fall foliage was too much to resist.

Even after such a good breakfast, by 2.30pm I had walked up another appetite. I took myself off for a late lunch to Neely's Barbeque, a restaurant on First Avenue I had noticed not far from my hotel. I treated myself to a plate of pulled pork: extremely tasty, and all the better for being washed down with a jar of beer (literally a jar: they serve beer in glass containers like large jam jars).

Like all the TV shows that had been on while I was in my room, the TV in the restaurant was dominated by news of the storm. The big news while I was having lunch was that the MTA would shutdown at 7 that evening, so there would be no subways or other transport after that.  Mayor Bloomberg was giving a press conference urging people to take this seriously, and to take precautions to stay safe. In my experience New York does not close for … well … anything; Sandy was threatening something I had not experienced before.

So it came as no surprise that a bit later I found that the shops were shutting early. After lunch, I took myself off to Barnes and Noble, the large bookshop at the base of the Citicorp building. This was another old haunt to revisit: it was one of my daughter's favourite places when we lived just round the corner. There were periodic announcements over the store's PA that it would be shutting at 5pm to let the staff get home safely.

I returned to my hotel room with a couple of books, passing along the way a grocery store that was besieged with people stocking up for the arrival of Sandy. The television had been urging people to lay in supplies of food and drink, as well as flashlights in case the electricity goes out. Clearly, the locals were heeding the advice. City Wines, an off licence (liquor store) by the base of the Tram, was also full to overflowing with customers as the locals took the injunction to lay in drink with appropriate seriousness.


Early this morning, the storm had not arrived. Looking out of my window first thing, there was no rain and the trees gave no indication of high wind. People were out walking dogs, just as on a normal day. The big difference was the number of cars on the road. York Avenue from well before dawn through the rush-hour is usually solid. Not today: no buses, few private cars, only the occasional yellow taxi. The public school system, as well as the MTA, has been shut down today so the place has the feel of an early Sunday morning.

My colleague, Joelle, is staying in the same hotel, so we made our way up to the lab where we were due to be meeting with others. Arriving at reception, the security guard was surprised to see us: it was essential personnel only. Our host, Mohan, arrived a couple of minutes after us and we made our way to his office. Nobody else in the group had come in, not least because they all rely on the MTA for transport. Before midday, one of the building supervisors arrived and asked us what time we were going to leave. So, shortly after, we left and picked up a couple of sandwiches at the mini-Deli around the corner. One was for lunch, the other for dinner in case we couldn't find anything else.

Hurricane Sandy strikes. (Left) York Avenue behind my windonw (Right) HLN reports the storm.

5.30 pm.  I am in my suite with horizontal rain hurling itself into the windows, and East River is looking both full and choppy. High tide is expected at 8.50 this evening, and a storm surge should raise it to levels that threaten to break the defences. Battery Park and its neighbouring area of the West side are also currently threatened. I've just heard that the crane has partially toppled over on West 57th Street: there is a residential tower being built to over 1000 feet high, and the crane attached to the building has folded in the wind.

The TV is showing places I've known well being hit by the storm. The Chesapeake Bay and Delaware shore have high winds and waves. Kent Island, where my family and I have seen ospreys, looks to have been flooded. The beach at Rehoboth (memories of sunburn from being an idiot and not using sunscreen on a blazing Labor Day weekend) appears to be badly eroded, and the town behind flooded.

As I write, I'm taking Mayor Bloomberg's advice and staying put. Given the many hardships being suffered by residents of the East coast, I'm happy to count my blessings.

This is the same picture I posted in my Quick Update. It shows water overflowing the East River. One carriageway of FDR Drive is underwater, as is E62nd St at the bottom of the picture

Water coming up E 62nd St. Note the police car blocking entrance to the street.

10pm update: the East River has indeed broken its banks. Joelle and I met at 6pm for drinks in the hotel bar by the lobby, and to eat our sandwiches. While we chatted, I could see the trees outside being thrown around in the wind. Leaving the bar about 9.30, there was quite a crowd by the door of the lobby looking out into the storm. Water was lapping up 62nd St: the overflow that had broken the banks of the river was nearly at the door of the hotel. Looking down from my room, I could see the path by the river swamped, and water in the road. A police car blocked access from York Ave via 62nd St to FDR Drive by the East River.


The water has receded from 62nd St with the tide, and all looks pretty normal. A couple of trees have blown over on York Avenue, but apart from that this morning is just like any other windy fall day.
The morning after. A dog walker passes a fallen tree on York Avenue
We've got off lightly.

I joined Joelle for breakfast. We had decided to go just up the way to the Ritz diner, a small place that she had been to previously and liked.

On the way there, it became clear to us that the hotel had been briefly surrounded by water. The basement car park had flooded; one guest I met said he had parked a brand new Cadillac there, and it sounded like a write-off.

The overflowing East River had reached as far as York Avenue. A couple of trees had snapped off, and we could see tiles missing from the apartment building opposite. But overall, the extent of the damage seemed minimal on the scale of things.
Breakfast counter at the Ritz Diner

Couples and the rain

Unsurprisingly, the Ritz was short-staffed, but at least they were open and serving breakfast. They had a process of very strict demand-management in place, so that there was a long line of customers waiting outside even though there were plenty of spaces inside. After waiting for maybe 20 minutes, we were seated. Although the staff were rushed off their feet, we were served pretty quickly. I filled up with an "Irish breakfast" (hash potatoes, sausage, two eggs, toast, coffee, orange juice). Joelle had a much healthier breakfast – oatmeal porridge.

Walking up to the lab past the Rockefeller University on York Avenue we found many small branches and much foliage on the ground, although thankfully few full-grown trees seem to have come down.

The lab itself was pretty much empty. Not even a security guard at the front lobby. So, Mohan, Joelle and I spent the morning talking alternately work and the state of the destruction. Another colleague, Xiuli, arrived later having driven in from Flushing. She left her husband to deal with the roof of the house: Sandy had taken away a third of their roof tiles. She normally takes the subway, but of course that was impossible.

As the day progressed, it became clearer and clearer just how much damage had been done to the fundamental infrastructure of Manhattan. There's no power down in the South end: the big ConEd substation in the East Village that had been built to withstand a record-breaking storm surge had been overwhelmed by the effect of Sandy and exploded, plunging the area below 39th St into darkness. The tunnels in out of Manhattan have been flooded and there is no prospect of the subway trains running in the immediate future, and no word about when they may ever run to capacity again.
Umbrellas by the Park. Incidentally, this looks like full daylight, but it was nearly dark. The D700 has done an amazing job with a tiny amount of light.
In the evening, I went for a walk across to Central Park and down Fifth Avenue. It was still raining, but the wind had abated. The park was closed. A few trees had come down, but certainly the park was not devastated.

Collapsed crane at 157 W 57th St. Hurricane Sandy caused the crane shown at the top of the picture to buckle over. The structure on top of the skyscraper in the centre of the picture is the crane. This picture was taken from the junction with 5th Ave. W 57th street, usually a very busy thoroughfare, was blocked off, and no-one was allowed near, in case the crane fell to the ground. HDR from 5 originals, shot at 1 stop intervals: the light was much darker than it looks.
The collapsed crane was a magnet for anyone with a camera.
Carrying further on down Fifth Avenue I ended up at the Rockefeller Centre, and wondered if the Top of the Rock was open. Sadly not. Not surprising, but a notice stuck to the entrance said it would not be open in the immediate future because of Sandy.

The TV once I got back to hotel was uniformly full of the devastation wrought by Sandy, to the point that I could watch no more.


This morning, the news reports are still full of devastation. New Jersey has been hit very, very badly. Fires have broken out in Queens and many houses been destroyed. The death toll continues to rise.

Where I am, we have been very, very lucky. Very lucky indeed. We have power, and we did not lose so much as a window from this hotel.

People had driven into Manhattan to get to work in the absence of public transportation. There was total gridlock on 2nd Avenue, with a couple of people screaming at each other after a minor collision between their vehicles.

The slowness of transport became clear when Xiuli appeared at about 1 o'clock. She and her husband had set off from home in Flushing several hours earlier, only to abandon the attempt to drive in to Manhattan before getting to the 59th Street bridge. Her husband turned round and went home, leaving her to walk across the bridge and up to the lab. She arrived with very sore feet. Other stragglers appeared in the lab at similar times, having set off for their normal half to 1 hour commute at 7.30 and arriving not less than four or five hours later.

Nevertheless, in this part of Manhattan at least there is a sense that normality is resumed. Businesses are working again and the only departure from routine here is the lack of public transport. Below 34th Street though it's a different story with power still out and hospitals having to be evacuated as their own internal generators progressively fail.

Thursday morning

I'm due to fly home this evening. I was able to check-in online with Virgin Atlantic on my phone last night in the hotel. I still can't get Internet on my laptop in the hotel, but the AT&T 4G on my phone works just fine.

JFK has reopened, and there's no indication online that there's any problems with my flight (wood firmly touched). has stated that the F subway line has reopened: this will take me out to Kew Gardens, well on the way to JFK, and the Q10 bus will take me from there. Even though it is much longer than my usual E train to the airport,  it is an easy enough route.

The sun has come out, and the weather looks gorgeous. At dawn, a mackerel sky briefly turned red as the sun rose. Light is now reflecting across from the tall buildings.  What a day to be over on Roosevelt Island photographing the dawn again! But I had to pack, and reluctantly missed the light.


Home again. There's not much more to say except that the flight home was as normal - completely uneventful.

The only point of note is that I didn't take the F train in the end. I tried to get the subway at 63rd/Lexington and could not even get on the platform. It seemed like the whole population of Queens was waiting there: people were saying they'd been there for an hour with no train appearing. I had a plane to catch so there was only one option: try to get a taxi. As it happened that was very easy, and once out of Manhattan, it was one of the quickest rides I've ever had to JFK. Strict car pooling had been introduced to try to ease congestion, i.e. no car is allowed into Manhattan with less than three passengers, and that made an immense difference.

JFK was buried under a mass of people, but fully functional. I think the airlines were laying on as much capacity as possible to get people moving. I had come out on a small aircraft carrying about 260 passengers (I didn't make a note: I think an A330-343), but came back on a much larger aircraft (747-400).

As a final point, I'd just like to note again the amazing resilience of New York and its population. After the worst hurricane damage in living memory, the city began to get back on its feet tremendously quickly. Businesses reopened, and as soon as possible the MTA began to get operational again (even if I didn't get to use it!). The flooded Brooklyn-Battery tunnel is being pumped out with help from the Army engineers, and should be operational again soon. Little touches of self-sufficiency showed through: as a small example, Adorama (a well-known camera shop on W18th St) set up a charging station where people could bring in their battery powered items (cell phones, laptops etc) to get them working again. Small consolation to the people of neighbouring Staten Island, which has been wrecked, but for those who can leave the ruins of their homes to go to work, the Staten Island Ferry is working again.

I'll leave this blog entry at this point. has a terrific compilation of pictures of the devastation Sandy wrought. A Flickr group has been set up to compile pictures from the storm.

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