After the APHA meeting in San Francisco, coming home to New York on October 31st was no ordinary feat. Many of my colleagues had their flights canceled and were stranded for an additional 1-3 days. I was one of the lucky ones and made it back with relatively little delay.
I had heard about Superstorm Sandy’s destruction and saw many images, but nothing prepared me for actually being back in New York. The traffic in Manhattan was nothing like I had ever seen before. Roads were closed due to a fallen crane and traffic lights were not working south of 39thStreet. Drivers were irate, very irate, and their blaring car horns and waving fists showed it. After moving 3 car lengths in the span of 15 minutes, I started to get scared that violence would erupt.
There were new sights to be seen walking around on the sidewalks. Those without power and cell phone reception walked north to get in touch with the outside world again. Trees became charging stations (many have power outlets) and people held their devices up against closed Starbucks’ windows, desperate for Wi-Fi. After days of doing so and more, people simply looked despondent.
At night, the streets north of 39th St. came alive. Restaurants that were normally empty had 1.5 hour waits. The “northerners” started to resent the “southerners” and felt as though they were being invaded.
South of 39th St., it was pitch black at night. With the power out for almost a week, many had no running water and there was very little food for people that stayed in their apartments. (An unopened refrigerator will stay cold for about 4 hours and a full freezer will keep the temperature about 48 hours.) Many didn’t have a choice but to stay in their apartments; the elderly and disabled would have a difficult if not impossible time navigating dark hallways and staircases.
I spoke with people from Long Island who had seen their floors break open from the pressure of the water rising from their basement. Their street was no longer visible but had turned into a rushing current of water. It would take weeks for their power to be restored, and nature’s assault on the Northeast was far from over. The following week, we were hit with a Nor’easter. The absence of power, water and heat became even more brutal.
Recovery is only just beginning, but already there are many lessons learned. Eager volunteers reported the lack of coordination with relief and shelter efforts. Clinical staff were sent to locations that did not need their services, yet they were required to stay for 12-hour shifts. Shelters needed security, workflow direction and supply distribution far more than medical care. As it turned out, care was needed for people trapped in their apartments who were found 2 weeks after Superstorm Sandy lacking medical necessities such as oxygen tanks and medication.
Looking forward, it is important to identify and address the mental health effects of what has been a very stressful time for so many. People have lost loved ones, their homes and/or are suffering from financial strain due to property damage and lost wages. First responders not only had physically demanding jobs, but were exposed to high levels of emotional stress for extended periods of time.