In 2005 I sat in front of the television, unable to move, watching as the news of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina came pouring in. I sat in disbelief and in horror. And in sadness. I think I left the TV (on my own volition) once, to deliver 80% of our linen closet to the local Red Cross chapter to be driven to the Gulf. After the delivery, I came right back.
Now I’m living through Hurricane Sandy in lower Manhattan. While this devastation may not be as widespread, it is just that - devastation. Lives have been lost. Entire homes have been leveled. Millions are without the basic creature comforts we all rely on every day of electricity, water, and heat. There are many – too many – without food, drinking water and proper medical attention. There are some without candles to light the darkness that sets in early. As someone who has been rising and falling by candlelight, having none would mean a silent, black darkness that doesn’t just shroud the room but seeps into your soul. New York and New Jersey are suffering. And this time there’s no TV for me to sit in front of. This time there’s no news stream at which to stare in horror. This time, I am living it.
Let me tell you what else I’m living through up here, in the dark part of Manhattan, the part of the "two cities" deemed the ‘have nots.’ I’m witnessing acts of kindness, acts of love, super-human acts of community care and commitment to neighbors, to fellow New Yorkers. Chefs and restaurant owners are opening their kitchens – or what’s left – to feed their hungry neighbors. Volunteers are crossing boroughs, sometimes on foot, to lend a hand, a flashlight or a candle. Everyday, untrained citizens are becoming heroes, climbing tens of flights of stairs to deliver drinking water and food and light to trapped residents. Then many go home to unlit apartments, sleep through the night to do it all again.
New Yorkers are sharing stories over candlelight in businesses determined to be open – to be there. Neighbors are getting to know each other over generators as their phones charge to keep their loved ones updated. New Yorker’s have heart – lots of it. New Yorkers know community too. They take care of their own. They are resilient. They are strong. And they are hopeful. It should be said that I heard all this before I moved to the city, and believed it too, but now, as a New Yorker, I feel it and can say with conviction that it exists.
If you’ve been lucky enough to venture uptown for warmth, a shower and to recharge your life, you’ll see why the news media is calling New York “two cities.” It is as if nothing ever happened. Traffic lights work. There’s plenty of heat. You can get a coffee. Spend a few hours up here and you may think the same thing. Or, you may, like me, feel disoriented and a bit like a refugee. You may get even a little angry that half of the city’s inhabitants, many who already have so very little, are still in the dark and cold. I felt this way when I finally made it out for a few hours. And when I went back, my heart broke even more, but I knew I was home. Home among my community, my neighbors, my devastated neighborhood. You see, we are connected now – connected in our shared experience and efforts to normalize once again. That’s how home works.
In 2007 I finally got down to Katrina country and lent a hand rebuilding. It looked as if the storm had just come through even though two years had passed. Brace yourself New York, this is a marathon not a sprint. It won’t take me two years to get to work in New York. My urban family and I are organizing the troops to assist in our beloved East Village and Lower East Side homes today.
In the coming hours, days, weeks and months if you can help, please do. New York needs you right now. New Yorkers need you – us – right now.
Time to show just how much you heart New York.
FDNY Engine 28, East 2nd St.