Back in my part of Brooklyn, we got lucky again.
I've always been a storm geek. Growing up in Mount Horeb, I had my first experience with severe weather with the Barneveld tornado, an F5 that in 1984 completely annihilated the small town just a few miles west of ours. I was too young to remember it, but I later became obsessed with the force that had destroyed one community and spared our own.
As a kid, I dreamed of being a storm chaser, charting the paths of tornadoes in some banged-up Jeep, à la Helen Hunt in Twister, in an attempt to seek out destruction. During warnings, I was the one to gather supplies -- flashlights, blankets, a battery-powered radio -- and herd my family to the closet beneath the stairs, where I'd insist we stay until the storm had passed.
Three years ago, I moved from Madison to New York. Compared to the Midwest, this city doesn't see much in the way of storms. Gone were the days of late-spring thunder, those huge cracks of sound that shook the house of my youth. No more were the eerie green skies; no more were the sirens -- those long, low cries that stretch across counties, igniting both anticipation and abject fear.
Even so, I'm always prepared. When I moved into my first apartment, I asked the landlord, "In the case of a tornado warning, will we have access to the basement?"
He looked at me like I had spoken in tongues.
"Tornadoes?" He spat in his thick city brogue. "Honey, we don't get tornadoes here."
The following spring, a tornado touched down in Queens.
Last year, I moved to Brooklyn. It was August, and Hurricane Irene was days away. The city was in a panic. The media raved. My neighborhood, Greenpoint, on a bank of the East River, is part of Evacuation Zone A -- a handful of low-lying areas particularly prone to flooding. Two days before the storm, Mayor Bloomberg ordered us to evacuate. I watched dozens of neighbors pack up their cars and head off to seek refuge from the storm. People filled the subways and cabstands, jammed the bridges and tunnels. I stayed put, choosing instead in my stoic -- and, let's be honest, thrilled -- Midwestern way to ride out the storm. While areas nearby got pounded, the city was barely touched. We lost only a few small trees.
A little over a year later, there was Sandy.
Once again, mass hysteria reigned. The media tossed around phrases like "life-threatening" and "potential devastation" with abandon. This isn't like Irene, they said, this is the big one. On Facebook and Twitter, New Yorkers posted every apocalyptic link they could find -- including a live-stream forecast from the Weather Channel, whose satellite images were set to the kind of moody, histrionic music reserved for adventure-film battle scenes.
By Sunday, Zone A was ordered a mandatory evacuation. Police patrolled the streets, blaring through megaphones for people to leave. By nightfall, the entire subway system was shut down. The bridges and tunnels were closed. People sandbagged their cellar doors and secured their windows, plastering huge blue X's of tape to the glass. In press conferences, Bloomberg still urged residents to leave. New Jersey Gov. Christie called holdouts like myself "selfish and stupid." Even if I'd had a way out by then, I chose to stay.
The grocery store was madness: shelves were pillaged, the racks torn bare; wild-eyed Brooklynites piled junk food into carts like it was a party; lines snaked through the aisles. The cafés and bars stayed open; hipsters sipped espresso and beer as the winds picked up. Back at my apartment, I hoarded bottles and stockpots of water. I gathered candles and matches, flashlights and batteries, and charged every device, storing up power like an athlete might carb-load. And then I waited.
On Monday afternoon, Sandy hit land.
For hours, winds of 50 miles an hour raged, with gusts of up to 90. Leaves and branches flew by the windows in perfectly horizontal gusts. The roof moaned and heaved; doors banged against their frames. The building swayed. The lights flickered. At 11:30 p.m., after seeing throngs of rain-coated residents trudging down our street, their bodies bent against the rain, I ventured outside. A half-block from my apartment, the streets were completely flooded. Cars floated. Sirens wailed. I stood at the curb taking photos, bracing my body against the wind. And just across the river, the Manhattan skyline went dark.
It's been three days now, and much of the city is still without power. My office, in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the harbor, is still closed. The subway tunnels connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan are still filled with water. The stock exchange shut down for a record two days; an entire faade was torn from a building in Chelsea. The Gowanus canal flooded, leaving Red Hook submerged. An electrical fire in Queens took out over a hundred houses. More than 200,000 people in the city, and most of Long Island, are still without power. In New Jersey, 900,000 are still in the dark. In the wake of the storm the weather turned cold, and thousands of people are without heat. New York Gov. Cuomo estimates $6 billion in damage. Over 70 people in the area have died.
Back in my part of Brooklyn, we got lucky again: though our basement flooded (and is now smelling increasingly like sewage), we never lost power, and were only without hot water for a day. In the light, things don't look so bad. But when I walk to my neighborhood's edge at night and stand on the East River pier, half of Manhattan -- that island of ever-burning light -- is still dark.
When I was young, I believed that hurricanes were nothing compared to tornadoes. They could devastate whole cities, sure, but in a hurricane you have days of warning. You have time to prepare. The people of Barneveld had no warning at all. But as this massive metropolis begins to pick up the pieces, and the sound of sirens -- not those of warning but of emergency responders -- plays in the background of my nights and my days -- I think the thing about all storms, the thing that compelled me as a kid and compels me today, is that they beg to be revered. In the end, they all have the ability to pardon, and the ability to destroy.
That said, the next time a hurricane hits I'll probably stick it out again. I'm still a Midwestern storm-chaser at heart, after all.
Melissa Faliveno is a former Madisonian living in New York City. She is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.