I’m Leaning against a wall in the basement of a nearby church. The kids are running and playing with the preschool’s toys, adults are charging phones and other electronics and we are all warming our toes, decompressing from the chaos. I have no access to live news, but from limited cell service I have heard of the widespread devastation that has occurred throughout the northeast.
This is just our story. I know that many others have experienced worse. I need to write this to comb through events from the last 48 hours.
Many of you read my poem “Twas The Night Before Sandy“, which I have been tempted to delete from this blog altogether due to the glib nature of it. I’m choosing to leave it up to show how unsuspecting we were before the storm hit. I know we were not alone in our assumption that the media was hyping up Sandy’s potential impact. But, I’m glad that we decided to take the encouraged steps to prepare for such impact. We thought we would just return all of the unnecessary survival items.
Monday morning, I ran to the store to grab some last-minute things before shutting our door for what would be a cozy and exciting 24 hours of good old-fashioned family time.
At around 3:00 pm, we saw lights behind our yard from the next block over. The first tree had uprooted, splitting the roof of a house. That was our first clue that we might be in for more than we had anticipated. The storm had not even fully touched down on our coast. Twenty minutes later, the same house got hit from behind with another oak. Not their day.
We moved the toddler bed to the basement, set up a pack n play, and covered the futon with sheets. We still thought we were being overly cautious, but went ahead with “Operation Family Slumber Party”.
At around 8:00 pm, the opposite side of our street went black. Our side is on a different township’s power grid and as this happened last year, it was planned for. During Hurricane Irene, our street made the evening news because of all of the extension cords strung across the street to power dark homes, and we all agreed to be ready to repeat that.
We were upstairs on the front porch, stringing our cord for the neighbors while the kids watched Kipper in the basement. Before we got them up and running, a large branch blew into their car windshield and a gust of wind threw our door open, slamming it against the wall. All went black, rendering our extension cord useless. Out of luck, folks. So much for being neighborly.
The kids screamed from the floor below and I ran my shin into a chair rushing to grab them. Zachary had somehow made his way to the top of the stairs in the dark and my knees hit his shoulders. I was able to catch him before he tumbled backwards and we both found Isabelle crying by the bed. With one kid on each hip, I felt around for the flashlight. Thankfully flashlights are thoroughly fascinating to a 3 yr old and 21 month old. (And, I might add, just as fascinating to a 35-year-old. Those gadgets are handy!)
Within seconds, I heard my husband upstairs.
“Oh my God! Where is my phone?”
Just up the stairs from our underground haven was the back door. Beyond it lay three 50 foot evergreens. One across our garage, one leaning on the next door neighbor’s roof, and the other on the ground in front of us, our power box ripped out of the back of the house, snapped, sparking and flaming, inches from the garage.
In a complete panic (and not one that was heroically masked from my children to make them feel safe), I scooped them up, ran out the front door, and over to our neighbor’s on the other side. The sky was glowing in sparks of grey and white as transformers and power lines exploded. Branches were ricocheting around us, and trees were moaning, creaking and falling with eerily hollow thuds. I banged on their door as if I was part of an angry mob and tucked the kids’ heads under my chin. Finally they opened the door and we tumbled inside.
Moments later, my husband outside with the fire department, an enormous tree across the street ripped through sidewalk cement and crashed onto the house behind it.
My neighbor bounced her 9 month old in the Ergo carrier while her three-year old slept unaware upstairs. Her husband, an ER doctor, joined mine outside as screams echoed from down the street. She took over for me, keeping my kids calm while I went to get our dogs.
I ran around our house, fetching whatever I could for the night, thankful for the emergency vehicle lights blinking and lighting up every room. The crate, the dogs and the iPad. That’s it.
Returning to my children, I paced with my neighbor as we waited for our husbands to return. With every wind gust, wood moaned and we braced ourselves. Normally one would think the odds of a tree falling on your house are quite low, but this night it seemed those odds were flipped.
Her husband returned.
“Where is my husband?”
He answered too slowly, eyes glazed from his recent tour on the set of Armageddon.
“See that tree that just fell? It just….”
“Where is my husband?!”
“Oh. Sorry. He’s right behind me.”
“Ok. Now what about the tree?”
“That whole roof is gone.”
“What did the fire department say?”
“They left. They can’t put the fire out because the wire is live. They said to go back home, keep constant watch and call if it catches the garage.”
We collected our babies, furry and human, and thanked our neighbors for the shelter. We felt safer in the basement of our own home anyway. Other than the pesky little fire right behind it, it was the safest place, a fortress from falling trees.
The winds raged outside while we each held a kid and in unison, sung them to sleep, glancing repeatedly at the staircase, looking for shadows of spreading flames across the banister.
Once they were tucked in their beds, we stood upstairs and watched as the wire flared and went dark with every gust and drop of rain. It wasn’t spreading, but wasn’t stopping. Sleep was not an option.
At 2 am, It was my husband who remembered the propane tank from our grill, stored in the garage for safety purposes, now sitting three feet from the ignited wire.
I called 911 again and informed them of the potential explosive, and they sent the fire department back.
While we waited, I fumbled around our house with a candle, packing a suitcase with random things. Birth certificates, passports, photo albums, and baby books – No clothes or material things. As I set the suitcase by the door, the fire department pulled up a second time.
They climbed through the downed evergreen and into the leaning garage, returning with the tank.
“Here ya go. You still have a gas tank and a lawn mower in there, so you’re not in the clear, but if this makes you feel better…”
“Wonderful. I do feel better. So much better. Thank you.”
“Look. If the garage catches on fire, it’s far enough away from you, it will most likely burn to the ground. It’s ruined anyway. Just let it burn.”
Recently moving from Southern California where you could sneeze at a match and set a hundred acres ablaze, they had to explain to me the difference in foliage.
I still wasn’t convinced. The response most of us got that evening was to stay put even in unsafe conditions. The alternative of venturing out held more danger than unstable homes or ignited electrical lines, but we were far from safe.
By midnight, all was dark and quiet. Sandy’s wingspan still stretched for miles across our county but with much less strength and ferocity. Candles burned out down our block while people tried to sleep – many under cracked and leaking roofs. We stood at the top of our basement stairs and watched the flames glow in our yard until the dawn brought all of us out of hiding.
We congregated in the street, surveying the damage and offering assistance in any way we could. Those that still had power brought out hot coffee and offered warm living rooms, food, and a place for kids to play.
Orange cords are zig zagged across the street and through debris as single houses power as many appliances in nearby homes as they can.
Halloween was rescheduled in the state of New Jersey, but we joined together on a front lawn for a costume party for the dozen or so children that live on our block.
People we have passed by several times with merely a nod have become our friends and now feel like family.
Most of our town is without power until at least the 9th of November but we are safe, and surrounded by amazing humans. Other than a heater and some major attention to the climate change issue, who can ask for anything more?