Just last year I chronicled my brother Phil’s encounter with a predicted weather Armageddon in downtown Manhattan.
He lives with wife Sylvia and their six year-old twin girls between the World Trade Centre site and Wall Street in an apartment, five steps above street level.
In August 2011 he was mightily relieved that the Category 5 tropical storm Irene turned out to be a fizzer. Like many New Yorkers, he joked about it.
“If this Hurricane Irene doesn’t happen a lot of people in Manhattan are going to be really bummed. The first thing they’re going to do is go back to the stores and ask for refunds on all the shit they’ve bought: ‘Hey buddy, these gumboots have never even been worn’,” he said.
Well, just a year later after Hurricane Sandy, the gumboots are being worn, the candles burned, the plastic garbage bags all used up and Phil finds himself, like so many, homeless in Manhattan.
My brother Phil Brown with the ruined contents of his apartment.
No power in his apartment. His daughters have been staying with friends. He visits his place – still stinking from salt water and the stench of the Hudson River – to throw out rubbish and cart filthy bedding and clothes down the street to one of the few laundromats in his part of town.
“Now I know how the homeless people feel wheeling a trolley through the streets with all their worldly possessions,” he tells me.
“People give you odd looks – many turn away and give you extra room to pass so you don’t accidentally touch them – it’s kind of humbling and surreal, all at the same time.”
The giant boiler for his apartment building is “toast”; the plumbing ruined; every wire needs replacing. The downstairs apartments need new plaster, treatment for mould and re-painting.
“It’s probably only 2-3 weeks work end-to-end, but the problem is getting any kind of crew to even start on it so we could be months and months away from resolution,” says Phil.
“My company is putting us up at a hotel for a week, and then Sylvia’s company has offered another week, but after that we’re on our own. I think our only option is to try to get a new apartment (along with another 20,000 families with the same problem).”
Of course my brother is lucky to have his loved ones all safe and well and to have combined family resources on standby, but, as anyone who has endured a natural disaster knows – be it in outback Australia or on the streets of New York – the cost is always incalculable.
For years to come, his hand will reach for a family keepsake and he will mourn the loss of it.
On the night Hurricane Sandy hit, the family stayed with friends on the fourth floor in Tribeca, a way uptown.
Next morning, as Phil got closer to his place, he could see the water line was steadily rising. At Fulton Street a huge hole had opened up in the road.
“As I crossed Water Street (aptly named) I started to see shattered windows everywhere. Tree branches, bits of roofing, cars smashed into each other, stores you could easily see had been flooded. Clothes and other goods that had floated into the streets and been washed into dark corners of who knows where.
“It was about this time I thought: ‘oh shit, might have a bit of cleaning up to do’.
“As I turned into my street, which faces the harbor about 150 meters away, I could see the water line had been at about 7-8 feet above street level. My front steps go up about 4 feet but then I’m at floor level in my apartment.
“It was pitch black as I got to the door and fumbled for the keys – I had to push my way in because a lot of stuff was sitting behind the door – wasn’t sure what it was.
“The water level had been about 3 feet inside the apartment which meant a total loss of carpets and furniture. Everything in the bottom two bookshelves (about 600 books), kids’ toys, and everything on the bottom shelf of my computer desk (including my laptop) and everything we had in a 15 foot long set of cupboards along one wall was ruined – photos of the girls, their artwork, papers…”
The fridge was on its side – the motor now corroded by salt water; camera equipment gone (a real blow because Phil’s in video production); and much of the family’s clothing.
That famous sense of humour is intact, however.
The wine collection was scattered, but not broken: “Of course a number of the bottles were without labels, which meant a few blind tastings in the near future, but New Yorkers just learn to manage adversity.
A huge challenge was no power for phones or internet – a real shock for a worldly, connected, urban New Yorker. No newspapers to see what was happening, just a small radio. After 5 days telephone reception was restored.
Now, Phil says, getting the girls to school every day is the hardest part. With much of the subway still not operational and no car, it’s a $50 round trip daily via cab.
As for the mood of those in his neighbourhood?
“Overall, I think the mood is OK after cancelling the NYC marathon. Nobody really wants to see 200,000 young healthy athletes jogging past, smiling, as you try to haul your dead labrador down the stoop to the trash.
“People seem to think Obama did the right things, and New York Mayor Bloomberg as well as New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie. There is also that New York attitude that we will build it bigger and better so we won’t have the same problem next time.”
His daughters are starting to ask for their dolls and toys. Asking when they can go home.
“Riley wanted to know who broke our tree outside the front door and Misty is interested in the color of the potential replacement carpet – pinning her hopes on something in a shade of pink.”
He hasn’t told them they might not be going back.
“Anyway,” he signs off, “gotta run – there’s another storm on the way – this one is coming from inland and may bring a lot of rain, sleet and possible snow, with some flooding in parts of Long Island.”
That’s right, I remember. Winter’s coming on.
P.S. Phil’s first two photos for his new family album – Riley (top) and Misty (below) meeting a local hero.
*Cover image: “I Still Love NY” Hurricane Sandy Relief T-shirt by Sebastian Errazuriz.