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Umbrellas destroyed by heavy wind litter the streets of Times Square New York October 29, 2012. (ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)
Umbrellas destroyed by heavy wind litter the streets of Times Square New York October 29, 2012. (ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)

Slower than a New York minute, the metropolis hunkers down Add to ...

Down went the subway system. Next came the closing of airports, tunnels, bridges, parks, schools, stock markets, corporate offices, Broadway shows. Later, electricity flickered off in swaths of the city.

And then the water arrived.

At about 8 p.m. Monday the storm of a lifetime swept ashore on the U.S. coast. The swirling leviathan of 140 km/h winds and heavy rains flooded low-lying areas across miles of coast and left hundreds of thousands without power.

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In New York City, the gigantic storm surge combined with high tide pushed water levels at the southern tip of Manhattan past 13 feet, breaking records. The Hudson River overflowed its banks, submerging a highway. Seawater spilled into the subway and vehicle tunnels.

Earlier New Yorkers of all ages had confined themselves to their homes as they braced for the worst of the storm.

The mayor strongly urged them to cultivate their inner couch potato. “This may be a good time to just stay hunkered in your home, eat a sandwich out of the fridge and watch television,” Michael Bloomberg said.

Other activities he suggested: reading a good book, catching up on sleep, talking to people.

Jeremy Weinrib, a Toronto native, holed up with his wife, a teacher who is nearly eight months pregnant, in their fifth-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Mr. Weinrib, a software-development manager for ESPN, worked from home, while his wife graded papers and rested. “The teachers appreciate the day off as much or more than the students,” he said.

Mr. Weinrib said the storm’s slow progress had allowed them to prepare ahead of time, gathering food and other essentials. “It only started to become real in the last hour or two,” he said early Monday evening. “The rain is really coming down and the wind is picking up.”

For others, the lure of storm watching proved difficult to ignore. At a pier in Harlem on Monday afternoon, a swollen, grey-green Hudson River, tipped with whitecaps, slapped against the dock.

Luis Gonzalez, 20, a journalism student at Brooklyn College, brought his camera and his mother, Luz Echevarria. “The opportunity is here, so why not?” he said. Facing away from the wind and steady drizzle, he looked at the river and noted that he had never seen the water level so high. “And it’s only going to get worse, obviously.”

Ms. Echevarria, 57, a teacher, said she, too, had come for the chance to witness a rare natural event. Having done so, her plan was to make a quick stop at a nearby grocery store, then follow a plan that Mr. Bloomberg would have endorsed: “I’m going to stay home, eat, and watch TV.”

The storm’s approach, steady and relentless, provided an array of sights unusual enough to unnerve even the hardiest New Yorker. At Grand Central Terminal, the doors were locked, the atrium inside silent and deserted. Around the World Trade Center site, bunkers of sandbags stood at the ready. And on Central Park South, a crane charged with constructing the city’s latest trophy apartment building partly collapsed, its boom snapped backward and dangling high above the city.

In an East Village brownstone, Julia Johnston, a Toronto public-relations executive, found her holiday in the city extended by the hurricane. With the city’s public transportation shut down – and most shops closed – Ms. Johnston and a friend, Brigitte Bako, had to call around to find a source of food. They finally located a Chinese restaurant that was not only open, but willing to send its delivery man into the wet streets.

And if that eatery’s pluck was noteworthy, it was also a sign of the attitude of many locals, who were unwilling to abandon the city. People are staying in town, Ms. Bako said. “Everybody’s sticking together, trying to help each other out.”

Many New Yorkers also remembered the warnings that preceded Hurricane Irene last year, which prompted some to leave for neighbouring areas – only to find that they would have been better off in the city itself, which weathered the storm comparatively well.

Outside the city, the storm’s fury grew steadily throughout the day. Noah Charney, originally from Toronto, had planned to stay at his home near the shore in Darien, Conn., despite the risk of flooding and a local fireman’s instruction to evacuate.

But in the early afternoon, tree branches began to snap off and his house lost electricity. He decided to decamp with his wife and three young children – aged 5, 4, and 2 – to a neighbour’s home, which had the benefit of a generator and a location farther from the water. “The prospect of flooding, in the pitch black, in 90-mile-an-hour winds is not particularly appealing,” said Mr. Charney, 35, a hedge-fund analyst.

Many New Yorkers tried to find humour in the natural disaster. One commenter on a local website proposed building a biblical ark, Noah-style, populated with New York archetypes: two Brooklyn hipsters, two Wall Street bankers, two coffee-shop playwrights, and two “subway-platform schizophrenics.”

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

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