For me, Hurricane Sandy, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra was truly "Déjà vu all over again." Why? The answer is simple and complicated, going back to August 28, 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit New York and my own coop in the Bronx's Riverdale section: a beguiling pile of stones called Villa Charlotte Bronte, perched on a bluff above the Hudson River.
VCB was built in 1927 as a bucolic escape for the young-and-pretty Jay Gatsbys and Daisy Bucanans of the period. The North Bronx then was country, filled with dairy farms and moo-cows. Villa Charlotte Bronte resembled a storybook Italian hamlet hewn out of native rock, decorated with gardens, paths, and arches coming down off a tree-lined sidewalk on Palisade Avenue. Little about VCB has changed from the 1920s, including the plumbing, but that was part of the charm of the place. We loved it. Old World design; the countrified, Proustian sense of the past; the setting above the Hudson with fantastic views of the river and its dramatically changing weather.
God, did it change on August 27, when Irene, the first hurricane to hit New York in decades blew in. The city was girding for it. Subways stopped. Metro North tracks below us silenced; rain came pounding down. I woke up and went out to our back exposure--aghast. A back concrete walkway constructed four years earlier, anchored into the dirt at the top of the stone formations the coop's built on, had washed halfway down the slope, slopping mud onto Metro North's tracks. With my partner still asleep, I ran back to tell him what had happened.
The good news: the back walkway was not actually attached to the building. So no harm had been done in any way, shape, or form either to our foundations, sunk so far down into the bedrock of the cliff that their actual depths can not be determined, or any other parts of the co-op.
The bad news: our life would change completely, along with the lives of all the residents of the 16 units in charming Villa Charlotte Bronte. Within the next 14 hours, the New York City Department of Building under the person of Timothy Lynch, its Chief Forensic Engineer, would determine our destiny. In other words, a completely self-insulated, powerful New York City bureaucracy would direct our lives. At 1:30 in the morning, on August 28, Lynch, after a quick nighttime visual inspection of the coop (following another D.O.B inspector who had deemed us safe after a daylight visit,) came hammering at our door, in the midst of a post-storm black out, declaring the entire coop "Unsafe," with an order to vacate us immediately.
"If you don't leave your apartment now," he ordered, "I'll come back with a squad car and have you all dragged out."
Pitch black. Flashlights. My partner and I quickly packed overnight bags, and out on the sidewalk joined our neighbors, some with infant children and pets. Everyone shell shocked. Lynch then informed us we could either go to a hotel--at 2 in the morning!--or a city shelter. Luckily we had a good friend, Susan, on 110th Street and Broadway; she immediately told us to come over. We gave a ride to two of our neighbors who could barely talk--they were numb from exhaustion and anxiety. I learned later that several of our neighbors slept in their cars with their pets.
The next day, sunny and bright like the storm had never happened, we returned to Riverdale. Our neighbors were standing outside, along with the press. Word had spread that all the residents of one of the most famous buildings in New York City--that the New York Times had headlined as one of the "'It' Buildings of the Outer Burroughs"--were now out on their butts, with no lifeline. In plain English, it was up to us to convince the New York City Department of Buildings (which our state assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz had described to me as one of the most "unapproachable bureaucracies in New York, second only to the Dept. of Prisons") that VCB was safe: even though in fact it was. In other words, it was definitely not going to come tumbling down to the Hudson any time in--say, the next fifty years. But how do we proceed? What do we say to Tim Lynch to convince him that the building was safe enough for us to return? And to the press?
As a writer, I was used to interviews, so I did one for a local TV station, completely confident that there was nothing wrong with the coop: It was structurally sound. Our board was told that we had to get a structural engineer to attest to this, and also to come up with a plan that would reassure (placate?) the Dept. of Buildings before we would be allowed back in. Question: how do you come up with structural engineering firm, two days after a hurricane, that will pass muster with a bureaucracy that has so much power over you that you are actually scared of approaching it, because if displeased it will decide that you can't return to your home and your possessions?
I can detail for you the next eleven months that my partner and I, and other residents of Villa Charlotte Bronte, endured before we were finally allowed to return to our apartments on July 12, 2012, and the cat-and-mouse game between us and the Dept. of Buildings and Mr. Lynch. I can tell you how painful it was living outside for eleven months, feeling completely powerless while Mr. Lynch and his department did their own little games with our board--a group of overworked, overstressed non-professionals trying to outguess him while working with an engineering firm that had to both please the city and not drive our small coop into bankruptcy.
I can tell you what I went through and my partner went through and how I tried to deal personally with Tim Lynch, and even appeal to him on purely humane grounds to let us return to our apartment which had suffered no damage at all, in a building that did not even have a hairline crack in it after a hurricane. But just suffice it to say that our own engineer finally admitted to me that none of this (and the million dollars it cost our coop to construct a series of retaining walls behind the coop) had anything to do with our safety, but only with following a bureaucratic protocol necessary for finally "getting us out of jail."
Forward to Hurricane Sandy, 2012. A weird weekend--from a rumor of a tropical storm, to a threat that dissolved thousands of plans. I was supposed to be in Philadelphia on Monday, October 29, as a "gay pioneer" at the groundbreaking ceremony for the first state-funded facility for LGBT seniors in the U.S. It was canceled when the mayor of Philadelphia decided a hurricane was no time for a ground breaking: It was too brain-breaking. I tried to normalize the weekend. We all did, but by Sunday, you knew it wasn't going to be normal. Suddenly we were in lock down: subways not working, nor Metro North. By Monday evening, October 29, we were already without power and the Big Blow hadn't even hit yet. A severe blast of wind had knocked over a tree near us, plunging us into the dark. Tuesday evening was the big show. We were eating dinner by battery-powered lantern light at our neighbor's, who was lucky enough to have a match-lightable gas stove.
Rain was pouring, then we heard a sonic-level boom: a huge tree across Palisade Avenue had snapped in two. Later I saw that it spanned the street, blocking traffic, and had hit several cars. Things were getting more dicey, and by the next day if you could get out of town, you did. We didn't. We ended up with no power or heat--lucky compared to people out in the Rockaways and New Jersey who found themselves with no homes in the midst of personal tragedies that still rip at my heart. We were OK for the next several days, until it became clear that without electrical power the pumps that pushed our "waste water" (a nice term for everything liquid from old dishpan goo to your own poo) could no longer accommodate any kind of water activity. With no water, we had to leave. We called our friend Susan on 110th Street again.
A sign on her door read: "Welcome Back, Perry & Hugh!"
That was very sweet of her. But now it was too easy to feel: here we are again--another hurricane. Homeless. This one made Irene look rinky-dink. It was the Big One, and its effects on the city were too traumatizing. For the next several days the barely functioning subways and buses were more jammed than I'd ever seen them in my 40+ years in New York. People were literally standing on top of each other. Yet there was also a kindness that New York exhibits in times of duress. Younger people gave up their seats for me. I was delighted. Finally, on Tuesday, November 6, we got word through emails that power was back on in our building. Life was limping along again. Two days later, I was scheduled to speak at the Literary Writer's Conference, sponsored by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, held at the New School. I called one of the organizers and was told that, yes, the conference was still on. Metro North was back again, with fewer riders and very quiet. I went into town for the conference. Downtown, by the New School on West 12th Street, so much was still closed. People in shuttered stores, restaurants, and nail salons were still mopping and sweeping up.
I lived in New Orleans during the early 1980s, and people got so complacently used to the threat of hurricanes out in the Gulf that they gave "hurricane parties" when the waters started to brew up their own hot madness each year. But this was no party in New York.
This was déjà vu all over again.
Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel, 2012. He is currently working on a book about the power of desire. He can be reached at his website, www.perrybrass.com.