When Hurricane Irene hit last year, I covered the event for Bronxville Patch. With my family safely ensconced on the third floor of a pre-war apartment building, I grabbed my weatherproof Pentax K7 and headed out into the storm. Bronxville suffers chronic flooding from the Bronx River, and Irene brought the expected deluge. I took photographs of water breaching a storm wall, residents being evacuated by boat, and fallen limbs covering the roadways.
In the end, an intense but fulfilling experience – feeling good that I played some small role in bringing informative images of the day to residents as they rode it out inside their homes.
When Hurricane Sandy approached last week, things had changed. Although this storm was expected to be more intense, more “newsworthy”, I no longer work for Patch, having recently moved to Connecticut. And while I had no responsibility to photograph Sandy, I still anticipated trekking out with my camera to document her story for myself.
Yet as the storm closed in, it became clear that my responsibility was to my family and my new home – located just feet from a tidal river along the Long Island Sound. We received a mandatory evacuation order on Sunday afternoon, and I spent that night not charging NiCad batteries but filling sandbags. And as Monday arrived, I drove my family to higher ground instead of photographing storm preparations.
That night, as news reports became more dire, I longed for that responsibility to photograph, but instead, I stayed with my house. Yes, I was one of those idiots that I yelled at on news reports on stubborn, un-budging homeowners in harm’s way. I shared text messages with neighbors about the rising water levels. I watched trees overturn outside my windows, and held my breath as the old maple towering over our living room swayed with the increasing gusts.
When Connecticut Governor Malloy announced, around 11pm, that the storm surge at midnight’s high tide was expected to be seventeen feet, and that he was ordering coastal towns to remove residents along the water, I decided not to wait for the National Guard, and grabbed my dog , my camera bag, and my flood insurance policy, threw them in the car, and commenced a harrowing ten minute drive to a friend’s house further from the raging Sound.
As I stepped out into the wind, the acrid smell of burning rubber – from the exploding transformers flashing across the night sky – filled my nostrils, bringing me straight back to that terrible day – September 11th, 2001. The odor was exactly the same, and my adrenaline raged. Driving down our block, I saw a massive tree against a neighbor’s roof – the lights out – they must have already left for a safer place. I watched the salt water barreling inland to my left, downed power lines on my right. Just as I was convinced the next falling limb would land on my windshield, I found myself at my destination, wet dog, camera bag, and policy in hand, under my friend’s roof.
My nerves frayed, we spent the night taking turns charging our iPhones on the generator, and scanning Twitter for local news. When a text came from my neighbor at 12:30am - the tidal water was receding –our homes had been spared, I was able to sleep. The next morning I returned, incredulously, to find our home unscathed, with electricity and Verizon FiOS working, to boot.
But of course many were not as lucky. After bringing the family home, we watched in shock at the destruction in Staten Island, Queens, and along the Jersey Shore. And it was strange in the sense of what I didn’t feel as much as what I did. I felt hope, and confidence that we would be OK – that really they, those that were hit so hard – would overcome.
In the end, I had taken not a single photograph of the storm, and frankly, I didn’t care. There was a deluge of heartbreaking images and videos – certainly my lack of contribution was inconsequential indeed.
Several years ago, I visited New Orleans for the first time. Beyond being a photographer’s paradise – the nooks and crannies of the French Quarter – the beauty of the rolling Mississippi – I fell in love with the people, the vibe, the richness and passion that pervade everything and everyone in the place.
And five days after I returned to New York, already planning my next trip, I watched as Katrina bore down on my new love and nearly wiped her off the map. I felt no hope at that time – New Orleans had serious problems before the storm, and surely would not recover. And our governments’ response was so weak – at all levels – that the obvious choice was to feel despair.
But this time it is New York (and its metropolitan area), the city I love more than any other, and I not only do I feel hope, I feel confidence. This city has been through so much – 9/11 being the most recent example – and that tragedy impacted Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut as significantly as it did the city – and we prevailed and indeed thrived in the years following that dreadful morning.
This is not to discount the horrific suffering occurring even as I write this, one week after the storm. There are people – friends and loved ones – who are shivering and homeless at this moment. There are others who have lost their homes, their businesses, and so much more. I cannot, of course, put myself in their shoes, but nothing I have seen has shown me that they have lost their faith, their confidence, their hope.
As we have so many times before – from the Great Fire in 1835, to the Draft Riots of 1863, to the dark, dark “Bronx is Burning” 1970’s, to 9/11, we’ve always come roaring back, stronger than ever. We will again.
And that comeback is something I will photograph. But for now, these 1,000 words are my picture of the storm.