Crippled N.J. city is frozen in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath

November 2, 2012

Grace Rodriguez pulled her kitchen curtain back to observe the sea of black outside. There was still some leftover warmth in her apartment from boiling water on the gas stove. In the hallways beyond her door, residents were using their stoves to stay warm, blue flames going and oven doors open.

Rodriguez was afraid she would poison her 13-year-old daughter with carbon monoxide.

On the third day after Hurricane Sandy soaked Hoboken in several feet of water, leaving the city one of the most crippled in the region, those with the least found themselves suspended in the storm’s cold, dark aftermath. Late this week, Hoboken started to hum with generators and a taco truck.

The projects where Rodriguez and her daughter, Jayleen Avalos, lived were still at the bottom of the world. The 25 or so buildings operated by the Hoboken Housing Authority were clustered together on 17 acres at the city’s southern edge. They were hemmed in by gentrification on one side — $600,000 lofts with same-day shirt service dry cleaners — and a steel fence in the back. Two feet of floodwater created a moat around the buildings. The National Guard brought water and MREs. The Red Cross brought bologna-and-cheese sandwiches.

But the one commodity residents were starved for was information, and the absence of it deepened their sense of isolation. The city government used social media to update citizens. Grace Rodriguez would have appreciated a bullhorn.

Hers was a high state of worry. She was afraid she might fall asleep with a candle burning. Or that someone might bust through the chain on her door. Or that she would lose her job at the nursing home where she worked as a dietary aid. Afraid that she and her daughter and their neighbors would be forgotten by the people outside.

She tried to give her day some structure. Her kitchen was spotless, the apartment had not one crooked picture frame, and flashlights were strategically placed. But nothing helped the cold dark of night.

Rodriguez told her daughter it was time to venture out. Jayleen had already made her bed, military corners and pillows arranged. After a breakfast of cheese omelets, they put on their rain boots and started walking north.

Out of the projects, Rodriguez could see the storm’s damage everywhere. The smell of oil. Wet furniture being dragged out. ­Hoses crisscrossing the sidewalk. Rented generators were revved up, pumping water from basements. On Washington Street, the commercial strip, people were walking dogs and the taco truck had a long line of customers.

Their first stop was Radio Shack. “Do you have any old-fashioned phones?” Rodriguez asked the clerk. She was hoping to try the phone jack in her apartment. The old-fashioned phones were sold out.

Next was CVS, where the store was letting a few people in at a time. Rodriguez had prepared for the storm with candles, batteries and flashlights, but as the days dragged on without power, she wanted to restock. The drugstore was sold out of all three.

The sun was still out as they walked home to Harrison Street, with one dead mobile phone between them.

That afternoon, Rodriguez heard that a resident was using an elevator to charge cellphones. Most of the elevators were not working, but an elevator six buildings away was open for business.

Rodriguez and Jayleen started walking. When they got to the darkened building, the elevator was hopping busy. Eight cellphones were plugged into a power strip that was plugged into two electric outlets behind the elevator’s switch plate. The director of operations was an electrically inclined 23-year-old bootlegger in a plaid hoodie.

Rodriguez handed her phone into the elevator. The doors closed as the elevator continued carrying residents up and down. The elevator bounced hard when it dropped to each floor and whined when it climbed up. The operator stood on a milk crate in the corner so that more residents could squeeze in. Back at the ground floor, the doors opened.

With a charged phone, Rodriguez felt a degree of relief. At least she could text. The afternoon light was fading, and the air was turning colder. Rodriguez went inside to warm the apartment with 30-minute intervals at the stove. Jayleen stayed outside in the treeless, soggy landscape. There wasn’t much to do until she saw her friend Ruben. “Don’t try the Army food. It sucks,” he told Jayleen.

She was a girl on the quiet side, a bookworm, tall and skinny with braces. She smiled at Ruben. “It’s crazy, right?” She went inside before the night descended.

Inside the apartment, mother and daughter bundled on the couch, wrapped in blankets. Two candles flickered.

“You finish ‘Little House on the Prairie’?” Rodriguez asked. “We are living ‘Little House on the Prairie’. But they had horses.”

Jayleen disagreed from her corner of the couch. “Mom, the thing is, I read the whole book. They had to travel 800 miles. Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura and baby Carrie.”

The candle flickered, throwing shadows on the wall, two silhouettes at the bottom of the world. It was quiet for a moment. “Honestly, I wish I could be a bird right now,” Rodriguez said. “What can you do, Mami? You have to be patient.”

Jayleen’s head was dropping. Rodriguez blew out the candles. They used a flashlight to guide themselves to bed. Rodriguez slept in her daughter’s bedroom, in a cocoon of imagined heat.

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