In New York two weeks after Sandy, life still far from normal

November 11, 2012

South Street, in Lower Manhattan, was among the first blocks in history to be electrified. Steps from where Thomas Edison opened his first power plant, Con Edison recharged the neighborhood’s grid 10 days ago, but thousands nearby can’t live in their homes or reopen their businesses.

There were a total of five days with no power after Hurricane Sandy, and while conditions have improved, daily life has hardly resumed and won’t for months. And no one wants to think about the insurance hassles after that.

On Oct. 29, Sandy’s storm surge flooded basements, mixing East River water with sewage and shorting out the circuit boxes of many buildings. Electrical power returned to most of Manhattan by Nov. 4, but towers of condominiums in Lower Manhattan are still mostly dark.

In a usually bustling retail plaza, windows of shuttered shops were grimy, with mannequins in winter coats tipped over and stacked like corpses. The Seaport neighborhood was eerie and lifeless, with sputters of generators and whiffs of mildew pervading empty streets.

Marco Pasanella, 50, was one of thousands of New Yorkers taking control of his own situation, struggling to reopen his South Street wine store by next weekend. His damage was colossal but fixable, compared with his neighbors’. “We don’t have a basement,” he said. “That was our saving grace.”

When the East River rose above its banks, Pasanella & Son Vintners was one of the first properties inundated. The owner saw water shoot under his front door about 6:15 p.m. Tarps, sandbags, sump pumps were of no use. One hour later, he retreated to his building’s upper levels with his wife and young son.

Upstairs, also, were 10,000 bottles of wine, hauled in a human chain of friends and neighbors just before the storm hit. That amounted to half his pre-holiday stock, sales that represent 60 percent of his annual revenue. The other half remained downstairs, toppled by the water that engulfed his store.

Only three wine bottles actually broke, but the rest were too gunky to sell at full price. He recalled seeing a highly collectible vintage, a Romano Dal Forno red, worth several hundred dollars, “bobbing up and down in the puddle.”

After pumping and demolition, neighbors returned for a bottle-wiping party. Then through Facebook, Pasanella announced a flood sale. New Yorkers proved tough customers, of course. “Do you think you have any Barolo?” one asked. “Where’s your Bordeaux? I came all the way down here!” said another. Pasanella greeted all this with shrugs.

On Saturday, with workers sanding rebuilt shelves, Pasanella pointed to the water line on a wrinkled, stained window curtain. The brown squiggle was far above his head.

Around the corner, Jason Connolly, 38, knew a guy who knew a guy who could get him a work crew. As his pub, called Fresh Salt, was being blasted with dryers and gutted to the ceiling, Connolly walked outside and extended his tattooed arm toward a parking sign that he couldn’t quite touch. “That P is where the water was,” he said. Connolly is 6-foot-7.

Throughout Manhattan, litter pervades. Grime in gutters and sidewalks remains unswept, with city workers focused on triage. Cleanup crews have sent manpower — and 1,000 dump trucks — to seaside communities that still need heavy, rain-soaked possessions and building materials hauled away.

One week after the scratched marathon, the Veterans Day parade proceeded as planned. Subways have come back to clackety life, with some service interruptions and intermittent hassles. But New Yorkers, who were buffeted by a snowy nor’easter nine days after Sandy, voiced gratitude for the basics: heat, wireless connections, a return from displacement. A citizenry unafraid to complain had little to say about Manhattan’s remaining mess.

This weekend, nearly every sidewalk below 30th Street was home to stacks of recyclables. Sanitation crews had decided that trash must be picked up first, lest perishables rot in already filthy streets. Paper and metal recyclables were on hold.

Two sanitation workers said the facility where they would wind up was still flooded. And then on Sunday morning, the recycling trucks started hauling Manhattan’s cardboard boxes, empty cans and water bottles.

And yet, while the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made the entire city devoted to its police squad and firefighters, the storm has made stars of garbagemen. “Double shifts! Twelve-hour days!” exclaimed one city sanitation worker, who asked not to be identified, for fear his supervisor would object. “I been everywhere: Howard Beach, Manhattan, Coney Island.” The worst, he said was Far Rockaway, by far. “Broke my heart.”

He, like many, saw signs of subtle improvement, even out in that Queens beach community that was seemingly at a standstill for two weeks. “Finally, they’re moving.”

The boulevards to the Rockaways look dustier than Manhattan’s layer of grit. Here, there’s a milky powder on piles of plywood by front stoops and on abandoned cars askew on traffic islands. On every chain-link fence, there is litter and sea grass woven in at eye level. At every corner, under unlit traffic lamps, a police officer stands sentry. On the barrier island where public housing towers and beach cottages have no power, squadrons of Humvees are parked beside downed trees and large temporary streetlights that help to keep the peace at night.

In the parking lot of a laundromat, food trucks distributed free pizza and bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches to long lines of hungry residents, as they have done since just after the storm. A 22-year-old named Chris, who asked that his last name not be published as he described the mayhem, sat on a white bucket of bleach, detergent and soap pads. After the flood, “there were more fights, people were shooting,” he said. “Two days ago, because electricity came back, things calmed down. People started behaving themselves.”

National Guardsmen from Pittsburgh and Buffalo idled by their vehicles, showing their presence. Some of their colleagues were on brigade duty and would return with completed checklists. In their surveys, they were asking residents, especially those who live on upper floors with no power, whether they had food, medicine and supplies for their pets.

Brandon D’Leo, 42, has found plenty of ways to serve his neighbors through hastier methods. Compiling elaborate chore charts by hand, he dispatched a community of New Yorkers to spend a weekend mopping, shoveling, and doing light demolition. In this weekend alone, his 1,400 volunteers, bused in from churches and museums, served 700 houses. One condition: They had to leave before dark, for everyone’s safety.

D’Leo runs a surfboard-and-wet-suit storage facility, and his fellow surfers have not returned to the water. “There are benches and boardwalk planks out there,” he said, noting many underwater hazards. He pointed toward the ocean, with bandages all over his fingers, and expressed optimism for a return to happier, healthier days, even if they don’t arrive till after Thanksgiving, as authorities have warned.

“I think the ocean cleans itself,” he said, with a smile.

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