Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the size of the storm surge. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the surge at the Battery, the southern tip of Manhattan, was 9.2 feet, not 14 feet. This version has been corrected.
Ordinarily, veteran New Yorkers don’t like to be caught looking up. But when a power center loses its power, it’s no ordinary tourist sight. Residents stared open-mouthed Tuesday at the darkened, sodden outline of the Manhattan financial district left by Hurricane Sandy. A triangular shard of glass hung, shivering, from a blown-out office window, revealing an empty brown desk. The steps of the mighty JPMorgan Chase building looked like a muddy shore. Strings of stoplights swung in the wind, dead as fish eyes.
In the thick-stoned Wall Street area, buildings that a day ago seemed impregnable now looked pathetically defenseless, their vestibules and mezzanines turned into deep swimming holes. Here and there, small piles of sandbags leaned on doorways, pitiful sops against a storm surge of 9.2 feet. Up and down the avenues, the eerie quiet was broken by the hum of engineers working generators and pumps belching water from the lobbies through hoses and sending it into the gutter, where it ran dirty and rainbowed with oil. “In some buildings the water is waist-deep in the lobbies,” said Bob Levey, chief engineer at 48 Wall St.
At the very tip of Manhattan, pedestrians gazed aghast at the sloping entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which descended beneath an underpass sign that read “Clearance 12’-7”.” The tunnel was filled to the brim with standing water left by the surge, a sullen brown pond that lapped at the sign. Something shimmered just under the surface. It was a truck, the yellow cab barely visible.
Chris Wildt, a 35-year-old bartender, walked his boxer, Ferguson, along Water Street, past newspaper kiosks tumbled on their sides, an overturned shopping cart, and the decapitated head of a streetlight, showing its wires. He had descended 21 flights of stairs from his blacked-out apartment on John Street to give the dog some air. The previous night he had listened to his windows vibrate while he followed the hurricane on television. Just as a newscaster described a transformer explosion, his building lost power.
“I could hear the pops on TV, and then it went dead,” he said. About midnight, Wildt decided to explore. He walked down the stairs into his lobby — and waded into two feet of standing water.
The power outages created a weird boundary between the lit, still-switched-on Manhattan and switched-off Manhattan. At 42nd Street, Times Square was ablaze with digital displays and news crawls. But near the island’s southern tip, the palladian windows of City Hall were dark as dusk though it was midday, not even the most important municipal offices spared by the flood-
induced outages that left 750,000 people and much of the lower part of the borough without light or other basic services. No street lamps, no news, no transportation, no hot food, no running water, no open businesses, no hotels with concierges.
With the subway tunnels filled by subterranean pools, Lower Manhattan residents stood helplessly on curbs in rows, their arms outstretched like salutes, trying to hail phantom taxis. They walked up the avenues pulling roller bags, stamping through puddles in plastic boots, headed toward hotels that were fully booked.
In the Intercontinental Hotel at Times Square, furious sodden refugees from downtown packed the lobby, told their reservations were no good; because of a “system glitch” the hotel was overbooked by more than a hundred rooms. Desk clerks gave customers the number of a help line, which proved to be no help. Craig Slutzkin, a 38-year-old in finance whose building in Chelsea was blacked out, said helplessly, “I’ll charge my batteries here and try to find a sports club to take a shower.”
In the lobby of a downtown luxury loft building without power, one woman with luggage and nowhere to go said, “I’ll just wait in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental for something to open up.”
Not all downtowners wished to abandon their washed-out neighborhoods, however. On Maiden Lane, just a couple of blocks off the swollen East River, the commercial buoyancy on which New Yorkers pride themselves showed itself in three store clerks who rode out the hurricane in a tiny bodega and deli called the Lane Cafe. They had spent the night inside, hoping to protect their stock from the floodwater. They lucked out; the water never reached their front step. Early Tuesday, though every other store in the lower district was gated and shuttered, they opened their doors and began boiling water for tea and instant coffee on a gas stove in the darkened kitchen, and passing it out to residents.
Word got around the neighborhood. “Where did you get that coffee?” pedestrians asked urgently. One by one, stunned locals found their way to the Lane Cafe. Among them was Wildt, the bartender, who emerged from his apartment about 8 a.m. to find the tidewater receded and his doorman mopping the lobby. Another was Levey, the engineer, who came in to order half a dozen coffees for his colleagues.
Clerk Jose Uruchima loaded a small table with Cheerios and potato chips and set it outside on the sidewalk, by way of advertisement. The store remained open for the rest of the day, though the cash register didn’t work; they just rounded off the figures. A damp young man in a leather jacket and black jeans ducked his head in the door.
“Is it cash only?” he asked, forlornly.
Uruchima just nodded: Cash only.