Reflections from a Stormy Eye



I’ve lived in New York City my entire adult life. And I’ve endured the endless, unfunny and  tedious jokes about my birth state. What people see of New Jersey when they are driving through New Jersey to get somewhere else is an industrial wasteland: the dirty, polluted landscape of pharmaceutical plants, stretches of once-beautiful meadows laid waste by manufacturing facilities, landfills and garbage dumps.

But its shore towns, with their extensive amusement piers, had been centers of seaside fun long before I was a zygote. Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant, Wildwood all have – or had – beautiful amusement piers with rides, games and arcades dating back decades. No matter what the Jersey Shore gang may have done to the reputation of Seaside Heights, there were still innocent pleasures to be had throwing skeeball, riding the Arctic Circle or eating a waffle ice cream sandwich.

The amusement pier at Wildwood, New Jersey

Before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, I spent three days nesting in my apartment – watching movies for a planned post for the My Year of Horror series which would feature Ghost Stories for Hallowmas (the first of November.)

Sunday before the storm, I worked, ran errands, went to the gym, shopped for last-minute provisions in case power went out and, more importantly, because I knew that even if midtown Manhattan remained safe from harm (as it mostly has) the supermarkets would be emptied of eggs, milk, bread, batteries… I posted on Facebook, mostly to get a laugh, “Is it wrong to say I’m not worried?” My experience with storm reports for New York City has always been that they are a bit on the “cry wolf” side. Neighbors buy every battery, bottle of water and roll of toilet paper from the local CVS and then it rains a little and they’re stuck with every one of those batteries, bottles of water and rolls of toilet paper.

I wasn’t worried. And, I didn’t mean it to sound smug or cavalier. I did not expect that the Times Square area would suffer much damage – unless a crane fell through someone’s roof, which seemed entirely possible when, just as the storm began, reports about a dangling crane on 57th Street began appearing on feeds and on the news. (The crane has since been secured but nothing could be done during the high winds of the storm.)

We were lucky in Hell’s Kitchen.

I, like many others, have spent much time now perusing photos of Sandy’s destruction. And I’ve been wondering why, since we have had hurricanes in the New York area before, the damage was so widespread and so severe. As a Category 1 hurricane, Sandy seemed a minor inconvenience. Reports of it being a “Frankenstorm” were related to its sheer size; World News Australia reports “Sandy … covered an area the size of Europe.” But still – that’s just a big wind, isn’t it?

Not really.

A Category 1 hurricane can bring with it a devastating storm surge: “an abnormal rise of water generated by a storm.” The surge will cause flooding, electrical outages, carrying with it anything not moored down, such as mobile homes, vehicles, small buildings… Now imagine what happens when a car crashes into a small, beach bungalow?

Along the coast, storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. In the past, large death tolls have resulted from the rise of the ocean associated with many of the major hurricanes that have made landfall. Hurricane Katrina (2005) is a prime example of the damage and devastation that can be caused by surge. At least 1500 persons lost their lives during Katrina and many of those deaths occurred directly, or indirectly, as a result of storm surge.
– National Weather Service

The storm surge for Hurricane Sandy reached 14 feet.

According to BBC’s science editor David Shukman, “The fastest winds, at 65mph, were less fierce than forecast. But the storm surge was worse than expected, peaking at 14 feet…intensified by the high tide and a full moon.” And, even scarier, “The storm isn’t finished yet.”

The damage to vast stretches of the Jersey Shore from Asbury Park to Cape May involves more than homes, sentimental possessions, cars and things – it involves livelihoods. Mercifully, it is the off-season at the Jersey Shore, and I hope the amusement piers will be rebuilt before summer of 2013. The potential economic damage hasn’t been given a specific figure yet. Livelihoods are depending on it.

Casino Pier at Seaside Heights has been washed into the sea.

Earlier this year I watched the achingly beautiful and sad documentary about the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. I’ve also seen Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, about Katrina. What it comes down to in both of these disasters are the individual stories. The death toll of Hurricane Sandy will not reach the epic proportions of Katrina (death toll: 1,836) or the losses in the Japan’s 2011 catastrophe (death toll: 15,861). Sandy’s death toll rests presently at 157 – but to those who have lost loved ones, comparisons are unkind and pointless. Loss is loss. And yes, it’s important to keep a perspective.

To weigh that perspective, I spent more than a few good hours on the internet looking at Sandy’s destruction. It kept bringing me back to one point: every individual who has lost something – or someone – is part of the greater story of the storm. Then I saw a quote in the comment thread under a story at Buzzfeed. The story details in photographs the destruction of the Jersey Shore. The photographs are shocking. But, more shocking, was this ugly comment:

I am reminded of why I prefer horror movies to reality: escapism. I’d rather watch from afar than be reminded — even through fiber optics — of how horrible people can be to each other. How neuroses and psychoses and selfishness get in the way of real human contact.

I was untouched by Sandy. I sat in my ivory tower overlooking the Hudson, watching from a storm’s eye. My lights flickered exactly three times. I made pancakes and watched horror movies for my second entry in the My Year of Horror series. As I write this, three days after the storm, my (hopefully) entertaining  entry languishes in a state of unscheduled interruption. I work for myself so I don’t have to drive through traffic. I don’t have to take the subway if I don’t want to. The worst I’ve had to do is fret about where to buy milk. Others around Manhattan are inconveniently without power. I’m grateful the horror of this month was not worse for me. I’m grateful that there is perspective to be had.

If I have to walk a few blocks to get a quart of milk — hooray for me. I’m glad I can.

But New Jersey, my birth state, is in tatters.

About Tom Gualtieri

Tom Gualtieri (@TomGGualtieri)is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.
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One Response to Reflections from a Stormy Eye

  1. Nancy Regan says:

    Can I purchase the amusement pier picture from you as a download with good quality?

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