BY KATE WALTER | “This is like that reality show called ‘Pioneer House,’ ” said my neighbor as we trekked up and down the dark stairwells of Westbeth with our flashlights blazing.
“More like a show called ‘Refugee Camp,’” I snapped, tired from carrying water up eight flights to my apartment for several days.
I thought I was prepared for Sandy. I had water, candles, flashlights, batteries, food, a charged-up cell phone. But I did not expect to live without electricity for four days, without running water for seven days and with no heat and hot water for 11 days. Life came down to the very basics for those who stayed in Pioneer House on the Hudson: water to flush, water to drink, food, and a charged-up phone.
When Westbeth first opened in the 1970s as affordable housing for artists, the far West Village was a seedy neighborhood along the abandoned waterfront. The early tenants were trailblazers in the first residential building west of Washington St.; they had no supermarket.
I moved here 15 years ago; now we were pioneers again.
The lights in my loft dimmed on Monday night and went off gradually. Security workers below me on Bethune St. started to scream, and a police car made an announcement: “If you are on a low floor, get to higher ground.” I looked below and saw the river rushing up Bethune St. Now I felt scared.
But I was also curious. I blew out my candles, grabbed a flashlight and ran downstairs to the Westbeth lobby and joined my neighbors who were on the steps gawking and taking photos as 4 or 5 feet of water rushed up the block to Washington St. The lobby was a beehive of activity with our workers wearing rubber boots and holding glow sticks. By midnight, the water had receded and the block was quiet except for the howling winds.
The first day post-storm, I flushed my toilet for the last time. By the end of the day, I realized this blackout would continue for a while and I started to freak out. I felt grungy and craved a shower or a bath. I would not starve or go thirsty but I feared I’d subsist on granola bars and peanut butter sandwiches.
I already missed my daily routines: my relaxing hot bath at night and browsing the Internet for hours every day. I mostly missed having music, but I needed to conserve my music player’s charge to listen to its radio for storm news. I rarely watch TV, but now I was dying to turn on the set and see visuals of the storm. I could not get a newspaper, but I got alarming texts from my brother who lives at the Jersey Shore. I texted family and friends to save power. I sent and received more text messages during the first days of Sandy than all of last year. My mission for the next day was to charge my phone.
I had filled my bathtub before the storm, as directed by management, but now that water was dropping low. Soon I’d have to start schlepping water. As tubs ran dry, the Westbeth staff opened a hydrant on the block and attached a hose. And so we trekked up the stairs, bucket in one hand, flashlight in the other.
The worst part was no working elevators, no running water, and carrying everything upstairs. The best part was the camaraderie among my neighbors and the helpfulness of the Westbeth staff. They picked up garbage left in the hallways (the incinerator was closed). They carried buckets of water to shut-in seniors and the disabled. People I’d known on sight — but never spoken to in 15 years — smiled and introduced themselves.
I carried hot food to a homebound elderly couple on the ninth floor. I fed a neighbor’s cat for three days after she’d taken off to shower and did not return when expected.
On Thursday, after walking above 25th St. to the city of light for some hot food, I came home, lit the candles, realizing my life came down to finding two meals a day and having a bucket of water in my apartment to flush my toilet. Westbeth had set up a generator-operated charging station in the community room, so one problem was solved. Soon port-o-johns arrived in the Westbeth courtyard. I was grossed out the one time I tried
to use one and resolved to carry water up eight flights.
Our management started holding (packed) meetings in the community room every day to update us. The damages to Westbeth were extensive. Eight feet of water had gotten into the basement. Musicians and artists with studios in the basement lost their instruments and their paintings and sculptures. Some artists lost their life’s work.
The laundry room was destroyed. So was the boiler. Tenants worried about the horrible smell in the hallways and stairwells — a mix of substances pumped from the basement: river water, paints, solvents, detergent. Our resident council organized floor captains and disseminated info via memos.
I started to get depressed and one night I drank too much wine. I felt a bit tipsy when I blew out the candles and went to bed. An hour later, when I got up to use the bathroom, I felt dizzy and then my ankle gave out. (I’d twisted it walking up and down the stairs.) I lost my balance and crashed into my plant table made of bamboo and glass. I broke an antique vase and damaged the table but luckily I did not cut myself on the glass.
On Friday, Nov. 2, I went to the N.Y.U. library and finally got to answer my e-mail and fill in everyone asking about me. Felt great to be on the Internet again. That night we had our regularly scheduled First Fridays concert in the community room, except now it was acoustic instead of electric. The three musicians (guitar, sax, percussion) renamed themselves the Frankenstorm Blues Band and their playing cheered our spirits. Residents barbequed chicken and shrimp and veggie burgers in the courtyard, while we sat in the community room and sang by candlelight, “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”
Release from darkness came the next morning for many Westbeth residents. When I got up on Saturday, I had electricity! I danced with joy, but I later discovered that the “A” section of our block-long building did not have power. The part of Westbeth with the highly desirable river-view apartments was hit the hardest. I no longer envied them.
Instead of attending my regular Saturday yoga class, I went to Home Depot and bought a space heater. They were literally flying off the shelves. Not only had I missed my yoga classes all week, but now I worried about my health. I feared I’d get sick from not eating right and not washing my hands properly. My hands were chapped from splashing cold water on them as I filled my buckets from the hose. My feet and back and shoulders ached from making many trips upstairs with water. (At least I was developing my upper body strength.) I popped zinc lozenges and drank fresh orange juice, but I still got a cold. My immune system was shot.
By the week’s end I had offers to stay at friends’ homes in Woodstock and Ocean Grove and Park Slope. I was grateful but I had to return to work on Monday, so it made no sense to leave. I wanted to stick around to help. I never considered evacuating earlier. My mother, two siblings and nieces were in New Jersey with no electricity and no heat.
By now all of Westbeth had gone almost a week with no heat and no running water. With donations of food and water coming into our lobby, it definitely felt like a refugee camp. Word of our predicament was getting out via cell phones and Facebook and Twitter. I was living in disaster area in a historic landmarked artists complex with many older residents, some stuck in their apartments all week. Our social worker checked on them. A woman who has trouble walking fell in the stairwell and wound up in Beth Israel with a fracture; she was joined by another resident who may have had a stroke.
Councilmember Christine Quinn’s office sent blankets and had a rep at our meetings. State Senator-elect Brad Hoylman handed out gallon jugs. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick carried water up the stairs. I saw state Senator Tom Duane near the front desk; his rep was in the lobby for days. Yetta Kurland’s office sent pizza.
Volunteers from Brooklyn carried water up the steps. By week’s end, I was exhausted and let one help me; I could no longer keep up my facade of brave pioneer woman.
Sunday morning I walked to Middle Collegiate Church on Second Ave. I needed spiritual uplift after this intense week. When I entered the sanctuary, it was empty. I had forgotten to turn my clock back and was an hour early. That was not like me. When the choir finally broke into “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm,” I knew I was in the right place. As I poured out my story, people hugged me and offered assistance.
Sunday night, I spoke to my sister, who gave me a shocking report from our crazy niece Kelly and her boyfriend. They had defied evacuation orders and stayed on Barnegat Island, at the Jersey Shore, where my mother and sister own small summer houses. My niece had texted me two photos — but hearing the descriptions made it real. With little media access, the story was underreported. She and her boyfriend paddled their kayaks along Route 35 and rescued people. By Sunday they had left, forced off by the National Guard.
The island no longer existed as we knew it. It was chopped into three smaller islands. The boardwalk in Lavallette where I’d been bike riding only three weeks before was totally washed away. The nearby store where I bought beer was looted. The business section where I worked for many summers as a college student was underwater.
My mother’s house was flooded and the new furniture and rugs would be tossed. But my sister wondered if Mom would have to tear down the beach house where we grew up. I gasped at that idea. My sister’s place was standing, but that’s all she knew. The island was devastated and now under martial law.
I had been holding up well all week, considering I was living in a refugee camp in the far West Village. But hearing my beloved vacation area was destroyed was too much. I hung up the phone and sobbed hysterically.
I could not believe I was going back to work the next day. For more than a week I’d been living with no heat or running water. I had been traumatized and it was not over yet. I finally had electricity, but I still did not have water in my apartment and I was going back to my life as a college teacher. I’d been living in my hipster pioneer garb: dirty sneakers, old jeans, work shirt, down vest, denim jacket, striped wool cap. Now I had to dress professionally. I needed to do laundry; instead I bought socks and underwear. I’m grateful to the The New York Sports Club for letting nonmembers shower in luxury.
I looked forward to returning to my life as a faculty member at Borough of Manhattan Community College, to my warm office and hot shower in the gym. As I entered the building I saw a ‘Welcome Back’ sign indicating B.M.C.C. had no heat and no hot water. My river-view office was colder than my apartment; the cafeteria only had bagels and coffee. I checked in with those students present and discovered my situation was worse than theirs. But I was still better off than many New Yorkers; at least I had a roof over my head.
Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 6, when I got back from work, Westbeth had cold running water. That was an enormous relief. Then a neighbor knocked on my door, gave me a new electric blanket, courtesy of our elected officials; it arrived right on time as it got cold that night.
My life started to center around the daily 3 o’clock meeting in the community room, where Westbeth’s executive director, Steve Neil, gave updates. Residents who are chefs made a huge pot of delicious vegetable soup. On Fri., Nov. 9, reps from Duane’s and Quinn’s offices arrived with laptops to sign people up for FEMA assistance. Being in this mess along with hundreds of neighbors, our hard-working management and staff, an active resident council, and concerned officials made it easier.
On Sat., Nov.10, I woke up and my apartment felt warmer; we finally had heat and hot water. People cheered our super at the meeting. Now I needed my land line and Internet connection. The complex’s remaining sections without electricity were due to come back that day. At the last daily meeting, Nov. 11, the big concern was mold in the basement. The next morning, I found a flier in my door from the E.P.A. about mold; the lobby and courtyard were filled with workers in hazmat suits.
I had to adjust to my new reality and desperately needed that shrink session I had to cancel. It was still hard to process that my life at home will not return to normal for some time. Having no elevators created logistical nightmares. How will I do laundry or get groceries to my apartment? Would delivery people walk up eight flights? Hopefully one or two elevators (we have six) would be running in a week. Meanwhile, I was carrying my garbage downstairs to a dumpster, eating out a lot, and bundling errands.
I flashed back to the courtyard pre-storm — I was dancing my ass off at the music festival in September. I loved the tables and chairs management added last fall making the area into a outdoor cafe, where I’d drink coffee and read the paper and greet my neighbors. Now our courtyard was a staging area for the recovery of Westbeth. Same with our gallery, where I’d just attended an opening. The upcoming winter holiday show was cancelled so the gallery could be used to examine art salvaged from the basement. Manhattan Mini Storage had offered free temporary space.
It was a difficult two weeks, but I learned who is helpful and who is self-centered. I already knew I was no princess, that I was self-reliant and resilient, but I learned it was O.K. to accept help. I am proud that I stayed in my home with my fellow artists. I forged new relationships in the building. As I walked through the courtyard the morning we got heat and hot water, I saw our assistant superintendent, Victor, and I said, “It’s getting better every day.”