Recording the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Posted by National Geographic Channels in Inside NGC on November 15, 2012

Everyone who experienced Super-storm Sandy has their own story to tell. This is mine.

Wednesday October 31, 11.30am, London. The cellphone rings with the voice of veteran Television Producer and author Bob Strange on the other end: “Matt, I’m in a meeting now, but I have a question: can you be on a plane to the USA today, well, this afternoon?”  In that moment, it was impossible to imagine that in less than 24 hours we’d be filming some of both the unluckiest and bravest victims of the worst hurricane ever to hit New York.

For me, the first glimpse of Sandy’s aftermath became evident only minutes after leaving the Airport. It was around 1.30 pm, after I’d picked up the rental car and I’d typed the hotel address into the Satnav, not realizing it was located in one of the power black-out zones.

With headlights beaming across New York’s famously snaking, bumpy roads, I steered the car towards Lower Manhattan. Ahead, bridges and tunnels were closed. Streets were deserted for miles and miles. Traffic Lights were dead. Bars and restaurants closed.  Apartments and blocks reduced to shadowy shapes. From time to time car lights appeared and disappeared, but that was all.  If there were human figures walking the streets, I hardly noticed them – not on Broadway, not on Houston, not anywhere. The world’s busiest nightspot had transformed into a scene from a future apocalypse movie.

Eight hours later (and after we had finally found our candle-lit hotel), our film crew arrived at one of the worse hit disaster zones, The Rockaways. A police blockade was turning away everyone except for a handful of local residents who’d come to retrieve their last belongings. Tomorrow, the authorities would close down this whole area once and for all, since it was simply too dangerous to leave half-fallen homes and electricity pylons hanging precariously in this state. Fire engines and police vehicles were still rushing in and out and many of the streets were flooded under several feet of water.  Hundreds of homes had been destroyed by wind, water and fire – the latter watched on television by millions around the world.

We were filming there with Jeff Piotrowsky, one of America’s most well known ‘storm-chasers’.  For a man who’d spent many years of his life chasing 200 mph whirlwinds, even he was shocked by what he saw at The Rockaways. In his off-road truck we ploughed through muddy rivers that only a few hours earlier were ordinary residential streets.

Because this area is exposed to the Atlantic, the houses here received the full impact of the hurricane as it hit the Eastern Seaboard. Homes here were savaged from both ends.  Their tops had been ripped off like paper by powerful gusts; their foundations dragged from beneath them like a quick-moving carpet by floods. As if that weren’t enough, a single house fire soon engulfed over 100 homes, reducing an entire block of the community to ashes.

We were fresh on the scene and it was a potent sight, standing there in the darkness watching Jeff walk around the ashes using our TV floodlight to cast a white beam across the outlines of burned-out refrigerators, sofas, and the occasional front gate of a charred house. We found a lone photo album lying in the mud, dumped there by floodwater. We couldn’t resist flicking it open to see what its pages would reveal: photo after photo of someone’s favorite pet, a fluffy cat who’d once only hours before been sitting in a cozy home.

After many hours of filming the destruction at The Rockaways, I looked at my wrist watch which was still showing the UK time: it was the early hours of November 2nd where most would have been asleep, warm and dry.  Here, the nightmare had only just begun.  Noisy, makeshift generators had been erected to cast floodlight over the scene of devastation and we watched the sad outlines of residents making their last visits to their homes.  Inevitably, much of the town will be pulled down and rebuilt from scratch.  This was our first glimpse of the storm: the town that was.

Just as we were winding down our interviews with firemen and rescue volunteers, a cheery man nicknamed ‘Louis Q’ insisted our crew warm ourselves with a hot drink, which he promptly brought to us, wading across the 1 foot deep water in huge rubber boots and with an even huger smile.  Only when he agreed to be interviewed on camera it became clear what he was currently having to endure. As he spoke, behind him was his destroyed house.  He and his wife had been stranded there as it filled up with water. We’d caught him on a break from pumping out the floodwater but all he wanted to say on camera was how proud he was of the Rockaway community for standing together.  Like so many local residents we interviewed, he had so much more on he mind than just himself.

Over the following week we met many victims of the storm, from Staten Island to Long Island.  Some had filmed it on their cell-phones, others tweeted through it, and still more had risked their lives to rescue stranded victims from flooded houses.  But for all of them, Sandy had changed their lives forever.  Flying over the New Jersey shoreline by helicopter you could see that story written in the landscape itself.  Sandy was so arbitrary – leaving one area picture perfect, the next reduced to rubble with chessboard precision.  Our pilot told us he’d never seen the coastline look so battered in all his years of flying. Our on-board disaster expert, Tim Marshall, shook his head in disbelief at Nature’s crime scene below us: yachts blown onto roads, cars thrown up onto balconies, even a fairground rollercoaster blown out to sea.

As we flew for miles along an altered shoreline, it was clear Nature had indeed had the last laugh. But we also knew that each person who once lived in those tiny, broken houses below us had a different, unique story to tell.  And they were not always bad ones.

We interviewed one family who’d all had a lucky escape when a tree narrowly missed falling on their house, leaving them alive and well.  At the time, the father was ill and in severe pain with cancer but his brave 21-year-old daughter took the children under her wing and guarded them through the worse moments of the night. Then there was Abby, who gave birth to her second child on the bathroom floor, while the hurricane outside banged and roared at their apartment window.  Her husband and neighbor (who at the time they believed was an obstetrician though in fact she was a teacher) had steered her through a sunny-side up birth on all fours. When the ambulance driver did finally arrive many hours later, he told them how he was so happy to be part of a story of hope, after a night of disasters.

And then there was our own rescue by Charles and Nancy, who we’d driven to Long Island to film an interview. Their son had captured the dramatic scene of a huge oak tree falling dangerously close to their neighbor’s house. On the way there, we’d driven past gas stations with quarter-mile queues and lines of abandoned cars left there overnight since the owners knew the tanks had long since run dry.  An hour earlier we’d in fact run empty ourselves and had only managed to get there thanks to a kindly neighbor who emptied a gallon of lawnmower fuel into our car. So on arriving at Charles’ family, once again with an empty tank, they insisted we take their last drops of generator fuel so that we’d get safely home.  And as if that was not enough, they wouldn’t let us leave without accepting two bottles of champagne.  Why? Because we’d gone there just to hear their story, the story of  ‘where they were during Sandy’.

Many more of these extraordinary stories – thousands and thousands of them – will eventually be revealed.  There will be yet more tales of tragedy, heroism, lucky escapes, hair-raising moments, utter destruction, rescues, climate change or just how this became The Perfect Storm.  But of one thing I’m sure, for those on the ground who experienced first hand the aftermath of Sandy, the ‘week’ we filmed will also be remembered as the ‘week’ a million people came together, during times of adversity.

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By Matt Currington

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