One of the worst storms in American history cut a swathe through the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook. Freelance journalist Alice Brennan joined locals for the clean-up.
Furniture design company Uhuru employees clean up after Sandy (Pic: Alexander Hotz)
“Give it ur best Sandy,” scrawled the graffiti on a piece of low-hanging scaffolding in Brooklyn’s seaside neighbourhood, Red Hook.
And she did. Red Hook, normally a cute eclectic DIY neighbourhood, suffered her brunt. Authorities say it’s one of the worst hit places in New York.
After a night of battering winds, torrents of water and fireworks caused by exploding transformers, residents emerged early on Tuesday morning to find their quaint cobble-stoned community in shambles. Uprooted trees blocked roads, cars buffeted by tidal surges sat precariously side by side in the middle of intersections, whole walls lay collapsed onto the sidewalk.
Passersby hoping to catch a glimpse of the devastation slipped on the thick oil slick that was left as the dirty water receded. While bars pumped thick brown liquid from their flooded basements with generators, bodegas opened their doors for those who’d like to help mop up for a free beer.
“Free ice anyone?” shouts one owner as he piled bags onto the sidewalk. Just a block away a young scraggly guy emptied his sodden kick-drum onto the pavement. “F-cked if I can ever play this again,” he mumbles under his breath.
Meanwhile a group of National Grid workers drilled into underground cables, struggling to give power back to even a block or two in the area. “We’ve been out all night,” shouts one of the workers over the generator. This was his 36th transformer since yesterday afternoon. “And I reckon we’ve got a good 300 to go.”
The worker vowed not to go home until at least half of Red Hook had power restored. “You better send a letter to your wife,” jabs another one of the workers. They all laughed and carried on with their work.
Now Sandy’s adrenalin had subsided a little, Red Hook was in disbelief, overwhelmed by the clean-up that lay ahead. No one was prepared for this much damage.
As Teddie Ramirez plucked a tray full of soggy books from the goop in his garage on Tuesday morning he sighs, defeated: “This is gonna take weeks, months to clean up.”
Teddie and his father Robert own a plumbing business in Red Hook, about two blocks from the ocean. Teddie didn’t evacuate last night, in fact he thought the sandbags he’d carefully lined up outside his door would keep him out of Sandy’s way. He was wrong. At about midnight Teddie noticed water seeping in and, before he could do anything to hold it at bay, his workshop was submerged three feet under.
“You see this line here,” he says, tracing his finger along the side of his pick-up, above the wheels. “This is where the water came up to.” He then walks over to a shelving unit inside and water sloshes out as he pulls open one of the drawers. ”Can you believe it? All my accounts …”
The next door neighbour sidles up, exhausted, asking: “Have you got the generator working yet Teddie?” He pulls hard on a chord to start it but the generator spatters and stops. “Sorry, not yet.”
The woman had given birth to twins two weeks ago. They weren’t in an evacuation zone, so they decided to stay put. At about 11pm their house started filling with water, and they lost power completely. By then, it was too late to get anywhere.
“She was pretty scared, as you can imagine,” Teddie explains. “She and her husband and two newborns were trapped, completely trapped.”
As the death toll mounts and authorities audit Sandy’s widespread damage across the east coast of the country, the tale of Red Hook may well pale in comparison. But it’s a personal reminder of the fragility of New York’s infrastructure and how lucky we really are.
As Teddie’s mother scraped bits of wet paper off the office wall inside, she remarked: “I thought you said there was just three feet, Teddie? This here is at my torso, at least.”
He estimates the damage to his business at $20,000. ”I’m feeling lousy about it all, I feel cheated that we weren’t properly prepared,” he says.