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Writing After Hurricane Sandy

posted: 11.19.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Arriving at school after a week of cancelled classes due to Hurricane Sandy, I was greeted by birds. A flock of pigeons and seagulls circled overhead, occasionally swooping down to the parking lot across from my bus stop. An older woman, pulling an empty two-wheeled cart toward the supermarket on the opposite side of the parking lot, stopped to speak with me. “They’re hungry,” she said, glancing up at the birds crying in the gray morning sky, “and I have no food for them.”

Until that moment I had not considered the birds, how they too were suffering from a storm whose disastrous aftermath had left me without language. Yet my loss felt small. What was language compared to lost life, lost shelter, lost livelihood? Compared to food, medicine, and gas shortages, to power and public transit lost to flooding tidal waves and sustained hurricane-force winds? To people with infirmities that prevented them from navigating twenty flights of stairs, trapped on the upper floors of high rises with no electricity—and therefore without elevators? To children whose schools were closed indefinitely because of structural damage? To people whose homes and families had been swept out to sea? 

Those of us who had weathered the storm with only minor inconveniences felt chilled by stories unfolding all around us, yet often invisible in our nearly intact neighborhoods. A nor’easter barely a week later would bring frigid conditions with heavy, wet snow. Still the stories came. I developed an aversion to the word “normal.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, what did “normal” mean? A week before the storm I would have defined “disaster” as a growing stack of papers to grade, and grappling with grading was no less significant. Yet a sense of looming disaster had faded. I had heat, hot water, and a sufficient supply of writing utensils. What more did I need? And what would the students need?

The students needed to talk. Together we renegotiated the class timeline, changing a few key due dates. Then I invited the students to write about Hurricane Sandy using a metaphor or an analogy of their own choosing to ground the essay. One student wrote about how New York City had weathered the storm. With the student’s permission, I include excerpts from that essay below:

NY is strong like iron as weak as a leaf

As everything in life we have to face nature and NY wasn’t the exception. Sandy really wanted to prove that NY is not as strong as iron. On Monday October 29 she visited NY proving that we are weak as a leaf.

NY is weak. We were ready to fight anything except nature. We saw Sandy like a small enemy. We didn’t even bother to get ready for her. We for sure are weak, half of the city without lights, subways under water and also the tunnels. New York now has stopped. A week has passed and we are still struggling with the fact that we are not strong after all. We don’t have gas. I have seen images that I never see here in New York, people without food crying because they don’t have anything. When I said that we are weak as a leaf, it’s because we are strong when we are attached to the tree and when the wind blows we fall. We look healthier on the tree but weak on the floor. New York looks strong but we are so weak.

We often write down our deepest fears in order to sustain our greatest hopes. Or so it seems. At the end of the week, many of the subways were running again and I found my way down to one of the Brooklyn distribution centers for
Occupy Sandy. A mutual aid project of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Sandy has become a major hub of the recovery effort, delivering hot meals, warm clothing, toiletries, diapers, cleaning supplies, and other necessities to people still stranded without heat and power in the worst of the flooded areas. A church basement was piled high with donations from people all over the city, and across the street a neighboring church basement served as the kitchen, which prepared home-cooked meals and coordinated food donations from across the five boroughs, as well as far outside the city. People rinsed, chopped, cooked, cleaned, ran errands. I have never witnessed such an outpouring of love and compassion.

In all my life, until this moment, I have never understood the fragility of our infrastructure and the strength that we will need to move beyond returning to what we call “normal.” Like the birds, we are hungry—and also like the birds we must continue to find the power to fly.

Note: If you wish to donate to hurricane relief, see the links above as well as Occupy Sandy Registry on, New York City donation and volunteer opportunities, Occupy Sandy recovery for New Jersey, and the “Hurricane Sandy post-storm survival guide” for New Jersey.





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