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BY JACQUELINE PODEWILS | On the eve of Hurricane Sandy, the view of the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge was distorted by the Xs of blue tape plastered onto the window. Hours earlier, we were having fun under that same bridge as water splashed over the railing and onto South Street. We smiled, we soaked our clothes, and we ran back to the Seaport. Here comes Hurricane Sandy.
The N.Y.P.D. cars that had been circling our neighborhood all day long blaring the Zone A evacuation advisories had disappeared. The calm before the storm was over. Sandy had arrived. I stood on Front Street — alone, all of a sudden — and looked to my right: Water was beginning to flood. Guards with flashlights retreated to inside a building. I turned to my left and broke into a slightly panicked speed walk as I trudged through water that was rushing from the street corner.
The electronic doors of my neighbor’s building were out of service. The power had already shut down. As I swung open the door, the water flowed into the lobby beside my knees. I made my way up the six flights of stairs in the pitch-black stairwell. We were safe and we were staying in the Seaport, but Sandy was about to hit hard.
Faster than you could tie your shoes, Front Street had filled with water. The surge began to rise and within an hour what seemed like the entire South Street Seaport was submerged under water. Oct. 29, 2012: There goes the neighborhood.
Across the street, the water inside the lobby of the Best Western Seaport Inn glistened through the hotel’s glass front doors. We went out onto the breezy deck and shone the flashlight around in the darkness, communicating with other flashlights around the block. It appeared as though about 20 percent of the locals had stayed behind.
In sandbagging, taping and boarding up the buildings in the days prior, we had all built up a common hope that we might be okay. After all, Irene had cried wolf last year. I was jokingly told to get snorkel gear. And thus we locals all gathered that Sunday night around the bar of Nelson Blue, the corner joint where everyone knows your name. We toasted “Cheers to Sandy,” but our hearts feared it was goodbye to this bonded group that had so naturally formed and would drown right before our very eyes.
It turned into a ghost town overnight; decorative Halloween cobwebs still hung from ceilings and spooked an even more isolated neighborhood. Debris began to float in the murky water. We looked down the stairwell and found the sullied water rising in the concrete corridors. It was not unlike the images we all know from the movie “Titanic.” You would have had to swim underwater to open the door and come up and out on the other side in order to escape the building!
We spent the night listening to the walls’ glass panels rattle. Here I thought it was going to be an exciting storm with loud rain and warm blankets. Instead it was as if someone had dumped eight feet of sewage water into the livelihood of Front Street and just left it there. We got hit after all, and there it was; would it go away? Were we stuck?
By 3 a.m. the water had disappeared due to the low tide. It came back during high tide at around 9 that morning, but by then those who had witnessed the flood were already on the streets taking in the damage first-hand.
The smell was awful. The color of the water sitting in the street was a yellowy-green brown. I had climbed into Nelson’s that Tuesday morning. Ketchup and liquor bottles drifted behind me in the sidewalks. Large benches were tossed to their sides. The water mark could be spotted by a line of residue on the doors and by the chalkboard that once listed the different types of draft beer up on the wall; it now simply read “DRAFTS” at the top. Was I not just sitting at this bar laughing the other night? Now its glory was covered in slime.
Further down Front Street lay soaked clothing and dead mannequins from the Seaport. A street pole was down. Croissants and blue cheese were spotted outside Barbarini, a favorite Italian spot whose owner following the wreckage declared, “All the prosciutto is ruined,” and proceeded to show me how the soaked pasta on the lower shelves was soft and how the untouched pasta on the high shelves was still hard.
It wasn’t just the prosciutto that was ruined. It was the parking garages that were pumping out water from their lower floor. It was the cars that were swimming in the garages. It was furniture, floors and walls; it was the gym, the Gap, the jobs, the pleasant walk home, the oldest part of Manhattan making up the historic Seaport. It was everything in the neighborhood except one thing — the neighbors.
Me and my neighbors cleaned out the sewage water from the restaurants’ kitchens; I was beyond willing to take down the hanging ladles still full of floodwater and stack the dishes layered with a yellow residue onto the trash-filled sidewalk. Having grown up working in a bar, perhaps I understand the we’ve-got-your-back attitude, which goes both ways at a place like Nelson’s. Owners Frank Casano, Pauli Morgan, Diane Honeywell and Michelle Noble faced their worst nightmare on this Halloween Eve. And so out of kindness, John Corr and his dog Marley invite us all up for a glass of candlelight wine and chauffeurs us to an Uptown location where we could charge our phones. The guy at the pizza place, a savior in a powered zone, hands us a box and says, “Here, you probably don’t have any food,” which you don’t. Or cash, because the ATMs are down. Or hot water. But you immediately find out that what you need is here for you when you need it.
This is when we keep together — especially those people called New Yorkers. The title in and of itself is what’s worth protecting. We get through anything because spirits only die if you let them, and no one around here is going to let the spirit of New York die. You can’t take New York out of a New Yorker. There’s not only a sense of family during tragedies, there’s also pride; what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.
Flashbacks and comments about September 11th are not unusual in Lower Manhattan. Everyone has been here before and the mentality was simply to spring back, however frustrating it was. What else was there to do besides shout profanities at the wind, quite literally?
Move Uptown? I don’t think so. Move out of town? Never.
Where were you when Hurricane Sandy hit Downtown Manhattan? I was in Downtown Manhattan. I’ll never forget it. I was in the heart of it, where I belong. I may never see the Freedom Tower in total darkness again, and quite frankly I don’t want to. But I’ll never forget the day Sandy came to visit and the days surrounding her arrival and departure; they may make up both the worst and the best memories of my life. What a surreal moment in time.