Lab | Log

After the Storm: Thoughts from Lab Curator Maria Nicanor

Maria Nicanor on the effects of the storm

Many trees were completely uprooted after hours of strong winds.

Ed. note: Maria Nicanor, one of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s two curators, is based in the New York City area. Like so many other residents here, her experience of the recent storm was immediate and personal. Maria shared her thoughts on the storm from a computer at a local public library.

Although I live in Manhattan, I was in the suburbs when the storm hit, in Westchester County, right by the Long Island Sound. It’s a beautiful community with the advantage—and disadvantage—of being right on the water. So my experience of the storm has been very suburban and disconnected from what’s been happening in the streets of New York. Even so, the challenges have been very similar. We lost power at about 6 pm on Monday, and it’s been gone ever since. Of course, there have been no trains to the city. This is a commuter community, so a large part of the Manhattan workforce is now sitting here at the local public library, conducting work as usual from the children’s reading area. A neighbor told me that driving into the city the other day took four hours (rather than the usual forty-five-minute drive) and access to the city through the bridges was, for a while, only allowed through car-pooling with three or more people in the car.

In the silence of a world without power, a few thoughts:

Forget the iPhone 5. Radio. For all our connectivity and smartphone habits, it’s been an old, small battery-powered radio that’s kept me connected to the rest of the world. This week, phones were down, TV was down, and Internet service was non-existent. So the radio has been key.

I also had no access to any images for several days. Nothing. I’ve craved images of what was happening to better understand it. With no images other than what I could see myself on the streets and those images conjured by neighbors’ stories, it was hard to judge whether authorities were reacting quickly or slowly. When I first saw the images of the effects of Sandy for the first time at the public library a couple days ago, I gained a new understanding of the work being done by people who are actually moving trees and boats from train lines. Hats must go off to them while the rest of us sit at the library.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Town services clear a fallen tree from a neighborhood street.

We underestimate talking to our neighbors. I had not seen some of the surrounding neighbors since the last big snow storm here, where they came out to help clean the driveway of the house where I was staying. As one of them optimistically looked at their crushed car under an enormous tree, we joked about how only natural disasters get us talking and helping each other. Sad, but true.

Neighborly generosity provided a much-valued feed to power when our neighbors here graciously shared a cable from their generator, where I’ve been able to charge my phone every now and then. There are remarkably few generators in the area. And they are loud things. They have been stark reminders of how much “juice” is needed to get our often over-the-top living habits going. The silence of regular electricity, so omnipresent in everything we do in cities and suburbs, stops being an excuse when a noisy generator is under your window 24/7 reminding you that yes, you keep using a lot of power, even when you’re sleeping.

Here in the suburbs, I spoke to some immigrant workers (the same ones who ordinarily run successful gardening businesses here) who have taken on much of the load to clean up streets and gardens after the storm. I saw one man standing in one of the main streets here with a sign announcing his willingness to find work by helping with the clean-up effort. It’s people like them who seemed to be the ones helping to restore comfortable life to affluent communities like this one mere hours after the storm had passed.

Everyone should know how to be minimally self-sustaining in times of need, yet it is evident that not everyone is. Here, people know that someone else will take care of it.

High taxes in the area also account for fast street-cleaning services and garbage pick-ups restored in a surprisingly short amount of time. Some comments overheard in the street reaffirm the hunger for speediness: “Whoever restores my power faster has my next vote!”

Urban comfort becomes a very personal question. While some can rough it for longer, I’ve been surprised to encounter uncanny reactions in the face of very minor discomfort, which at times has been displeasing to see.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Belongings from a flooded basement. Such items rest on the sidewalks of several streets.

Construction materials and the need for sturdy foundations in suburban housing is definitely another topic on my mind. Houses on the water here are largely built out of wood, on a marshy land area made out of mud, with little or nothing in the way of foundations. These are multi-million dollar homes made out of very cheap materials. Some of them have a small cement foundation, which hasn’t prevented water from seeping in. Basements here have been decimated despite everyone owning a water pump (people here know storms are coming, and expect to get flooded).

A better look at building regulations for areas we know will suffer water damage might be needed for new construction from now on. Despite the incredible water views, some houses should just not be built in certain places. Buyers and residents (and real estate developers) are aware of this, however, and willingly spend the money for the benefit of enjoying their docks and harbor views the rest of the storm-free days of the year.

Infrastructure is on everyone’s mind as well. I’ve been discussing with friends here the question of a water wall for New York City. We were trying to come up with other cities around the world that have them. When is the time to start thinking of drastic, large investments in preventive infrastructure? Just yesterday, Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg seemed to disagree on the need for them. Cuomo advocated for the construction of huge sea walls given the large amount of infrastructure that lies below sea level, while Bloomberg didn’t think such plans were realistic. Can we even think of that with the economy the way it is? Several of the problems the storm has caused could not have been prevented. But some others perhaps could have. We need to become better at preventive infrastructure and crunch the numbers to analyze its real need. The storm has caused $50 billion of economic loss so far. How much would it cost to equip the New York area with the appropriate infrastructure? The good news: climate change and urban infrastructure to address it has become part of the political discourse just a few days before a major American presidential election.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Whole trees have fallen on houses and await removal.

New York city has density—and density brings people together. Out here, even with increased interaction with neighbors, it can get too quiet after a while, and jokes about cabin fever start to become less funny. Psychological comfort is a whole different thing to the practical comforts of suburban and urban life. With entire trees down on the street and dangerous power lines lying around by flooded areas, there are few people on the street for conversation or entertainment or just general sharing of the out-of-the ordinary experience.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Fallen trees and power poles have blocked access to many of the town’s streets.

This week I felt guilt for not being in the city with my friends and helping them; I felt anxiety for seeing my laptop screen off for what must be a record amount of time; I felt a sense of calm knowing that all the people I know are OK; I felt respect for nature when it is out of our control; I felt cold, and I am dying for a shower.

It’s been heartwarming to see reactions of trust. I’ve connected several friends to other friends who didn’t know each other for access to a hot shower and Wi-Fi uptown and there was no questioning and no second thinking. Doors were open.

We are going to have to get used to a culture of more sustained sharing. It is obvious that we can do it. It’s also well known that human beings are the only animals that trip twice on the same stone. I hope we won’t forget this when things get better.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Due to broken power cables and poles, entire areas have been out of power for a week now.

Maria Nicanor on the effects of Sandy

Noon tides had already started flooding nearby streets on Monday. The bigger flood came with the midnight tide.

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Photos: Maria Nicanor