In Transported, my novel-in-progress, a central character refers back to a pivotal moment in the story as “The Aftermath.” It’s her rock bottom, the moment at which she is galvanized into action. Surviving the week following the bully that was Hurricane Sandy, which smacked our Jersey shore at 6:08 p.m. last Monday, is a different sort of aftermath entirely.
On day nine, a mile from the beach, we are luckier than most, awaiting the restoration of power in the midst of yet another storm, but our home and lives mostly intact. As I write, a borrowed generator throbs in the background; we ration its use. I feel guilty and a little selfish, sipping coffee from my own coffee pot and giddily anticipating a hot shower while not far away, others’ belongings are strewn over several blocks, appliances and Christmas ornaments and Communion dresses blasted from homes by Sandy’s tsunami-like forces of wind and water.
We haven’t sat idle. We’re helping where we can, ripping sheetrock from salt water-soaked walls and wrapping dishes and glasses salvaged from dining room hutches and kitchen cabinets before they are carried to the curb. We will continue to do so. There is still so much to do, and it is only today, with the comfort of a little electricity and warmth in my own home, that I begin to grasp the enormity of doing without, this prospect that so many displaced families will face in the weeks and months to come as they rebuild.
There have been and will continue to be amazing stories: of trees crashing through roofs or narrowly missing them; of boats lifted from marina cradles and deposited a half a mile from shore where they perch tipsily in driveways and on railroad tracks. Of dramatic rescues, and of volunteers cranking out thousands of dinners on hastily rigged generators and strings of borrowed gas grills.
A friend stopped by the other night to inquire about the availability of an unoccupied home in our neighborhood. Like thousands of families here and elsewhere, she and her daughter are homeless, great chunks of her waterfront home having been ripped from their moors sometime between Monday night and Tuesday. Still in a self-described fog, she marveled at the water’s ingenuity: how it managed to fill refrigerator compartments and dresser drawers, even pocketbooks hung from door handles. She will have to saw open a waterlogged night table that Sandy has swollen shut to access the precious papers and letters she always kept close. In a one-story home, she did not have the luxury of moving things to an upper level for safekeeping.
There are signs of life: utility trucks bearing Ohio and Alabama license plates, pockets of power resuming a half a mile away; a “hurricane bride” who relocated Saturday’s reception in the space of three hours when Sandy shuttered the couple’s original site. My office will reopen today in borrowed quarters. In the wake of such unimagined devastation, there are the usual blessings: the relatively few lives lost, neighbors opening hearts and homes to the displaced, the buoyancy of a seaside community determined to rebuild. The real Jersey Shore, not the Snookie version.
And for me, the writer, a grim reality that will help to inform the imagined ice storm in my book the ominous darkness and silence of a region rendered powerless by the elements. That is a small comfort.