One week ago, life in Manhattan was very different from what it is today. There were no rumbling subterranean subway sounds nor beeping taxi cabs. Once the wind had died down all I could hear were emergency-vehicle sirens and the comforting crackle of a wind-up radio that quickly became one of my most prized possessions.
We had been warned that Hurricane Sandy was no joke but few of the 31 million residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – where the storm made landfall last Monday evening – could have predicted the extent of its reach. Claiming over 50 lives across the three states and causing an estimated $60bn (€47bn) worth of damage to New York city alone, Hurricane Sandy has become known as the worst storm in the region’s history. And today, in many areas, recovery efforts are still far from complete.
Both Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo had done their best to prepare their city and state: mass transport in and around New York city was shut down more than 24 hours before the storm hit; those living in possible flood zones were evacuated to emergency shelters; schools were closed; and everyone was advised to stock up on emergency provisions and stay home. On Monday evening, as the winds picked up to 75mph (113 km/h) and the storm surge started to engulf much of the city, power cut out to 800,000 households and businesses. In Lower Manhattan – where I live and where both the Monocle shop and bureau are located – electricity did not return for another five days.
No electricity meant no television, no mobile-phone service and no traffic lights, making it somewhat eerie to venture outside at night. Instead, local radio became the only source of news and entertainment. Despite being located in the blackout zone, WNYC – New York’s public radio station – operated on generators to broadcast constant storm and relief updates. While my wind-up radio offered much needed respite when living by candlelight and cold showers became dull, those without radios found themselves meeting hitherto unknown neighbours as they clustered around car stereos tuned into the latest updates.
Around day three of the blackout I started to notice small businesses in my neighbourhood do all they could to open up. While the big chain stores and coffee shops remained closed, independent restaurants and corner shops got their candles out and opened their doors. A small tapas bar sought out dry ice in order to serve cold drinks and cooked paella over a gas stove; family-run pharmacies used generators for a few hours a day so that customers could get their prescriptions; and a nearby convenience store enlisted the help of their neighbour’s son who, with nothing to do while school was closed, used a torch to guide locals to the items they needed to find in the pitch-black shop.
We’re keen fans of good independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners at Monocle so it was fortifying to see these businesses so directly and drastically improve their communities’ quality of life. While large corporations can suffer losses for a few days, these small businesses found solutions to weather the storm and in turn served their neighbours. Get to know your local grocer, restaurant owner and barista because you never know when you might need to rely on them in the future. And, if you’re looking for a stocking-filler over the next month, pick up a wind-up radio. It’s sure to come in handy one day.