By Ochereome Nnanna
I came to the United States to cover the presidential election, but I have ended up, like most Americans, paying more attention to a more powerful natural interloper; what some now call the Great October Intrusion: Hurricane Sandy.
Its effect was so powerful that the President of the United States, Mr Barack Obama, temporarily dropped his race for re-election and returned to his core duty of leader of a nation under invasion from a force greater than any man.
My original itinerary has also been altered. I had intended to move to Washington DC during the weekend and observe the election from there. I have changed my mind. I am staying put in New York and environs because this is where the news is, primarily. My proposed train ride to Washington is off.
Next time, perhaps. In any case, Amtrak, the main rail service provider on the New York – Washington corridor, has not announced its date for resumption of services due to the extent of disruption caused by Sandy.
When disaster strikes, it is usually fallacious, plastic to get the full import of the event just watching it on television.
It is like watching the casket containing the dead body of a stranger being driven past. You feel it is a log of wood being taken past. But if that dead body belongs to your relation the feeling is different. That is the effect of going out there to see things for yourself if you can.
By 4.00pm on Tuesday, the rains had died down, and so had the storming, substantially. From our cozy “refugee camp”, three of us – Leon Ibeka, Chief Abogo “Ugwokegbe” and I decided to visit Ibeka’s district, Rockaway (which lies about one hundred metres from the Atlantic Ocean) to assess the damage and to rescue whatever we could from his refrigerator.
They were among 8.2 million people and businesses in New York plunged into a total. Leon told me that his 15 year-old first son was seeing a power blackout for the first time!
Honestly, by the time we left there at about 7.30pm, that area looked worse than Surulere under blackout. At least when the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) cuts power in most urban areas in Nigeria the ugliness of the blackout is vitiated by the presence of droning, smoking generators.
There were not many generator owners in this middle class high rise housing project, and I doubt anyone would be allowed to operate one in this district for fear of pollution and fire. The only lights that showed were car headlamps and tail lamps.
On the way, the havoc was evident. Trees brought down, sometimes on vehicles, sometimes on houses, and in a good number of instances, on humans! About 40 lives were lost to Sandy at report time, and 22 of those took place in New York and New Jersey, plus another 69 dead earlier on in the Caribbean.
When we reached Leon’s home, we found that his wife’s car had been totally ruined and the salty flood water, though now totally receded, had completely drowned the poor car. She had neglected to drive it to safety in Jamaica.
Americans were on the run. Those who (like Leon) had heeded the warnings of the authorities, came back to evacuate perishable food items from their fridges. Others who ignored the advisories still had to leave after the storm because the winds were still fierce and the cold bitter, tending to sub-zero.
With no lighting and heating, people stood in danger of freezing to death in their houses, as the authorities had also warning of four chilly nights after Sandy. No one was sure when power supply would be restored in their areas (in fact the prognosis was that it would take a whole week in some districts).
It was a sad irony seeing the citizens of the greatest country on earth turning into internally displaced persons or refugees. Never had the residents of New York City experienced anything quite like this since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers and other sites in the US east coast.
In 2010, Hurricane Irene cost $15 billion in damages. But Sandy’s destructive scale was three times more. About $30 billion was lost to business closure. Insurance companies alone were being expected to foot a third of the provisional estimated bill of $45 billion. The rest will, of course, be born by taxpayers, in that public facilities need fixing. Sandy left many districts quiet and under water.
The bustle of New York business took a holiday. No trains ran, no planes flew (12,000 flights were cancelled and thousands of passengers were stranded in the four airports around New York and New Jersey). Public bus transit services were skeletal. Cars and refuse bins littered the roads like fallen leaves.
More than 100 homes remained under flood in Queens and a whole street went up in flames. New York had never seen anything like this in 108 years! The Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, called the devastation unthinkable”. The Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg said it was “may be the worst that we have ever experienced”.
The next question is obvious. With this massive amount of disruption, what will be the fate of the elections that were coming up in a week’s time when millions of people are expected to be still picking up the pieces, cleaning up, burying their dead and counting their losses? And who, between Obama and Romney, will lose more?