October 2012 will be remembered for superstorm Sandy and it’s massive destruction, especially by those living in The Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, New Jersey and New York. In the United States alone nine states are struggling to restore basic services. East Coast streets submerged under sea water and heaps of matchsticks that once formed someone’s home are piled high, the images are beamed to an eager world (that would be us then).
It’s a heady time for news journalists; the final days of the American election are playing out; Obama and Romney fighting neck and neck to take the White House, tension and suspense are mounting. But then you already know all about that.
Over the coming weeks you will be less likely to hear or see so much of the devastation wrought by Sandy; it will no longer be ‘news’ and other stories will inevitably be the headlines and yet millions of people will find their lives disrupted or forever changed.
So what is it like for them to be caught up in Sandy and what is about to unfold? If you were paying attention to the news in September 2008, you may recall hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on Houston. The eye of the hurricane alone took in the whole city and the six hundred mile wide storm left five million people without power. My family were British expats living in a suburb on the west side of the city. The media reported that it ‘could have been worse’ and for this reason you may not remember hearing about it. Ike claimed over 200 lives but as a news story it was somewhat eclipsed by comparison to the tragic loss of life wrought by Hurricane Katrina only a few years earlier (just down the Gulf Coast from Houston). For Houstonians, the devastation left by Ike barrelling through, was significant for them.
Knowing the hurricane was coming was scary enough, living through it – hunkering down in our closet, hearing the high pressure hose rain lashing the windows, ominous thuds as branches and a tree fell on our house, huddling together in the stifling hot darkness without power, straining to hear commentary on a wind up radio pressed between our ears, was certainly an adrenalin fuelled experience, one to tell the grand-children about.
The aftermath was a whole different story; initially, so thankful to be safe, our focus was on the clear up operation and getting the tree that was lifting our roof tiles removed quickly. Optimism for a swift return to power evaporated by the second week, flooding was widespread. My memoir, ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ refers to the power cables in our neighbourhood, ‘usually neat swags of black cable looked like balls of knitting wool, unfathomable to unravel, and a massive headache for the electricity workers trying to repair the damage’.
Sandy has brought the memories back; no fridge, no cups of tea or fresh food, venturing out in desperation to find some ice into a world where nothing was normal; trees and signboards littered the street. With traffic lights out, the cars took it in turns to move ahead at the intersections – in Britain there would be a more ‘whoever is bravest (or more pushy depending on how you view it) goes first’ approach, for a nation committed to forming a queue it’s disappointing, so I was very impressed by the orderly, stoic attitude I encountered! At night the children were scared of the dark so we slept together in one room – a necessary safety precaution anyway, negotiating your home is not as easy as you might think without illumination – we were covered in bruises.
The heat was at times unbearable, but we got on with it, because we heard on our wind up radio that others were much worse off. And strangely, without any television or computer, we had no images beyond our own imagination. If you had a phone signal and the means to charge it you might have spoken to family far away who would have given you an update from the media coverage. Something I found particularly strange and frustrating; there I was living through a disaster and yet I couldn’t see it beyond my own subdivision of roads.
Our little community became just that; we got to know each other, cleared up together, commiserated together – people were shaken to the core and they needed to re tell their story of Ike, to try and make sense of it. There was a night time curfew in place because of fears of looting; those of us with no family to flee to needed to stick together.
You might imagine that life returns to normal a few weeks after such a crisis, but it doesn’t, not really. The wake of such an event plays out at every level. All activities are disrupted, appointments rescheduled or opportunities lost, everything is backlogged. Businesses shut down, unable to recover from sudden loss of profits; familiar places will be closed ‘until further notice owing to flood damage’. Insurance claims take months or even years to settle. All around Houston after Ike, ‘sky-blue plastic ‘tarps’ (tarpaulins) sat on roofs like great shower caps, covering homes with damaged roofs to protect them from further leaks.’ Years later, adverts were running on the local networks offering to help with compensation claims. Reminders were all around us.
After a few months life did return to normality, it was just a slightly different one, it’s fair to say a unique life experience had been integrated. In our family, the losses were temporary (except for the felled tree) and we could move on. For those who have experienced something more difficult to reconcile, it will take significantly more time and understanding. I hope they get the help they need to do so.
You might like to read my article about our family’s experience of hurricane Ike, written in 2008, published in The Telegraph’s Expat section: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/4205444/Houston-struggles-to-recover-from-the-night-Ike-came-calling.html