Impact of Sandy, what you’ll see and what you won’t

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).

Men dispose of shopping carts full of food damaged by Storm Sandy at the Fairway supermarket in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. The food was contaminated by flood waters that rose to approximately four feet in the store during the storm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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.

Downtown Houston, hurricane Ike approaching

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

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The Magic of Christmas, it Comes and Goes… (Article for Among Worlds Magazine 2010)

My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.

In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.

I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.

I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).

Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.

My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).

With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.

We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.

That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.

By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!

On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.

You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.

Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.