New York in the teeth of a hurricane – heroes and errors

Volunteers have made heroic efforts, but why didn't the evacuation start earlier?

Just after eight o'clock, Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the eastern seaboard – and so did the "storm surge", the vast swell of water the storm was driving before it. 8pm was high tide in New York, and the full moon further added to the water bulk – the dreaded co-incidence of factors that made Sandy so devastating.

Peter Meijer Jr, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was in Brooklyn when the storm made landfall, at a shelter for people who lived down near the river. He was with Team Rubicon, a volunteer organisation that works with disaster management agencies to use the skills and expertise of military veterans in crisis situations. “It was kinda crazy out there,” he tells me.

“There were just two of us going out, we went to a couple of different shelters checking on conditions. One woman told us her husband lived in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Apparently they had been in [evacuation] zone B” – not the compulsory evacuation zone – “so a lot of people didn't evacuate because they weren't expecting sea levels to get high enough. But the surge came out there pretty brutally. There were cars underwater. If you had a one-storey house...”

“It was kinda crazy out there. So this lady came up to us, said her husband was out there, he's old, it's hard for him to get around. She keeps coming back to us, saying the water's getting higher, he's going to the attic. We tried to get her to call 911, but they were overloaded.” Meijer's two-man team set out into the storm for Gerritsen Beach at 9.45pm.

At about the same time, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was really feeling the force of the same surge. Water advanced through the streets, rising higher and higher. It rushed into tunnels, flooded the Subway – which has never happened before – and even poured into the deep building-site pit at Ground Zero. Around ten, people started reporting that they had seen an eerie green flash in the sky. It was caused by a spectacular explosion at the ConEd electricity transformer on 14th Street, and it and other blow-outs like it plunged most of lower Manhattan into darkness – but NYU hospital had back-up generators in its basement.

For two hours, the water level continued to rise. A little after midnight, it peaked. As it did so, water from FDR Drive leaked into the basement of NYU hospital. Just like the 14th Street transformer, they blew up.

At around the same time, Peter Meijer and his Team Rubicon mate were wading into the waist-deep water at Gerritsen Beach. “Some dude out there had a little row-boat – a local resident, he was looking for his brother – and we joined up with another guy who was looking for his father, and we went into this waist-deep water looking for people who needed to be evacuated,” he tells me.

In Manhattan, one of the engineers at the NYU hospital, John* was also in the water at that moment, trying to stem the flow of water into the hospital's basement. “I was in the water, I was down there when they blew. The generators downstairs – when the generators blew, they actually blew a hole in the wall. All the water came in. We tried to stop it; but there was no stopping it. It was...” he gives a rueful grin, exhaustion written on his face, his eyes bloodshot. “Traumatic.”

Upstairs, all the lights in NYU hospital went off. What followed was a truly heroic evacuation of more than 200 patients. Nurses manually worked the air-lines for premature babies as they carried them down from the NICU. Doctors carried patients down dark stairwells before fire crews and NYPD arrived to help.

Amir Paydar MD, a resident radiologist, was there. “I made three trips, carrying patients down seventeen flights of stairs, before the fire department arrived and took over,” he tells me, stood outside the hospital in the cold light of the following day. “it was dark – it was... like war in there.”

The hospital administration called in backup after the electrics went, and people came in droves to help – including medical students and research fellows, all helping to move people in almost-pitch darkness and transfer them to hospitals all across Manhattan.

I speak to two more doctors outside the hospital who decline to give their names. They tell me that they had been called in to help after it became clear that the management felt there was a good chance the back-up generators might fail. “Last year [before Hurricane Irene struck], they evacuated everyone from here two days before.” I ask why they didn't this time. “Couldn't say.”

Paydar, a radiologist, is worried for his department. “Our CTR scanner is completely shot, MRI scanners, gamma knife – each one of those MRI machines is worth millions of dollars, and they're all in the basement – under water, completely submerged.”

John, the engineer, is very critical of the hospital's management. “It was not well organised,” he tells me. “No planning ahead. Everyone's really angry [with management].” In 2011, when Hurrican Irene threatened the city, NYU hospital was evacuated two days before the storm. This time, there was no such evacuation.

I speak to James*, another employee at NYU hospital, standing outside in the rain. “On the news, they want to blame [electricity company] ConEd.” He makes a skeptical face, so I ask him if he blames them too. “No. Their 14th Street generator was completely underwater.” Then who does he blame? He glances back at the hospital. “It's... not my place to say. But maybe if it had been evacuated earlier...”

“I think they did everything they could,” says Paydar. “It's a natural disaster. You can't predict everything. Maybe if we could have predicted the generators were going to go out...” He tells me that doctors have been informed of four patient deaths related to the loss of electricity, though the hospital could not be contacted to confirm or deny this.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Meijer and his small band were battling hellish conditions. “Winds were up to 70-80 miles an hour. We were getting blown every which way. The storm surge was moving vehicles into the road – it was very powerful.”

“We stopped at the guy's father's house, we checked on the other guy's brother's house – but then we went to the last house, the guy who's wife was at the shelter – and we found him, hiding out in the attic with his dog – called Buddy – and we brought him back to the shelter. It was really amazing.” Meijer and his team spent half the night searching for people as the surge receded.

The fire and police services, at the height of the storm, were receiving ten thousand 911 calls every half an hour, so the assistance that these volunteers were giving was a godsend to those trapped. The water levels rose by much more than predicted, and many were trapped.

“It was amazing to go out there and see all these New Yorkers going from house to house seeing who needed help,” Meijer says.

Outside the NYU hospital, in the cold light of the post-storm Wednesday afternoon, James lights the last of his packet of Marlboro Golds. His face is sallow. He's been there since Saturday, he tells me, and spent the previous night wielding a torch for emergency services and doctors to see by. Now, all he wants to do is go home. “But my locker is in the basement. My wallet and keys...” he laughs. “They're under twenty feet of water.”

*Some names in this piece have been changed

The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded after the storm surge. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.