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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle