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.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images
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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.