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 freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem