The West Village, Hurricane Edition


Monday, 4 p.m.: It seemed like we’d dodged a bullet. Apart from an occasional freakish gust of wind and the occasional cloudburst, the weather seemed balmy and almost agreeable. A carnival atmosphere prevailed in the West Village. Many, off from work and not heeding the mayor’s warnings, were gathered at the few bistros and wine bars that had managed to remain open despite staffing problems. These spots were mobbed.

Early that morning, several friends and I had hiked down to the Hudson River under threatening skies to observe the tidal swell: whitecaps on the river and water sloshing over the seawall onto the footpath. At that point, the tide was about five feet above normal. Crowds of gawkers stood along a hastily erected barricade as their kids cavorted along the bike path. Later that afternoon, we returned to the same spot at low tide and discovered that the barricades had been set aside. Groups of storm watchers were out on the piers as a fine mist blew through the air, punctuated by an intermittent gale that sent hats flying.

At high tide, around 9 p.m., a return to the waterfront. What a sight awaited then! Amid stronger gusts of wind, but still little rain, and stepping over a giant tree that had been downed on Charles Street, I discovered the waters had inundated the West Side Highway and were creeping up the incline on Charles Street toward the intersection of Washington Street. Water glinted from the submerged highway. Even more weirdly, a few cars were bobbing up and down in the floodwaters. We planted ourselves on the terrace of a luxury high-rise overlooking the highway and the mighty river beyond, as employees behind us feverishly stacked bags of salt—in lieu of actual sandbags—to protect the front door of the condo in a hopelessly rearguard action.

A man sat in a new Mercedes and tried frantically to start his sodden engine. A small crowd had gathered just above the waterline and tried to persuade him to abandon the vehicle. I stopped to see some friends on West 12th Street who were in danger of being flooded out. We trekked down to the waterside again, a distance of two blocks. At this point, the waters had advanced even farther. The street was impassable, and the rising tide had isolated apartment buildings up and down the block. A crowd of Halloween-party attendees, still wearing their costumes and looking worried, stood forlorn on one front stoop. Without a word to the others, one of their number stripped off his trousers and waded through the water in his underpants to reach safety, his pants hoisted over his head like a flag.

As we walked back to our friends’ house, we heard a loud cracking noise and saw the sky light up to the east, as if from fireworks. As we sat later around the kitchen table drinking wine, the lights flickered a few times, and then we were plunged into darkness. Apparently, the explosion we’d heard was the 14th Street transformer yard on Avenue C going up. Back at my apartment, my companion and I spent a cold night without heat, hot water, electricity, cell phone service, or Wi-Fi—like so many in NYC. You never know how dependent you are on modern conveniences until you walk around your apartment on the day after a disaster, still trying to flick on the lights as you enter every room.