During a violent storm, your eyes and ears compete for which sense holds your attention. Driving rain and debris sail past while piercing crashes punctuate the air. Yet in New York City’s Chinatown just a few hours before Hurricane Sandy crashed into the East Coast, the strongest sense permeating the streets was smell–not an order associated with destruction, but the sweet, comforting aroma of roast duck. Most of the stores and restaurants in downtown Manhattan were closed long before Sandy’s winds and rains hit the city, but there was hardly a block in Chinatown without a small restaurant, grocery store or bodega whose owners vowed to stay open throughout the night.
West of Chinatown, in the chic SoHo neighborhood, nearly all of the clothing boutiques had been shuttered for hours, but along Broadway from Houston to Canal Streets, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, few shops bothered to board up their tall street-front windows, nearly the opposite preparation that shop owners took for Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
Much of the Lower East Side, the low lying area where Manhattan Island juts into the East River, was classified as Zone A, meaning its residents faced mandatory evacuation. The city’s evacuation shelter downtown sits just outside of Zone A in Seward Park High School, a dense, six story stone and brick structure that takes up an entire small city block. “The building’s been here since 1929; it’s a solid building,” says Rich Gorgoglione, the manager of the shelter. About 4 p.m. on Monday, Gorgoglione said the shelter had just over 600 residents and that they could sleep 900, but if push came to shove and the storm turned violent, they could hold about 1,000 people. “Everybody’s nice and cheery,” he says. “We’ve given them food, cots, toiletries.”
Most of the people in the evacuation zone came from the public housing projects that dot the East River who slept on cots laid neatly in rows in the gymnasiums. One woman who evacuated from Catherine Street just south of the Manhattan Bridge said about the only thing she needed now was a big screen T.V. to watch horror flicks and pass the time. A teenage girl on the cot next to her said that she brought enough clothes for two days, and she also brought her Halloween costume, but she would be angry if she was still in the shelter on Wednesday night.
Although Seward Park High School is the only evacuation shelter downtown, officials said they had very few evacuees from Tribeca, the area that includes Manhattan’s financial district. It’s not clear whether residents of that area had other places to stay, but all of Battery Park City and the area around Water Street fall in the mandatory evacuation zone.
Heading southwest from the Lower East Side, the tower at One World Trade Center comes into view from the terminus of the Manhattan Bridge. There were concerns that the cranes on top of the building might be damaged or fall in the high winds, but around 5 p.m. both cranes perched above the building’s 100th floor were still upright. As I stood underneath the “Freedom Tower,” I heard the wind course through the area’s subway tunnel, making a steady, wailing whine; the wind above ground carried the rain sideways from north to south. Looking up, the wind drove the rain past the top of the tower, almost twice as fast as that on the ground.
At Battery park, the southern tip of Manhattan, the wind chopped up the waters of upper New York Harbor while rain obscured the Statue of Liberty, just a few hundred yards off shore. A few onlookers and a half dozen broadcast reporters marveled at a man riding a jet ski in the Hudson River, jumping high into the air off of the river’s raging waves.
Similar to SoHo, most of the shops and restaurants of Tribeca were closed, but that thought barely crossed the minds of people at The Patriot. One of New York’s few remaining dive bars, The Patriot is the kind of place that serves $2 Pabst Blue Ribbons in a can; the most expensive beer on the menu–a pint of Guinness–will set you back $4.75 and there is an ancient Kendell Motor Oil sign bolted to the ceiling. The only letter illuminated in The Patriot’s red neon sign is the P, but in all fairness, it’s been that way for some time. The bartender said that they had been doing steady business all day, and that they had no plans to close until 4 a.m., the usual time when they tell patrons, “You don’t have to go home, but you’re not staying here.” About a dozen people planned to ride out the storm there, sipping beers and talking above the sounds of Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and decades-old Madonna coming from the juke box.
As soon as the bar’s door opened to the outside, the sounds of Dwight Yoakam disappeared, replaced by the screaming wind whipping through downtown’s underworld. Whereas a few intrepid joggers braved the rain and wind in the late afternoon, after sunset precious few people were fighting their way through the elements. Sandy was just making landfall somewhere down the Jersey Shore, promising that this would be the last semblance of calm before the storm.