Henry Powderly

Journalist, Editor

professional portfolio + personal projects

Hurricane Sandy: A close-to-home disaster

Posted on 11 Nov 2012 in Blog, Journalism | 0 comments

It’s been two weeks since Hurricane Sandy battered Long Island and much of the East Coast of the United States, and life still hasn’t gotten back to normal here. Power outages that once stood just under 1 million are down to a few thousand, though those who remain in the dark have had to endure a very strained living for a two-week period that saw dramatic drops in temperature and one nor’easter slam the region. Throw in a national election in an area where many polling places were either damaged or without electricity and it’s been a beyond busy time to be a journalist on Long Island. It’s also never been more rewarding.

Personally, my family got off easy, even though the tree damage in St. James placed it among the worst-hit areas on Long Island. We lost power for five days, though not running water. And while our home was beginning to get very cold by the end on the week, our lights and therefore heat came back before the real freeze hit. We even kept power during the nor’easter, though there were thousands across Long Island who were knocked back offline by that windy winter blast.

The stories to tell on Long Island we’re almost hard to keep track of. Long Beach was leveled, homes wrecked, the boardwalk shattered and its entire system, from the electric down to the sewer system, was shut down. And that kind of damage extended down the entire South Shore. From Levittown to Lindenhurst, from Babylon to Mastic Beach, the story was the same, flooded homes and neighborhoods, where damages forced folks from homes and into shelters or the welcoming arms of friends and family.

The North Shore, where I live, was not spared, but most of the damage came from the hundreds of trees that snapped, toppling wires, smashing cars and even destroying homes. Just about everyone I know was affected, my whole family was knocked into the days of pre-electricity, and the conveniences of suburban living vanished overnight.

A lot was made of lower Manhattan’s power loss, the shock of seeing one of the world’s biggest’s cities about one-third in the dark. But suburbia has its own electric glow, a far less vertical one, but a zenith nonetheless. Driving through the area on the first day after the storm was the eeriest I’ve ever seen in the area. Traffic lights, dead. The mall, black. Gas stations, shut. Grocery stores, locked. Wires, everywhere. That first night the usual rush of traffic, the suburban hustle whose clamor yields a nighttime hum, was replaced by the putter of generators, and it was perhaps the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen as it floated in a blacker night than suburbia is used to.

In the days that followed, gas lines grew as panic set in over a long recovery process. Dropping temps added to the misery. Each day more were restored, but hundreds of thousands still languished without electricity. Gas supply was disrupted, and the gas lines grew longer, with the few stations that had gas often being sucked dry in a matter of hours. For most of it, I was working, helping to tell the local stories in the┬ácommunities we cover for Patch on Long Island. It was, and remains, important work. A public relations exec I know noted how everything we were running was something someone could use. News you can use, it’s not a novel idea.

But that very idea speaks to the highest level of journalism. In News Literacy, we teach students that reliable information is actionable information, and boy is that nevermore true than in reporting on disasters. One one hand, there is basic info that needs getting out, info such as what neighborhoods are coming back online, where the gas is, what grocery stores are open, what hotels have vacancies, what government relief is available, what weather is on the way and what shelters have needed necessities. But there’s so much usefulness in storytelling too, in speaking to locals about how they are coping, in hearing a mother’s tale about how her daughters ventilators went down when the power went out, in holding the utility accountable for its performance and preparation.

Honestly, there isn’t a local media outlet covering this disaster that isn’t doing its part to chronicle the aftermath in a way where the info will have usefulness for years to come. The national media may swoop in to shine a light locally on occasion, and that is understandable given their scopes, but it’s been an honor to work on the local level through this, the see the passion of local journalists elevate the entire media landscape, and provide a far more useful flood than the one wrought by the storm.

NOTE: The photos here were taken of the storm damage, though I took some artistic liberties with the filters.

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