Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Keeping an Eye on the Storm

It was the eve of Hurricane Sandy and I was on line at Walmart. My cart was full of bottled water, but I’d also picked up camping-strength rain ponchos, thermal underwear, and a package of little candles for my son’s birthday, which we would mark in the aftermath of the storm.

While waiting, I overheard the store manager caution his staff about security issues. This one will be worse than Irene, he said, foreseeing panicked customers rushing in as the drops began to fall. After all, who wanted to believe this would really happen until it was already upon us?

As my chest heaved with anxiety, my first thought – oddly -- was to dye my hair. I threw a box of Clairol Nice ‘n Easy Natural Black #122 into my cart, figuring it would provide the perfect distraction from the perfect storm. I could simultaneously rid myself of grey while settling my nerves before the power went out.

But its real purpose was to convince me that all predictions of meteorological doom were overshot, that normal was right around the corner from that ominous cloud hovering above us.

In the end, though, I spent the day attending to the real business of preparing for a hurricane: stashing lawn furniture in the garage, securing the shed, bringing the couches up from the basement, and hiding the plastic bins that hold my favorite mementos of the boys in the safest, driest place I could think of.

We filled the bathtub in case we needed water to flush the toilets. We positioned buckets near the sump pump and gas cans near the generator. We lined up flashlights, batteries and radios on the dining room table and a stash of crackers, peanut butter, and water bottles on the kitchen counter. Both cars had tanks full of gas and our cell phones were completely charged.

We were as ready as we could be for a futile battle against nature.

All we could do then was to wait for Sandy to hit. While my husband fielded calls from patients, the boys fixated on the news, staring with fear and disbelief at the Seaside Heights boardwalk – the one we visit every year during Pesach break – which had already disappeared beneath the tide. I gazed out the window at the gradually darkening sky.

Like clockwork, the heavens opened at 6 p.m., and in no time at all, the power clicked off. As if curtains had been drawn, the sky went Natural Black, except for periodic flashes from the arcing power lines. The winds raced around the house, howling at us angrily as we cowered together on the couch in the living room. We turned on the battery-powered lantern and began our rotating shifts to check if water was seeping into the basement.

A sudden crash shook us. Our glorious maple tree had surrendered two massive boughs that slammed against the back of the house. Our barbeque toppled onto the patio, scuttling further along as the wind blew. My husband and our eldest son ran outside to bring it indoors, fearful that it would travel and wreak damage elsewhere. Those thirty vulnerable seconds they were out in the elements left me entirely unhinged.

An emotional haze hovered above us that evening and continued well into the morning. We awoke to the eerie hush of power outages, road closures and downed trees. In the background, generators rumbled and branches snapped, but mostly we heard our own breathing in the cold.

We invited neighbors over to join us for birthday cake. Perhaps too pedantically, we reminded the birthday boy that he’d been blessed to wake up in a house still standing with all of its inhabitants unharmed. He then reminded us that as a teenager, he would like to spend his day slothfully lying about since there was little else to do anyway.
Time, in fact, took on a surreal quality for all of us. Without school or work, we dozed when we dozed and awoke when we awoke, though it was by no means relaxing. We ticked off the hours of daylight during which we could tend to tasks around the house and the days until power would be restored. Still we wonder how many weeks before we return to normal and how long -– months or years -- before the areas hardest hit once again resemble themselves.

For days, I took frequent walks around the neighborhood, gasping at the property damage, the uprooted trees and sidewalks, the broken roofs, the smashed cars, the battered siding. I stopped to chat with those I met on my outings, and we shared stories about lives interrupted. We discussed gas rationing and empty store shelves, but mostly we expressed gratitude for having been spared the worst of it.

When the landscaper arrived to remove the tree branches from our yard, he agreed with me that they represented a miracle. That they hit our house with such great force yet broke nothing – no shattered windows, no structural damage – was uncanny. The tree, too, seems like it will survive the amputation. It is host to the feeder from which we have long fed the neighborhood birds, and my husband is convinced that one kindness led directly to another. At the very least it was blessed luck.

Our youngest invited his best friends to join him in overseeing the tree removal process. They donned safety glasses and gloves, marveled at the whir of the power saw, and reveled in lugging bits of wood onto the truck. For their efforts, they each received a few rounds from the largest branch, souvenirs from the storm and a reminder that Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, I mourned the branches whose sudden absence spoke to our insignificance in the larger scheme of G-d’s universe.

Thank G-d and PSEG, our power returned. Family and friends who still sat in cold, dark houses came to stay. Once our lights came on, we noticed all the dirt and leaves that had made their way into our rooms, but somehow we did not mind, even in the presence of guests. We just looked around at all we have to be grateful for in this world.

At last, our boys went back to school this morning. Since the traffic lights are not all up and running, the bus will bring them home early, well before dark. Everyone we speak with is tired, in various stages of recovery, and still reeling from the storm. Winter has not yet even begun.

The weather predictions for a nor’easter this week are daunting, further exhausting us. They are telling us to stock up again, warning us to get ready for more. Most of us cannot even fathom the potential impact of another storm. We may not be so lucky this time. For those already displaced, more wind and rain are surely unimaginable.

In the tumult of preparations and the storm’s aftermath, I realized that I never got to color my hair. I remain a natural black with a very natural streak of grey, a swath now larger after the past stressful week and growing even as I write when I consider what lies ahead. It is just as well, though, for the normal I’d hoped that box of Nice n’ Easy would bring will be a long time coming.

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