Lessons from Mother Nature


At least 88 people were killed, but there was no crime. There were widespread blackouts, yet there was no systematic looting. Police departments were run ragged, but lawlessness seemed to take a vacation.

This column isn’t about crime this time. It is about how, in the face of crisis, crime is replaced by an overwhelming sense of fellowship and mutual survival. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I am writing this not on my usual laptop computer, but on a smaller iPad, which is cumbersome to operate via candlelight. I had to slowly charge it to life via a cord plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter.

My family is among the almost 5 million Americans left without power by this monumental storm. We’re told it could be 10 days before our Hudson River village, about 20 miles north of Manhattan, will have electricity again.

But we are alive and feeling so lucky.

Not far from us, in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, not only did massive quantities of floodwaters roar in, so did a marauding fire that consumed more than 80 buildings, leaving hundreds homeless. Firefighters battled neck-high floods, low water pressure and tons of Sandy’s sludge for 12 hours to contain the blaze. This neighborhood has already had its share of tragedy. It has always been a close-knit place populated by firemen and police officers, many of whom lost their lives as first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Just as we saw in the aftermath of Sept. 11, first responders to Sandy’s wreckage ran toward the calamity, as the rest of us ran away to safety. All up and down the Eastern seaboard, brave souls pitched in to help evacuate stranded residents and hospital patients. They worked tirelessly to clear debris, fallen trees and land-stranded boats from neighbor’s yards.

From Florida to Connecticut, utility workers left their own families and fanned out en masse to help restore their fellow citizens gas lines and electric service. They battled dangerous live wires, rising tides that made flooding even worse, and roadways with malfunctioning traffic lights and littered with obstacles.

In the run-up warnings about the approaching storm, the media had taken to calling Hurricane Sandy and its expected collision with a powerful northern cold front “The Frankenstorm.” Creative wordplay — and almost funny when I first heard it. But I’ll bet rescue workers struggling in the thick of it weren’t thinking of clever names to call the storm.

In New Jersey, the state in which super-storm Sandy made landfall, volunteers with operable boats and large trucks roared in to save total strangers. One was a petrified 85-year-old woman who was coaxed onto the back of a Jet Ski and taken to safety.

On my battery-powered radio, I heard an emotional Gov. Chris Christie describe what he had seen after taking a helicopter tour of his state. He described the devastation he had seen, including acres of flooded neighborhoods, farm land, damaged railroads and an exit off the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 280 that had simply disappeared in the storm surge.

Christie sounded as though he might cry when he described the complete destruction of one of his favorite childhood spots — the Seaside Heights amusement park. Its rides were gone, he said, floating in the sea.

“We will rebuild,” a resolute Christie said. “But for those my age, it will never be the same … so much washed away into the Atlantic Ocean.”

In New York, the other state that incurred the most damage from Sandy, the massive scale of destruction was hard to comprehend. The area in lower Manhattan where hundreds of thousands live was plunged into darkness. The seawall surrounding the newly rebuilt Ground Zero site was compromised, and Hudson River water began to pour in.

Seven tunnels into New York City and hundreds of subway stations filled up with countless millions of gallons of water. Commuter train tracks from New Jersey and Connecticut were buried in Sandy’s sludge and made inoperable. With transportation stalled in and out of the city, commerce stopped — including Wall Street, the engine that runs so much of the American economy.

But no one gave up. The Coast Guard and the Red Cross were there to help. The financial sector regrouped quickly and got back to work. The Army Corps of Engineers brought in enormous sump-pump devices and put them to work at the tunnels and rail hubs to undo what Sandy had done. The city offered free bus rides to get people back to work. There were no complaints from civil servants forced to work exhausting mandatory overtime with no immediate end in sight.

These people did it because that’s what we do in America. We gather up our can-do attitude, and we get the job done. We don’t let tragedy define us. It doesn’t matter what we don’t have — electricity to power our televisions and our habit-forming computer gadgets or heat for our homes in this chilly mid-autumn weather — it is what we ARE that matters most. Compassionate, resolute, survivors.

After slogging through the divisiveness of partisan politics for the last year, it’s heartwarming to see Americans being cohesive again — even if it is just a transitory phase.

The Hudson River is 3 miles wide where we live, and only a small two-lane road lies between us and the water. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing it every day outside my window. I sheepishly admit that I sometimes look at its usually placid flow with a sort of disinterest. Never again. This behemoth has commanded my eternal respect because I see now that this historic river is capable of terrible things when spurred on by Mother Nature.

We have survived. The river will survive longer.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via emailDiane@DianeDimond.net.