Sandy Hits Home

In the age of extreme storms, major physical and emotional challenges call for some serious design thinking.

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on Manhattan, my tiny downtown loft goes dark and silent. The small points of light from the microwave, the modem, the TV, the laptop, the radio, and the cell phone have gone out; the fridge’s hum is stilled. The candles, already flaming in front of the cupboard, are my only source of light. I look toward a neighboring building with its un-shaded windows that usually glow with their reassuring light and visible human activity; it, too, is dark under a strange, gray-lit sky.

The hundreds of books and CDs that line my shelves are of no use now. I cannot read E. O. Wilson by the flickering flames, watch Bette Davis, or listen to Rod Stewart. I’ve been transported to a pre-industrial century, without the necessary survival skills. The only tool I have is my giant flashlight; it will be my steady companion for the next five days. It lights my way as I head to the front door. The hallway is pitch black and eerily quiet.

But I’m prepared: water in pitchers, cooked meals still cooling in the fridge, canned foods in the cupboard, a small transistor radio at the ready. I dial up the public radio station and follow a steady stream of storm information, trivia, and commentary. The utter peacefulness inside, as the winds tear at my windows and the rain pelts them with frightful force, induces the kind of deep sleep I haven’t experienced for years. When daylight comes, it has a faint glow and the wind and rain seem less threatening.

I go about life in my tiny universe. By the third day of this making do, frustrated by information I cannot use—the radio repeatedly details Web sites to check and phone numbers to call—I venture down the dark staircase and walk uptown, where I hear there is power. Sure enough, my phone starts working around 23rd Street where the Metropolis offices are locked up, just like every other business in the neighborhood. A friend on the Upper East Side, grateful to hear I’m not dead, invites me to use her shower and share some hot food. I walk as far as my legs will carry me, then I find a cab. There are no buses or subways.

Each day I return home to listen to Governor Cuomo, Senator Schumer, and Mayor Bloomberg talk about the need to update and redesign our systems. Smart grids, defensive buildings, and district energy become part of the daily chatter. Someone mentions that NYU, the campus that’s just a block away from where I sit in the dark, has had district energy since 2010. What kept the lights burning and hot water flowing in many of its buildings is a co-generation plant under Mercer Street, just a few steps away from me. This neighborhood power and water plant will surely be studied as the city makes its plans to enter the twenty-first century.

While the massive redesign of the built environment will need to enlist some brilliant, collaborative design thinkers, I wonder how we can redesign our connectivity to each other. This basic human need becomes clear as the outcry of abandonment is heard from New York’s devastated neighborhoods that had no way to dial in, turn on, tune in. Going forward, we’ll need to figure out how to connect to each other when none of our sexy electronic devices work. Or even when they do.

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