New Yorkers regroup and restock in the wake of Sandy

Claire Ward reports from the East Village where residents are cleaning up from the superstorm
A pedestrian passes a fallen tree on East 7th Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. New York City awakened Tuesday to a flooded subway system, shuttered financial markets and hundreds of thousands of people without power a day after a wall of seawater and high winds slammed into the city, destroying buildings and flooding tunnels. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)

NEW YORK — A sense of bewilderment was apparent in the East Village today, as people rose to see the aftermath of the Sandy superstorm. Widespread power outages caused by an explosion in the Con Edison power plant on 14th Street left some 200,000 New Yorkers without power, including just about everyone south of 34th Street. Residents of Alphabet City and Stuyvesant Town lined the East River seawall, holding cellphones to the sky, vying for reception. The FDR highway just behind is closed, and emergency vehicles rush past, making waves in large deep, pools of water.

“This is major,” says Phill Morley, 65-year-old engineer from Liverpool, UK. “When you think about that many people without hot water, electricity, and food. This will make the front pages back home, there’s no doubt.” Morley and his wife, Cath, witnessed the blue flash of the Con Ed explosion through the window of the eighth-floor apartment in Stuyvesant Town where they’ve been staying. “I knew immediately what it was, and then, of course, the lights out.”

Marlene, a ConEd employee wearing a neon yellow safety jacket, stands guard outside the steam plant as workers clean up the large piles of soaking debris that surged ashore in the night.

“We saw the water come up 10 feet, right up against that door,” she says, gesturing at the large, river-facing entrance of the East River Generator Station. Marlene also says she “raced the water” in her car as it surged, watching in her rearview mirror as it filled the streets.

Confusion is apparent among residents standing on the street on either side of police tape — which, like the debris, is in abundance — unclear of which side is meant to be blocked off.

Colin Fox, 55, is a resident of Stuyvesant Town, which is situated next to the Con Edison plant and next to the East River. Fox, who prepared for Sandy by buying extra supplies and water, is planning for days without power or hot water. “I respect the weather conditions,” he says. “I don’t take them for granted. In 1994, I lost my car in an unnamed storm when it was parked just there in what used to be a parking lot.” He gestures to the boardwalk along the East River where we’re standing.

Along Avenue C, cars are eerily strewn at odd angles, leaning up against bus shelters or post boxes—the positions they landed in after the water receded. People with cameras, walking dogs, and lugging grocery bags fill the sidewalks, exchanging stories. “My dog was swimming down 7th Avenue,” says one man; “The entire basement of my building is filled to the ceiling,” says another. The air smells of saltwater and gasoline, and puddles show gleaming swirls of oil. Other unusual sites include people using payphones, people yelling from the street up at people’s windows, and bodegas lit by candlelight. Some restaurants have placed boxes of free produce out front, while other shops charge $1 per litre of milk, to get rid of stock.

A line formed on 11th St. and Avenue B, just around the corner from a bodega that had its windows smashed in by a street sign. A handwritten sign that says “Free Pizza—let’s say goodbye to Sandy together” hangs in the window.

“When I came in this morning, I realized we still had gas,” says Vincent Sgarlato, owner of 11B Express Pizzeria, in a thick Italian-New Yorker accent. “So I thought, why don’t I make pizza for the neighbourhood? Everyone’s hurting. It’s the least I can do.” Sgarlato’s pizzeria has been serving the neighbourhood for the past six years. “We have a 24-hour span til supplies spoil—or till the cheese runs out.”

Farther uptown, on 42nd street, which is just north of the boundary of the blackout, lower Manhattan residents scramble for electrical outlets on the street. People can be seen huddled around trees in the sidewalks, which are decorated with Christmas lights, using the power outlets to charge iPhones and laptops. One woman in a red windbreaker stands outside a closed Starbucks, laptop in one hand, trying to access WiFi. This reporter filed her story from a personal iPhone hot spot in Tudor City—and got lucky enough to find a free seat in a café actually open for business.