The day after yesterday

With the East Coast of America facing up to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Blackstone Chambers barrister Shaheed Fatima shares her experiences of life under lockdown in the Big Apple

Shaheed Fatima
Shaheed Fatima

Tuesday, 30 October: the day after Sandy hit Manhattan. Greenwich Village does not look like itself. There are no lights on, no neon signs. There is no coffee. Or actually – this is Manhattan after all – very little of it. It can be found – basic black filter coffee – in the odd deli that has managed to keep itself going. It is in those dark delis that strangers are striking up conversations, swapping their stories about the storm.

Meanwhile, the sound of sirens is never far off. The city is in shock.

It was really only on Sunday morning that the reality of Sandy began to sink in (and with typical British self-consciousness I am still unaccustomed to being on first name terms with a force of nature). As I got my morning coffee, I noticed the sign on the front door: ‘Due to Hurricane Sandy and the MTA closures we regret to inform customers that we are closing at 4.30pm’. And so it became ever clearer – the subway was going to stop running at 7pm, stores were closing early, anxiety was setting in.

By mid-afternoon, that anxiety was discernible: waiting in line to purchase groceries I heard several customers ask for flashlights only to be told that the store had sold out. There was no more bottled water. I got some of the last bottles of milk. Emails reflected the reality of a city shutting down before the week had even begun: there would be no school for my son on Monday; no NYU classes and no open offices.

Monday morning was bleak and wet. Situated on the corner of West 3rd Street and Broadway, there is usually an endless stream of human life flowing beneath our 16th floor apartment. On Monday morning, Broadway was almost empty. Occasionally, a lone dog walker or a drifting cab punctuated the desolation. After watching the news – which gave me until early afternoon before Sandy would hit Manhattan – I walked the few blocks to my office. Shops were shuttered, the streets were empty and the gates of the Law School were closed. I made it through only to find that I was one of a handful of professors who had made it in.

Throughout the day the news coverage from around the coast grew ever more concerning. It began to get more local. Parts of Manhattan were being evacuated. There would be no classes on Tuesday, no schools open, no subway. Manhattan was bracing itself as Sandy drew ever nearer. The view from our living room began to mirror the news coverage. The horizon darkened, grew charcoal. Slowly, the visibility decreased as the rain clouds drew a veil over Brooklyn Bridge, the Lower East Side.

Following the safety instructions I drew the curtains, kept the children away from the windows. We began to settle down for the night in front of the TV only to be plunged into darkness at 8.30pm. The generators in our apartment building kept the hallways illuminated and the elevators functioning but there was no other power: no TV, fridge, microwave, no lights. Listening to the sirens and the storm, I watched my children sleeping.

We still don’t know when power will be restored in our area, let alone in our building, or when the subway will open. We don’t know when normality will resume: classes have been cancelled for the rest of the week and Hallowe’en has been put on hold. These are the small details of an enormous event. We read in horror (from laptops plugged into the generator-driven hallway sockets) about the lives lost, homes destroyed and businesses crippled.

Ironically, although we have been so close to the eye of the storm and are part of the devastation it has left in its wake we lack ready access to information. Just as we braced ourselves for the storm we are now bracing ourselves to discover the extent of its effects.

Shaheed Fatima is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers and global visiting professor of law at New York University School of Law