The Committee to Save New York: An Oral History of Hurricane Sandy

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The mayor surveys the damage. (Mayor’s office)

The Wake

Mr. Lhota: The thing that amazed me is that when we put together maps of what was together in the system, it was substantive. And then there was the desire to put together the bus bridge, because we realized we had a gap in service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Queens and Manhattan with the 7 train, so very quickly Tom Prendergast and his team, along with Darryl Irick on the MTA Bus, put together the bus bridge.

Ms. Sadik-Khan: You had issues everywhere, you had no subways coming across from Brooklyn to Manhattan, so we needed to set up a new surface subway system. We worked with the MTA—we’d set up the bridges, so why not some bus bridges?—and the NYPD got their people out there to enforce that.

Mr. Lhota: I drove by it the first day, but the was so horrendous I just wanted to get into the city. But what I saw was a lot of people gathered around. New Yorkers don’t do things in a line. People were all jockeying around, seeing who could get on the bus first. But we learned our lesson. That was Thursday morning, and by Friday morning, we took the Disney approach—we created pathways, allowing people to see that they were moving through the pathways. On Friday morning we were putting 3,700 people an hour on buses, three buses loading at a time, dedicated lanes from the city, police escorts from the city. And once they got on the buses, they were at 42nd Street in 20 minutes. A world of difference from what happened on Thursday. First time through, it was really important to see what we could learn, how could we make it better, and we made it better.

Ms. Sadik-Khan: On Wednesday, when everybody came in to drive, it was just one big parking lot. So looking at that, you needed to do something. I wanted to go with the HOV3, and of course that only works if you have the Police Department doing the enforcement. And they were really terrific—they did an amazing job. I can’t say enough for Ray Kelly’s team, it was really extraordinary what they did.

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Govenor Cuomo comforts families put out by the storm. (Governor’s Office)

Mr. Kelly: I’m going out again tonight, and I know I will ask people, “How are cops treating you?” And it will probably be very positive, because it’s been very positive. I haven’t had a negative comment. And people aren’t afraid to give me a negative comment.

Mr. Doherty: We have had a number of sanitation workers, particularly out in Rockaway and some areas in Staten Island, who have either lost their homes completely or had a lot of water damage. The ones that I have talked to, they are coming to work, they have been coming in. And I remember earlier in the storm, I was talking to this gentleman out in Rockaway, and he said “I’m here to help my neighbors. Yes, I had damage to my house, but I’m here to help.” The morale has been outstanding by the men and women of the department. They are looking for work to do sometimes. If I’m not moving them quickly enough, they are asking me, “Where can we work, where can we work?” Relax, we are going to get you there.

Mr. Kelly: Cancelling the marathon is something I’m going to remember. It was something that we were prepared to do, and all of a sudden, it was cancelled. But probably more significant for me was the sight of the area that was burned in Breezy Point. I went there, the ground was still smoldering, and all you see is an open field where the houses had burned down. But then I looked out at the end of the field, and I could see a person, and the person was very, very small. The breadth of the damage, it didn’t really hit me until I saw the size of that person so far away. It’s something that you see in other parts of the world. It’s not something that you see on the East Coast of the United States.

Mr. Vlasto: You’re seeing idleness, and kids who are so lonely and tired and exhausted, so the governor said, you know, lets get something for kids. Give them some board games, something to make them smile. That’s where he came up with the idea to ask Walmart for some toys. They had volunteered to help, they had been donating water, so we just said, how about some toys for the kids?

Mr. Bruno: Key people, the president and everyone on down, have reached out to us. Every major official came through here, and they’ve been following up on it. We have the National Guard here. We have Department of Defense forces—they’re helping a lot with the fuel. We got the Army Corps of Engineers, they’ve been a huge partner for us and totally dedicated to getting New York City back up and running. So after the anxiety about whether help was going to come—it is a good feeling when you see this stuff.

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Joe Lhota directs traffic at the bus islands in Brooklyn. (MTA)

Mr. Holloway: I was in the Rockaways this morning and this recovery, we’re going to be dedicating an absolutely enormous amount of resources to getting cleaned up and helping as many people get back into their homes as quickly as possible. We have another storm coming, you know, and now we have to brace for that, too. In Irene we responded, the storm broke up, and everybody was able to get back to business as usual pretty quickly. Here, there are certain areas in the city where people’s lives have truly been turned upside down. And we are going to be out there for as long as it takes to get it right side up.

Mr. Rhea: There were many people, through no fault of their own, who bet against Mother Nature, and to see the faces of those who were impacted because they were still in their residences and didn’t evacuate, or those who didn’t think they needed to evacuate because they were outside of the zone, that was hard. They were saying, “We really need help to get basic necessities and power and heat and hot water restored.” And asking very directly and emotionally for that assistance.

Then there’s the flip-side of that, which is being able to fix a problem—to have someone say to you, “Thank you for being able to get that done as fast as you were able to.” So for every person who is still without heat and water, there is somebody who has had it restored. For every person who is without electricity there are four times that number who have had it restored. The people who ask for help, and the appreciation when we do our jobs and deliver on behalf of these families, that is something I will remember.

Mr. Vlasto: Seeing the subways fill up, I think, was a very jarring sight for the governor. He says that it’s not just that, it’s the frequency: now we have dealt with this twice in two years. How many times do we have to deal with this again before we make substantial change? It’s almost like, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” And now we’ve just been fooled again.

Mr. Lhota: I walked into a bar on Saturday night, and even though I’m somewhat of a public figure, I’ve always enjoyed my anonymity. When I was budget director for the city and when I was deputy mayor, I didn’t even unlist my phone number. On Saturday, I walked into a bar, and people wanted to buy me a drink. That’s something that’s going to stay with me, because I was very surprised. By the way, that was my first drink after that whole week. I had wine.