The day Sandy paid New York a visit
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 28
Living in America, you get used to extreme weather. I’ve experienced three earthquakes in Los Angeles (one actually threw me out of my bed — a true ‘Did the Earth move for you, darling?’ moment), severe flooding in Seattle, a tornado in Houston and a hail- storm of such viciousness in Minneapolis that I thought God was hurling golf balls at me.
Last winter I filmed a Donny Osmond interview in Chicago, and it was so cold outside I actually thought my eyeballs were freezing up. And, conversely, I did an ITV special on Las Vegas, where it was so hot I thought my body was actually going to boil me alive by the Hoover Dam.
But nothing ever quite prepared me for what happened in New York this week with Hurricane Sandy.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 29
The rain started around midday, and the clouds darkened rapidly. I took a cab to CNN’s bureau at the Time Warner Centre, on the southwest corner of Central Park in Midtown Manhattan, around 2pm and made my way to my seventh-floor office. An hour after I arrived, an enormous noise that sounded like a thunderclap boomed out.
I ran to the window, and saw that an 80-tonne crane on top of a skyscraper 500 yards away (a building called One57, which will be New York’s tallest residential tower at 90 storeys) had buckled, and the top of it was now dangling precariously over the densely populated streets below.
In that moment, it was clear that Sandy was going to be on a different scale to any weather-related episode I’d ever been through before.
As the afternoon wore on, our office lights began to flicker, and our building — one of the biggest, newest and supposedly strongest multi-skyscraper edifices in America — was shaking and rattling like a cupboard full of steel skeletons. Rain and wind lashed the windows with ominous velocity, and by 9pm, when I went live on air, the full force of the hurricane had descended on the city.
What happened in the next hour can best be described as borderline apocalyptic. More than 14ft of water surged
‘Our building — one of the strongest in America
— was shaking and rattling like a cupboard
full of steel skeletons’
onto the mainland at the southern tip of Manhattan, swamping the subway system and flooding the streets so badly that cars began floating away. House facades were ripped off, fires erupted as power lines collapsed (100 homes in Queens were destroyed by one blaze alone), and 7,000 trees smashed down (in a few tragic cases, onto people). I interviewed numerous ashen-faced governors and mayors from all over the east coast of America, all of whom said it was the worst storm they’d ever seen.
Sandy was no ordinary hurricane. In fact, it wasn’t even that big by hurricane standards, registering as only Category 1 for most of its terrifying journey. By comparison, Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans in 2005, reached the heights of Category 5. But what made Sandy so devastating was that it collided with an unusually early winter storm coming from the west and fierce Arctic air from the north, and it hit New York at the precise moment the city had a high tide and full moon.
It was a perfect storm of hell. In fact, tonight I interviewed Sebastian Junger, who wrote The Perfect Storm, which became the George Clooney movie, and he explained why this was even worse than the 1991 monster he dramatised. ‘Sandy came ashore,’ he said. ‘My storm didn’t. Big difference.
I anchored a second live hour for CNN at midnight, by which time Sandy was on the rampage through Long Island, the beach area of New York — wreaking havoc everywhere it went. The sheer scale of the damage was almost unbelievable. (At least 30 people died in New York and surrounding areas alone during Sandy — and well over double that number on its lethal path through the Caribbean). I left the office at 1am, to walk one block to the hotel where I was staying for the night. The wind was still strong and it was raining, but there was an eerie calm to the sky now. Sandy had burst through central Manhattan and was now driving on to other areas. From my 40th-floor hotelroom window, I looked down over Manhattan and saw a city of two halves — the lower half, Downtown, was plunged into almost total darkness. The upper half, from 40th Street on, still had power. I turned on CNN to see shocking scenes from the NYU hospital on the Lower East Side, where the back-up generator had failed, and mothers with newborn babies were being ferried on makeshift respirators down 10 flights of stairs to other hospitals on higher ground.
Atlantic City looked completely submerged in parts (one of our guys was now reporting from a main boardwalk street, up to his waist in seawater), and New Jersey was a mess. Power was down in over two million homes, and a desperate search under way for survivors. I finally went to sleep at 3am, feeling shell-shocked.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 30
Woke at 6am, and caught up with all the aftermath of Sandy’s appalling rampage. Two million homes are without power on the East Coast, parts of the subway may be out for a week, all airports and schools are closed for at least two days, the Stock Exchange is shut for a second day, and the death toll is rising by the hour. But it could have been so much worse. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way the authorities have handled this disaster — before, during and after it. At every stage everyone was made fully aware of exactly what was likely to happen, and what they should do about it. Politicians, from President Obama down, rose to the occasion, admirably.
I walked home at 9am in mild conditions. New Yorkers were back out walking their dogs, jogging and doing everything they’d usually be doing on a Tuesday morning, except getting a drink from Starbucks, which remained closed. As we saw after 9/11, they breed ’em tough in New York.
Below: A Fire Department of New York worker takes part in the
post-Sandy rescue effort