One year ago, much of the Northeast went dark in a violent rush of wind, and the water started to rise. One week after Sandy hit, I wrote about how I spent the days immediately following the storm, eating frozen Rosh Hashanah honey cake and surrounding myself with candles and flashlights. At the time it seemed like a momentary surreal interlude, like everything would eventually revert to normal and all would be righted. For me, and many others, that did not happen.
All I lost in the havoc of that late October night was a car. It is silly, bordering on offensive, to complain about that; the storm took human lives. But in the storm’s aftermath, I got a glimpse of the future, and the new cracks that had opened up for people like me to fall through.
I called FEMA the first night I could. I had tried to apply for aid online. But FEMA’s website equated property with real estate; there was no option for someone who had lost a vehicle. I explained that to the representative on the phone. He said I should have lied.
FEMA doesn’t tell you right way that if you have liability insurance, you are not eligible for aid. I found that out after months of applications and appeals and faxed documents, which I collected in a folder that grew to the size of a phone book of a medium-sized town. I tried not to whine about the bureaucracy. It was understandable, given how many people were affected, and it would all be worth it if the end result was that the loss of my only valuable possession, which I needed to work and take care of my family, wouldn’t financially ruin me. But eventually I was informed that buying decent insurance many years ago meant I was on my own now.
Still, I was prepared to accept that federal money was being distributed to those worse off than I am. If a parent with three children got aid and I didn’t, or if all of FEMA’s cash went to help homeless people off the freezing broken streets, I would have understood.
But the applicants who were approved for aid all around me were business owners, and the owners of beachfront houses. I had naively assumed that when FEMA asked for my income, it meant its assistance was partially based on need. Now I learned it was not
After the initial federal outpouring — over a quarter billion dollars in Connecticut, where I live — was allotted, the state wrangled another $72 million. For a second, my hopes were raised. But the money was reserved for home and business owners. My notions of responsibility (buying liability insurance) and recklessness (building a house a few feet from the shoreline) seemed to be officially upside down. As I write this, yet more money is being promised. It will go towards hardening infrastructure and helping homeowners whose property was not damaged during Sandy prevent potential damage next time.
Sometimes it’s the smallest offense that tips annoyance into full-blown outrage. CTBoom, a rather juvenile Connecticut news/entertainment/humor site I sometimes read, recently posted a video of a McDonald’s commercial involving a Hollywood actress-type who has never heard of Connecticut. But it was the post’s title, not the commercial, that set my metaphorical hair aflame: “Moderately attractive female asks McDonald’s ‘What’s Connecticut?’”
Leaving out the ick-factor of the word “female” and the observation that the actress was conventionally pretty (HUH!?), whatever comedic value exists in a joke about West Coasters’ cluelessness about New England would exist whether the actor who uttered the punch line was male or female, attractive or not. The joke, obviously, is meant to be about ignorance.
When the tree crashed against the house and spilled its leafy branches across the driveway, it came to a crunching stop on top of my car, taking down power lines along the way. I couldn’t get very close in the dark confusion of the storm, but the next day, after a man with a chain saw cleared me a path to the driver’s side door, I removed all my belongings in preparation for the inevitable towing and demolition of the vehicle.
I leaned carefully onto the seat — the interior was strewn with broken glass — and unwound from the rear-view mirror the little Traveler’s Prayer that I’d hung there years ago when the car was still new.
In preparation for Storm Sandy, I’d gone to my parents’ house, about 75 miles away from where I live on the same Connecticut coastline, so I could help them in the powerless days we knew would follow. Now we were trapped — literally, by the fallen trees and wires — in their house, and I was unable to help anyone, even myself. We could only wait.
When we finally got out, we found a very New England scene, with wrecked suburban yards and people in puffy vests standing on line at Dunkin Donuts for hot coffee. But inside my family’s house it seemed that, along with our unwilling regression to a less complicated way of life, we had somehow become more Jewish.