~ Posted by Simon Willis, October 30th 2012
Yesterday, as Hurricane Sandy made its way towards the east coast of America, thousands of people began posting their photographs online, showing how their neighbourhood was preparing itself. On a computer screen in London, it was a bit like following a Google map from bird's eye to street level. You could start in space and see the giant swirl of cloud making its way west. Then you could swoop down to deserted airports and subway stations, into houses and apartment blocks. You could see bulldozers making sand barriers on beaches, like this one in Westport, Connecticut; pavement grates and subway entrances in New York being battened down with sheets of wood; shoppers picking up the last supplies from empty supermarket shelves; policemen managing evacuations in Queens.
Hazel Sheffield, a regular contributor to the Editors' Blog, emailed us from Harlem, giving us the view from her neighbourhood:
Yellow cabs are queuing for petrol at the garage opposite our apartment, ready to capitalise on the public transport shutdown. NYU students happy that Monday classes were cancelled are now worrying that they might have to evacuate student accommodation. There were stacks of bottled water at the doors of our uptown supermarket yesterday, but not everyone braved the lines that wound round every aisle.
Even if you were in the path of the storm, the pictures on Twitter and blogs were a good way to get a sense of what was going on. Hazel writes that
Instagram became a reporting tool as people snapped submerged cars and debris floating down the streets in Brooklyn.
As well as the real photographs, there were plenty of fakes. A blogger at the Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal, was trying to distinguish between the two. Some were obvious—there wasn't a giant cat bearing down on the Statue of Liberty—others less so. He posted a picture of water pouring into a subway station which he was suspicious of at first, but later managed to verify—the flooding really was that bad. Hazel says,
The first unusual weather arrived in Harlem soon after it got dark. Outside our window, the trees that had been blown sideways one way all day changed direction with the wind and horizontal rain. A colleague in the West Village emailed at 8.30pm, half an hour after the storm surge hit land in New Jersey: "Power went out a little while ago. The street below us—the West Side Highway—looks like a raging river. And some damn fools in a white SUV just got stuck trying to drive through it. Wild."
And it got worse. Today, new pictures are being posted. Battery Park in lower Manhattan is now under 13 feet of water, hit by a storm surge. Sea water has flooded ground zero. There's a video of an electricity substation exploding, which left a quarter of a million people in Manhattan without power. There are fires burning in Queens, collapsed buildings in Chelsea and flooding in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There are thousands of individual stories making up the collage. From Harlem, Hazel writes,
The lights flickered, but we kept power. We told all of our downtown friends to come to our apartment if they needed to. Our bosses and colleagues sent similar messages to us. But by 11pm, we knew the worst was over, and that we'd escaped unscathed. This morning, the roads are busy again, and the local shops are open. It's impossible to tell up on 124th Street how New Yorkers are coping downtown. We're learning that the storm surge was stronger than expected, and that people were killed. Seems hard to imagine that two days ago, none of us knew this was about to happen.