How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia

by Stan Cox, Paul Cox

Clock Icon 7 minute read




New York City

Disaster survivors can try to restore their world as it was on the day before, or they can hit fast-forward, attempting to speed over the rough patch to a better tomorrow. Cities can build back, or they can build back better. Communities seeking light can look to the past or to the future. Either way, the present must come first: they have to restore the basic machinery of life, ameliorate the hurt, feed the hungry, clear the debris, and mourn the lost. But where does the story go from there? That depends entirely on well-laid plans and the forces that break them.



As the waters began to recede, a thirteen-ton crane boom seemed to hang by a thread over the city. Every TV network had at least one camera fixed on the swaying wreckage, a thousand feet above Midtown, where the winds had peeled it away from the frame of a seventy-five-story skyscraper under construction. Fifty-Seventh Street and neighboring buildings had been cleared; nobody could predict where steel falling a thousand feet into the canyon of a Manhattan street might ricochet. Now everyone just watched. Amid the dark, swirling chaos brought to New York City by Superstorm Sandy, here at least was one simple problem: the crane would hold or it would fall.

The twisted sword of Damocles hung over the city for seven days before crews carefully secured it to the side of the tower and declared the area safe. Fifty-Seventh Street was reopened. Another six months later, almost to the day, a second crane was hoisted beside the tower in order to remove the failed appendage and finish the construction job. The building’s developer, Gary Barnett, shrugged off a failed insurance claim for the wayward crane and a lawsuit from two Fifty-Seventh Street dentists over lost business. It all proved to be small change. Within two years of the storm, the new tower, called One57, stood as the tallest completed residential building in the city, rising to a height just forty feet shy of the Chrysler Building. A five-star hotel operated in the first twenty-five floors, and above that, Barnett told Bloomberg Businessweek, he had sold ultra-luxury condominiums worth a total of $1.5 billion and counting. The magazine made no mention of the crane collapse, its memory and cost erased by a single, record-setting $90 million penthouse sale. “He’s the developer of what looks like the most successful condominium in New York,” a real estate tracker told the magazine.

Another year later this was still true. By Sandy’s third anniversary, One57 claimed the most expensive square footage in the city and had inspired a crop of even taller condo towers planned along the new “Billionaire’s Row” of Fifty-Seventh Street: 1,396-foot 432 Park Avenue, 1,428-foot 111 West 57th, and Barnett’s own follow-up act, the 1,550-foot Central Park Tower. Once completed, these would become the three tallest residential buildings in the world.

Had every story after Superstorm Sandy gone this way, life could have carried on much more smoothly: a terrifying night, a nail-biting week, and then—everything under control. Get a crew in, take care of it. Just the cost of doing business.

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City and the tenth-richest man in America at the time of the storm, had no doubt that this was the way his city worked. He spent the days after Sandy making appearances in affected neighborhoods, meeting the standards of a leader during crisis, speaking of hope and resilience. Then the issue of the New York City Marathon came up, and things got messy. The world’s largest footrace was scheduled to take place only six days after the storm, snaking through all five boroughs of the city. Many of the 47,000 registered runners had already arrived, waiting for the marathon in their hotels. In the streets they would be joined by 2 million spectators, eight thousand volunteers, and the throngs of city police, emergency services, and sanitation workers required for an event of such scale. City services were already stretched to breaking point but, Bloomberg decided, if it could happen, it must happen. Symbolically and economically, the city needed the marathon more than ever. “It’s a great event for New York,” the mayor said the day after Sandy, “and I think for those who were lost, you know, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city go on for those that they left behind.”

The backlash began immediately and grew with each day that passed. The event seemed an extravagance at a time when unknown thousands of city residents were without power, shelter, and basic necessities (as the mayor spoke, more than 6 million East Coast residents remained without electricity, including most of Manhattan below Thirty-Fourth Street). Rumors spread of marathon volunteers being pelted with eggs while setting up equipment. Worse still, the run’s traditional starting line was on Staten Island. In ordinary years, it would be one of the rare occasions when the least populous borough makes it on television; this time, television crews were already on the island, documenting some of Sandy’s worst devastation, and marathon organizers feared that they would broadcast images of a hostile crowd at the starting line, eggs in hand. Yet it was a trio of giant generators sitting in Central Park, at the other end of the race, that did the marathon in before it began. Two were powering the event’s media tent near the famous Tavern on the Green restaurant, with the third standing by as a backup. The press, primed for outrage, were more interested in the generators than anything going on in the tent. By the New York Post’s calculations, each one of these three machines in the park could instead have been powering four hundred homes in the large swaths of the city still cut off from the grid. A police source, angered by diversions of New York Police Department (NYPD) resources, told the paper, “You know what this is about? This is all so Bloomberg can stand at the finish line Sunday and tell the world we bounced back.”

Two days before race time, Bloomberg was still in no mood to compromise on the marathon as a necessary beacon of hope. He told reporters he had been speaking with his predecessor Rudy Giuliani, who encouraged him. On a trip to Sydney, Giuliani told a receptive Australian press that Bloomberg should, in local terms, have a go: “I hope beyond hope they have the marathon on Sunday, because we end up with about thirty thousand runners and a couple million people on the streets of Manhattan, which reaffirms the fact that we’re tremendously resilient and will overcome anything,” the ex-mayor said. “One of the proudest things I participated in after September 11th was making sure the marathon took place. There were more people on the streets than maybe ever before, and I think that we’ll probably see the same thing again.”

In the end, even with the spirit of 9/11 invoked, the generators chugging away in Central Park were too much to bear. “The conversations around it had become caustic,” a mayoral adviser told the Times. It was too much celebration too soon—it didn’t look like resilience so much as blind disregard. The plug was finally pulled, less than forty-eight hours before the starting gun was to go off. Unused PowerBars, bottled water, and T-shirts were quickly handed over to the Sandy relief effort, and thousands of runners headed to Staten Island to join the cleanup effort and run supplies up the stairs of blacked-out high-rise blocks. The disputed generators stayed put in the park for a while, until the rental companies came to collect them. Whether any of them got a chance to power four hundred homes is unknown. The vendors who owned the machines took them back to fill new orders from other customers. According to the mayor’s office, some left the city for New Jersey. The clumsy impropriety of the marathon could now be left behind, but the misdirection of resources ran deeper. The power that would have supplied the event streamed back into the circuits of the free market, where generators were in sky-high demand.



The storm had made its hardest landfall “out there” in the Rockaways, Staten Island, Coney Island, the Jersey Shore: devastated zones that were hard for many New Yorkers to imagine. They were far away even for people now living “south of power” in the dark lower end of Manhattan, where people’s needs were also great, but most of their homes—at least those above the ground floor—were intact. Here neighbors and community groups did what they could for one another and waited for the power to come back. Where life had to go on, New Yorkers had their own bahala na (life goes on) outlook. In the words of one FedEx courier making a delivery to a Grand Street warehouse while the storm bore down, “I had a shift. What are you gonna do?”

Some of the neighbors had particularly recent training in urban survival and mutual aid. It was less than a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement had been crushed and evicted by the NYPD from Zuccotti Park. Unable to claim a new public space, the Occupiers had scattered to all corners of the city and a multitude of new undertakings. Goldi Guerra, an activist and musician who had been with Occupy from day one, was back at home on the Lower East Side. In the first days after Sandy, with much of that low-income neighborhood flooded and all of it without power, Guerra helped out however he could at a Sixth Street aid center coordinated by the community group Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). Elsewhere in the city, two other Occupiers joining in early aid efforts started up an online fund-raising campaign under the title Occupy Sandy. The name stuck fast, and it struck a chord: mutual aid was back. Eager volunteers—old Occupy faces and new—streamed to the hubs listed on the movement’s website. GOLES was the only hub designated in Manhattan. That weekend a thousand volunteers showed up. The power had just come back on for the Lower East Side and there wasn’t enough work for so many people. Guerra handed out an address on Staten Island that he had gotten from Occupy Sandy organizers and promised to meet them there.

Copyright © 2016 by Stan Cox and Paul Cox. This excerpt originally appeared in How the World Breaks, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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