My 15-year-old son said to me—as he, his brother, his sister and I were huddled under blankets last week during Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath which ravaged much of Long Island, New York City and New Jersey: “People do crazy things because of the blackout.”
Our power had gone out, and we had been listening to a battery-powered radio which—amid news reports of devastation, of flooding New York City tunnels and homes burning in Queens, New York—was warning of people who, desperate for gasoline, were cutting gas lines and starting fistfights, of local looting, and of men posing as utility workers and burglarizing homes when electricity-starved residents let them in with open arms.
“I think crises bring out the best or worst in people,” I said, stunned a bit by his statement, and many others that have come from my oldest son over the years. “If you’re a good person at heart, a crisis will bring out the best in you. If you’re not, I guess it can bring out the worst.” (A magnifier, as my husband calls it.)
For four nights, I sat in the dark with my three children—who, without the circular glow of one of our two camping lanterns, were not discernible at all sitting only inches away from me—wondering if every snap of a branch or creak of a gate outside was a potential threat to our safety. I had forgotten how dark darkness really was until the lights went out and how much of our lives relied upon a current through a wire or a signal in the air. During that time, my children and I clung to our smart phones and tablets, our only lifelines to the outside world, our connection to our neighbors and our old life.
That first morning after the hurricane, after the winds had died down and the sun peeked out from behind low-lying gray clouds, I awoke, happy to see my children asleep around me in the lower-level den, where we had all spent the night in order to be safe from falling trees. I slipped on my shoes, a baseball cap and a jacket and ventured outside to survey the damage to the neighborhood. It was a strange feeling not knowing what to expect when I opened the front door, kind of like Dorothy opening the door to Oz: What would I see outside? How much damage would there be? Was our home intact?
I would soon discover that southern Long Island was hit hard by Sandy, whose winds gave our neighborhood a particularly severe wallop. Downed trees were everywhere—whether or not they hit your home was a matter of chance, a moment’s change in wind direction. Although we had fared all right, other households weren’t so lucky. Slowly, people crept outside of their houses to gauge what was to come next.
Within hours, though, my neighbors—men whom I’d never even seen talk with one another before—were outside, chainsaws in hand, working together to remove trees from our street so that cars could pass. And within days, neighbors with power opened up their homes to those without, and within a week they were organizing clothing and food drives for those hit hardest by the storm.
Although the news reports told of “the worst” in people, with my own eyes I only saw the best.
And during those powerless nights, there were moments I had feelings of peace envelop me like at no other time I can remember, thinking about how life, stripped of its excess, would be all right: all of us, everywhere, going to bed at 8 p.m. simply because we couldn’t see and there was nothing else to do; sleeping for an unheard of nine or ten hours straight; rising with the daylight, living by the light of the sun; relying on the kindness of others for warmth, power—trying not to overstay our welcome, but so thankful to have the ability to recharge our electronic devices as well as our stamina and fortitude. As a friend of mine said of our time in the dark—or “on the prairie,” as I like to call it—“it’s like an alternate life.” Indeed, it was.
And in all that time, my children never complained. Not once. And these are kids who get irritated if a video they’re trying to watch on YouTube keeps buffering. My youngest son, with nothing to do, decided to rake leaves and managed to line up four large garbage bagfuls. He decorated the house for his father’s arrival (my husband has somehow managed to be out of town during the past two hurricanes). My oldest son read two 500-page books. My daughter played so many games of solitaire I thought her hands would fall off.
Although Monday’s power outage certainly inconvenienced our lives, and by Friday all of us had the sniffles as the house temperature sank to the mid-50s, there was a lot of laughing and snuggling and appreciating during those four days too. If indeed these kinds of crises bring out the best and worst in people, I think it brought out the best in my little family, and in my neighborhood, and I discovered a resolve and a peace that, although I suspected was there all along, I was happy to see emerge during our time in the dark.