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Issues of the Day What Matters When the Lights Go Out

When the lights went out in New York City last Monday evening, Oct. 29th, I was with my family in an apartment on West 17th Street in Chelsea that we had rented for the week. We had arrived the previous Friday for a niece’s wedding and had no inkling that a tropical cyclone by the name of Sandy was working itself northward and would eventually make landfall an hour south of where we were staying.


Throughout the ensuing days, warnings that the Big Apple would be struck by the hurricane became increasingly prevalent and dire. The wedding took place the night before Sandy wreaked havoc on the city, and as the hors d'oeuvres were being served I could see through the plate glass windows of the reception hall angry clouds gathering and the Hudson beginning to churn.

Wedding Candles

Advised to prepare for power outages, before leaving the reception I took the remaining candles that had been placed on our table. Those candles would provide us with light for three nights after the electrical grid in southern Manhattan shut down at 20:30 on Monday night, an hour after the storm came ashore at Atlantic City, New Jersey.

We had water, but there was no electrical current for lighting, television radio or phone. The Internet was down and there was no Wi-Fi for hand-held devices. The New York City subway system was shut down and stayed that way for the remainder of our stay. To make it uptown to where our relatives had power required walking about three miles each way. For a good part of that distance, virtually all restaurants and stores were closed and traffic lights were inoperative.

New York City Wounded

Midtown offered haven: “Civilization” there had remained more or less intact. One could take a hot shower, get updated with all the television and radio news you could hope for, order a hot meal and even do some shopping. But further south in Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens and especially Staten Island, New York City was wounded: One neighborhood lost up to 100 houses to fire, many thousands of homes were damaged, flooding in low-lying areas was prevalent, power loss was persistent and fuel supplies for vehicles was rapidly dwindling.

US troops were called in: To evacuate patients from flooded hospitals that had no electricity and to distribute food and fuel in the hardest hit areas. Throughout the storm and in the following days, New York City police, fire fighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel were deployed in impressive numbers and their presence and discipline was reassuring that the situation was in hand.

Things Unraveled

But things began to unravel on Tuesday when, lacking public transportation, motorists clogged the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan as they gradually reopened to traffic. Gridlock was prevalent. Business that did open were only partially staffed: Manhattan’s laborers largely do not reside on the island, but take the subway and buses to get to work from the outer boroughs.

Recovery from the storm quickly proved to be a protracted affair and today, nearly a week after the storm struck, forty thousand people are reported by The New York Times  to be newly homeless due to the storm. They face dropping temperatures without adequate shelter amid the prospect that a winter storm may hit the area later this week. Nearly two million people remain without electricity in the metro area as of this writing.

Inconvience Versus the Suffering

My family and I did not miss a meal during the days New York City was assailed by the storm and its aftermath and while the nights were cold due to the lack of heat and our feet ached from so much walking, our situation was characterized by inconvenience, not suffering. But there are those, thousands, who did and will continue to suffer.

Now back home in Israel, as I look back on last week I recall that we made due rather nicely with candles and getting around on foot. I found it quite refreshing not to be “wired” to those devices we have come so use to thinking of as necessitates: our computers, smart phones, cars. Washing in cold water and going without a daily shower was quite tolerable and I enjoyed dining and doing the dishes by candlelight. The absence of television was a relief and New York streets are really much more pleasant without the incessant rushing of trucks and cars to make the next light and the honking of horns to advance in position or to avoid a collision.    

Personally, I found the experience to be a valuable reminder of how easy it is to get by with much less than what we are accustomed to. I also realized how subordinate high-tech wizardry is to nature.


I have no doubt that the freak storm, a hybrid tropical hurricane with a cold front spliced into it, was generated by conditions of environmental stress. It seems clear to me that a profoundly more judicious use of technology – those that are directly powered by fossil fuels and those that are produced by the industrial processes that employ them -- is needed to mitigate climate change.

Less reliance on our gadgets and devices would also serve to keep us more closely in tune with our needs and potential, which are obscured by the dispensable amenities that have become so central to modern life.   

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved