Beginning at age nine, I feel that I’ve experienced a disproportionate amount of highly visible coincidences. I’ll spare you all the details and tell you a story.
Starting in the late summer of 2010, I taught English at a middle school in Elbeuf, France. I returned to New Jersey a year later in 2011, and the following summer, Clement told me he would be visiting in November of 2012 at the beginning of his junior year in high school.
Clement Poussard, a ninth grader when I taught, was my best student at the much maligned Mont-Vallot Middle School – which in 2011 was relocated into a beautiful new building and renamed in honor of Nelson Mandela. In fact, a few days before my flight back to the US, I spent a fun evening with Clement and his family at their home after visiting the new Mandela campus.
Before Clement’s New York visit, I made him a bunch of travel suggestions – even a potential day trip to Philadelphia. Mother Nature had other plans. The Poussards arrived on Friday October 26 for a one week trip. Hurricane Sandy was set to arrive three days after they touched down.
On the evening of Sunday October 28th, I made an afternoon trip to Manhattan to spend some time with the Poussards and another family who accompanied them. They all were sharing a vacation apartment atop a store around 8th Avenue and 14th Street.
At the kitchen table, we all dissected the map of New York – the things you have to do and which activities were close to eachother. Earlier Sunday, they’d seen a good gospel choir uptown. They wanted to know if there was anything interesting to see in the Bronx. I wasn’t of much help there.
But we talked, we laughed. We turned on the news and I explained the forecast to them. The impending storm was obviously a big deal to all of us.
It was almost night, and the wind was picking up somewhat. The heaviest rain wasn’t supposed to arrive for several hours but the sky was already menacing. Newscasters were talking about future restrictions on travel into the city and at around 6pm, I figured it was a good time to go home.
Mr. Poussard accompanied me downstairs to the ground floor door. He was concerned about the hurricane. “Don’t worry,” I assured him at the storefront. “You’re in Manhattan, there are no trees. It’s not like you’re staying where I live.”
Sandy’s winds would begin to pick up much more by the following afternoon of October 29th. The prognosis grew more troublesome by then, too, when we learned definitively that we’d be a hundred or so miles north of the storm’s eye – a bad place to be. Sandy was to make landfall in Atlantic County at around 8pm.
Looking back at this megastorm, there are a dozen or so classic images. Seaside Heights’ pier under water. The flooded Hoboken Path Station. Mantoloking. Atlantic City’s missing Boardwalk. Shots of Manhattan in the dark below 34thStreet. Most of those were taken in the storm’s aftermath.
But the very first iconic photo image of Sandy damage to make its way around the world that night was of a collapsing apartment building in Chelsea that had its façade blown off. You likely remember it.
I first saw this scene on the local news as I weathered the beginning of Sandy at my parents’ house, in their sunroom. My first realization was that this was in the Poussard’s neighborhood, near the same intersection. No way that could be Clement’s apartment, though. Of all the buildings in New York, what are the odds? But it looked just like it at first glance.
I looked again and there was no denying. Google Earth quickly confirmed – it was theirs. Wide open into the bedrooms. Almost exactly twenty-four hours earlier I’d stood where the rubble now sat, explaining to these tourists that they had nothing to worry about. Now you could look right into their apartment. My heart skipped a beat. Another big coincidence, perhaps the biggest yet. It felt like the Twilight Zone.
I panicked. Were they in their rooms? Had their beds been against that front wall? Was anyone napping? Were they sheltered from the falling debris?
I took to Skype and called Clement’s cell phone at least four times. It rang, but no answer. I texted from my phone, no response.
After six long minutes that felt like a half hour, a text. “Yes, we were evacuated, did you see us on television?” proving that even in moments of terror, we all just want to be on TV.
It turns out that another guest on a higher floor heard the building coming apart and let everyone else know. Terrified, they grabbed all their things and exited before seeing the facade fall at a safe distance. A man across the street caught it on video.
Passing through that front door was likely one of the most dangerous moments of their lives, in hindsight. At the moment, staying inside appeared to be the greatest risk.
The Poussards were nonetheless safe, and spent that night at an emergency shelter as they gained their composure. The next day, all power was lost south of 40th Street, and they were given a nicer apartment northward, on 49th. Upon the families’ return home they were refunded their money, a nice consolation prize for a week long trip cut in half.
Exactly two years ago, many of us in Plainfield were still in the dark on November 7th, especially on the East end of town. We were dealing with odd-even alternating license plate gas days and long lines. Houses in Plainfield were damaged, cars smashed. We also had presidential and local elections taking place in dark, cold polling places minimally lit by loud generators. Luckily no lives were lost here, but there were fatalities in the area, especially closer to New York harbor and the shore.
I hope we don’t see another storm like Sandy – but if we do, maybe I won’t visit anyone beforehand.