October 31, 2012 - Jacob Seelbach's daily New York City commute from his apartment on 147th Street in Harlem to his job at New York University on 8th Street in Manhattan normally is about a 45-minute bicycle ride.
On Wednesday, two days after Superstorm Sandy pummelled the East Coast, killing a reported 74 Americans, causing widespread flooding, power outages, and what so far has amounted to an estimated $50 billion in damages to property, it took him about 2-and-a-half hours to bike to work.
"It was quite an excursion today, just getting to work on my bike," said Seelbach, who traveled 139 blocks, about 7 miles. "Today, because a lot of New York City parks are closed and there is mud and flooding, I had to ride with traffic and traffic is very crazy right now. Subways are still closed. Buses are running, but I opted to take my bike, and based on the traffic I saw, I suspect the bus may have taken longer anyway."
He noted on Fifth Avenue, traffic lights were out, ambulances were coming through about every 5 minutes and there was "a lot of honking and agitation," but in general, drivers took their turns in moving forward at intersections.
Seelbach, 27, has lived in New York City since shortly after graduating from Brandon High School in 2003. He works as a resource manager in residential life and housing services for NYU, from where he graduated in 2006 with a degree in dramatic literature.
Seelbach began receiving e-mail communications from NYU nearly a week before Superstorm Sandy arrived. Meteorologists coined the name as they saw three separate weather events— Hurricane Sandy, a winter storm from the west, and an arctic front from Canada— converging to form one massive storm. The devastation would be compounded by the full moon, when tides are highest.
The NYU e-mails detailed preparations to be made, including stocking each residence hall with water, granola bars, and other non-perishable food items, as well as flashlights and first aid kits. Seelbach was not alarmed. He was in New York City last year when Hurricane Irene hit, the same weekend that 10,000 college students were moving in to NYU.
"That tested our salt a little bit," remembers Seelbach. "This time, it was sort of like, 'We have this, we don't know what will happen, we're all just getting ready.'"
Evacuations of some residence halls did take place. Because he is a Harlem resident, Seelbach was not required to come to work on Monday, Oct. 29. On Friday, Oct. 26, he went shopping to prepare.
"You hear all these directives and you have foreknowledge that people are getting prepared, but when you are actually in the store, you feel it in the air as people are manically grabbing all the water and the bread aisle is empty," said Seelbach, who bought cereal, milk, eggs, cheese, crackers, "and, of course, a few bottles of wine. If you're gonna be hunkered down in your apartment, you might as well have a couple bottles of wine."
On Sunday, he went to NYU to make sure everything in his office was off the floor, visited the gym and then headed back uptown because the subways were to close as of 7 p.m. on Sunday. He and his roommate then went to a friend's home a few blocks away to play games and watch the news.
"There were seven of us, a dog and a cat, all in an apartment in Harlem," Seelbach said. "We hung out Sunday night, all day Monday and Monday night."
During the day on Monday (Oct. 29), Seelbach rode his bike back to his apartment for a few more supplies. On the surreal trip, he noted everything was shuttered, with only one grocery open and almost completely empty of food. A few people were in the streets, but he described the scene as very desolate as the rain fell and the wind picked up.
"It was a ghost town," he continues. "A couple people yelled at me to get inside, be careful."
He returned to his friends and said it started getting "bad" about 4 or 5 p.m. They took the dog out around 10 p.m. when it seemed it had let up some. They never lost power, but on Tuesday morning he went outside to find the storm had gone and left destruction in its wake— downed trees everywhere and trails covered in mud. He describes Manhattan as "just tore up." Still, the disaster has banded people together and staff and students are volunteering.
Seelbach loves living in New York City, noting there is a lot going on, with the choice to participate in things or not. He laughs as he notes the storm was not a choice.
"As a city, New York has a keen ability to bounce back right away," Seelbach said. "It's Wednesday and the subways are down, but people are still getting to work and getting things done and shop owners are restocking shelves. When we can turn around in two days from such a huge disaster, I think that speaks well for the city in spite of all of its flaws."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville