Hurricane Sandy in its aftermath

Hurricane Sandy: An Island in Mourning and Crisis

Day 5, after Hurricane Sandy hit, I dreamt about my three birds – a cockatiel, and two parrots-creatures from other lands, displaced and domesticated to live in cages in artificially constructed human-made environments.

Two of these birds died over the past two years – the parrots. In my dream, we are in my garage. The birdcage and the garage door are open. It’s a dangerous combination. Only one bird (the living one), a bright yellow cockatiel, perches in an open cage. I fear he will fly out and away – into the cold and die. Just then, my daughter runs past and opens and runs through a door that leads into the house. The cockatiel flies after my daughter and into safety. Relief. I turn back to the cage and see the other two birds who, in ‘waking life’, are dead. They perch on top of the open cage. They don’t fly away. Elated, I call out to my ex-husband: “They are here, they are here.” I go to the parrots – one bright green, and the other orange and yellow like the sun, and carry them back into the house, into safety.

We are home.

I wake up from this dream in the dark, cold, and early morning. As I wake more fully, my sense of comfort falls away. I remember: We are not home, my ex-husband is not with us, and the two birds I just carried into safety are dead.

It’s five days post-Hurricane Sandy.

Yes, as of last night, when we first moved to our friends’ house, we have a warm place to stay.

I am grateful for the kindness of friends and warm place to sleep, but the world still feels scary and unpredictable.

We hear and see horror stories about homes, people, and cars washed away; about fires, floods, and trees falling and crushing houses, cars, and human beings. Communication is impossible and information hard to gather if you don’t have power. Support from the outside world is not there. There are many deaths and much suffering. Travel is dangerous and impossible in many locations. Getting off Long Island is treacherous. The weather grows colder by the day, and a Nor’easter is on its way. Schools are closed. There is no sign of when things will return to normal. Nobody knows.

Life imitates art. Life imitates scientific predications.We’ve been warned for years.

This isn’t just one fluke hurricane. I teach this stuff. It’s called global warming and environmental degradation.

Families break apart. Pets and people die or fly away. Weather, pollution, and unforeseen crises destroy homes and lives.

My Buddhist teacher, Holly, talks about “impermanence.” Nothing lasts forever, she explains, everything changes moment to moment, and it is our attachment to things remaining the same, or operating as we think they should, that makes us unhappy. It’s how we deal with change, or loss, that defines our experience of life. She calls this clinging to things having a particular outcome “attachment.”Attachment results in all kinds of problems and pain. By contrast, if we expect and accept change and loss – “impermanence” – we can be happy, peaceful, calm.

This includes death, divorce, birds flying or away or being devoured by predators.

It includes climate change and environmental degradation.

I don’t know how to resolve this in my heart. I do not accept the losses of my family or loved ones, including pets, very well. I try, but it is hard to let go of those whom we love.

Nor can I accept what is happening to our planet and future generations, either. The sight of huge and majestic fallen trees makes me weep. These creatures are upended everywhere on Long Island. Wild birds come to perch on them, visiting their dying friends.

Thoreau said the church bells should toll when a tree is cut down. I hear many bells in my head and heart right now.

We are an island in mourning and crisis.

Hurricane Sandy in its aftermath

Fence and Water

For me, the destruction of the planet, our human disconnection from the natural world, feel linked to my familial and human communal disconnections.

Some days I feel okay with being a single mom and an orphan – a two-person family, mother and child. Some days, I am at peace with going it on my own. Other days – in the middle of a wild hurricane, for example, when the wind is howling, and the trees crash all around me – the worst fears erupt in my mind. In those moments, I long for an imaginary muscular dude, like my Dad or a fictional macho, loving, spiritual husband, to save the day. A guy with an axe and good survival skills.

What kind of feminist does this make me?

I also want a big loving and connected family and community.

It’s a fantasy. It’s that prince charming thing I’ve been working hard to shake from the time of my feminist awakening in the 1970s when I read The Cinderella Complex, and I vowed never to wait to be saved, but instead to save myself.

It’s a fantasy just like my dream that we have a healthy, loving, and safe planet – free of toxic poison, radioactive waste, power, and bombs, and free of the dangers of climate change.

It’s a fantasy, like my desire to live in a self-sustaining and off the grid community (such as the one described in ecofeminist novels like Fifth Sacred Thing). Probably, I’d want to run from my community members after living with them in close quarters after a year. I lived in a hippie artist co-op in Soho in the 1980s. There was adultery. There were fights. One co-op member deliberately set the building on fire. Sharing buildings or housing isn’t always rosy.

Yet, we really do need each other. I realize it with Sandy now more than ever.

If people were truly connected, how could we poison ourselves and the earth?How could we doubt global warming and not do something about it?

How could we leave each other to die?

warns not to loot

A homeowner posts a threat to looters.

After the Nor-Easter on day 10 post Sandy, I drive to Stony Brook University to teach my classes.We sit in a circle and I ask my students how they survived the storm. Their very sad and broken faces tell the whole story. They look years older than they did a week ago – at our last meeting before the storm.”It’s not over,” says Claire. “And what bothers me is that most students and people just care about themselves. Is my light on? Do I have gas in my car? Do I have to wait on a long line?”

They are witnessing a war – a war on their homes, their communities, their friends and family. They are witnessing, quite directly, how climate change causes massive destruction and suffering.

One student, Melanie,tells a long story of the destruction to her immediate family. Her grandfather, who uses an oxygen tank, was told by LIPA, the power company, not to worry, they’d get him power within a few hours. But they didn’t and he almost died. Two houses belonging to her family members blew up. A huge boat washed up in front of her house (that is not on water). Neighborhoods have been destroyed and will never be visible again – they were washed away forever.

Another student, Kimberley, tells of her job in a nursing home that lost power and was still unheated as of yesterday. During this time, five elderly residents died. Perhaps it was from the cold – Melanie couldn’t say for sure. But she thought it was likely. “The saddest thing,” she says, “is seeing these freezing and confused old people, bumping along the walls in the dark.”

Anna, a serious chemistry student from Long Beach, who usually approaches things with much calm, opened her mouth to speak and burst into violent sobs. She had no words to share, but wrote to me the next day and sent photographs.

Anna has this to say: “Long Beach has been getting a fair amount of press, not like New York City, but they are in the news. The bigger story, I think, comes from Island Park. Island Park is a barrier island right next to Long Beach. It is a smaller community made up mostly of very poor people. Long Beach has gotten a lot of aid. Island Park got hit just as bad, has even more infrastructure damage, still has no power AND the people are socioeconomically disadvantaged so they don’t even have the resources to help themselves. My mom is a public school teacher in Island Park, and apparently the situation there is really really bad right now.”

Claire, who works as an RA in the dorms, says the stories she’s hearing from students about their families are horrifying.

My students understand something is very wrong.

They understand we are at war. It’s a battle humans are waging against themselves and all living creatures. It’s a class war. It’s an environmental war.

Their sad, tearful, and shocked faces tell it all.

A fallen tree

It’s day 11, as I finish this writing. I am back home. We have power as of three days ago, but 160,000 households in Long Island still don’t. As soon as we returned home, we took in another family, and my house serves as a warming and dinner station for a second.

I took a walk this afternoon with my friend. She’s a German biologist-very smart and very practical. She can build a house or run a full-scale experiment in a world class biology laboratory.

She and her family just got their power back. She has one disabled child. Her house was blocked for days by large trees that crashed across her front yard and driveway. The family couldn’t go anywhere.

The house across the street from hers caught on fire from its generator.

Like the rest of us, she’s in distress.

We run into men on the street with “National Grid” on their white helmets and big white trucks. They look like life-size toy figures and trucks that little boys like to play with.

She rails at the men. She tells them about a street near her filled with several old and disabled people: “No one has been by to turn on their power or check on them. When I call LIPA, they don’t answer. When I call the town, they tell me to tell the old folks to call LIPA. How can the old or sick folks call anyone when the phones are not working? The lines are down! Cell phones don’t work either. It’s insane. Those people are going to die in there.”

Old people, the poor, and the disabled are suffering and dying. They don’t have a way to communicate and save themselves when the power is out and when they either don’t have cell phones, or the cell phones don’t work. Even with a working phone, there is no one to call.

FEMA is barely functioning. LIPA can’t keep up-they were not “ready for a major storm.”

There appears to have been no governmental planning, no foresight.

Right now it’s the survival of the fittest, and I’m not exaggerating.

Tomorrow, I’ll visit my neighbor, Maureen, who came home, last Thursday, to a cold and dark house after her double mastectomy. She’s one of three of my friends in cancer recovery and post surgery, recuperating in cold and dark houses for many days post Sandy.

It’s so complicated and confusing. There is climate change and climate denial, pollution and cancer and over-consumption.There are not nearly enough (or any, in some cases) governmental environmental regulations or disaster relief precautions in place. Communities and families are socially disconnected, and there is a lack of every-day and basic survival skills – all the things our grandparents used to know how to do, that could get us through a power outage.

We have forgotten how to rescue ourselves. While chasing after our addictions, we have lost sight of how to live peacefully with our natural world and other human beings. Our world is out of balance: immense uprooted trees crash into our houses and cars. Look at the signs. The trees are sending us word.The wild winds and high tides are raging.It is time to live differently. We have our work cut out for us.

 

Dr. Heidi Hutner is Director of Environmental Humanities at Stony Brook University, where she teaches about Environmental literature, film and media. Read more of her work at her blog, Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations.

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