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New York’s incredible resilience

3 November 2012

10:30 AM

3 November 2012

10:30 AM

America is now mourning the loss of at least 80 lives taken by Hurricane Sandy, including those of two boys swept from their mother’s arms. The pictures of the destruction of Staten Island are staggering, and the city’s marathon has been cancelled because Mayor Bloomberg accepted that it would, after all, have diverted resources from the recovery. The world has gawped at images of water flooding New York’s underground, yellow cabs floating down the street, housing estates flattened, skyscrapers darkened and evacuated and, now, people queuing for petrol. We can expect such images to dominate the news headlines here,  there is no shortage of genuine horror stories. But as I said in my Telegraph column yesterday, the bigger story is that of New York’s resilience and the pace of its recovery.

A 108-year-old subway system that had been deluged with saltwater is already roaring back to life. The Brooklyn-Battery tunnel had 86 million gallons of water, which is now being sucked out by the US Army (who have a special flooded tunnel unit). Flooded power stations were being dried out and restored at such a pace that nearly all of Manhattan is lit up once more. In Philadephia, 850,000 suffered power cuts. Power had been restored to 725,000 by Friday afternoon.

The Staten Island ferry, which had been out of service due to damage at its South Ferry and St George terminals, chugged to life yesterday. Amtrak’s trains are now up and running, taking in all stops to Penn Station. The petrol situation will be relieved soon, as the port of New York has been reopened to fuel tankers (the coast guard has already cleared the shipping routes of debris). But meanwhile the Pentagon is sending hundreds of trucks to deliver 12 million gallons of petrol. (The US keeps 42m gallons spare, just in case.) JFK and LaGuardia Airport are back to normal. Newark will be soon. The petrol that is for sale is $3.56 a gallon, only 6c above the normal. FEMA, the agency that handles disasters, has so far done a far better job than after Katrina by getting equipment and supplies in the right place before the storm hit.

The real story this week, to me, is not about nature’s fury, nor the authorities’ swift response but the way New Yorkers took it upon themselves to look after their city and their neighbours. Restaurants have given food away free, volunteers kept traffic flowing when the lights went out, spontaneous aid groups have distributed food and clothes to the worst-hit part of New York and hotels have given free accommodation to displaced families. (One of the reasons that the marathon was cancelled is that hotels were refusing to evict Sandy’s victims, and didn’t care about paying guests.) Broadway has reopened, bars are serving by candlelight. The Occupy Wall St lot have repurposed to disaster relief; collecting and redistributing clothes and food while the bigger agencies get organised.

A letter in yesterday’s Telegraph asked which part of the world would do fundraising for New York. The answer: New Yorkers. Millions have already been raised for a relief fund with Goldman Sachs offering $5m. There has been a distinct lack of panic. It all recalls Walt Whitman’s description of Manhattan: ‘sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient.’

Rudy Giuliani was in Australia when the storm hit, and said that days when disaster struck – a plane crash, subway derailment – were the ‘easy days’ of being Mayor. Those are the days, he said, when the city looks after itself. ‘One of the things I always know about New Yorkers is that whenever things are really bad, they’re at their best.’ So Sandy has proven.

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