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Eyewitness Report on Hurricane Sandy


Hi, folks,

First of all, We're okay.  We've been okay the whole time, but we had an adventure, especially Ken (who is writing this and will switch to a first person narrative).

The lights stayed on at home.  No broken windows or anything like that.  The stove was working and Mercy was able to bake cookies, get e-mail, talk to people on the phone, etc.  She lost hot water for a little while, but that's about it.

Meanwhile....

I went to WBAI at 6AM Sunday, when I normally do.  I had to decide before the subways closed at 7PM whether I was going to go home or stay there and help, either as a producer, an operations person or just an extra pair of hands.  I would end up doing all three.

WBAI was in fund-raising mode.  Many programs were pre-empted as it was, so many producers didn't come in.  There was a full compliment of volunteers all the way up to 6:30 pm, so WBAI was able to fund-raise until the last moment.  For one scheduled live show where the producer couldn't come in, at 4 PM, Chris Hatzis, the program director, did a Hurricane Sandy update.  It was Chris, me, Delphine Blue, former arts director and current music show producer, and Kathy Davis, the public affairs director who also does health and new age shows, got there about halfway in.  I contributed what environmental expertise that I could.  The pervading question is climate change.

There were hurricanes before people started changing the climate, which began back in the industrial revolution when fossil fuels started being burnt in ever-growing amounts, putting extra carbon dioxide into the air, which acted like a greenhouse roof.  That accelerated when commercial jet plane travel started.   A Boeing aviation physicist compared a 747 taking off to burning the contents of an entire gas station.  To make an analogy: people get lung cancer who don't smoke cigarettes or work in uranium mines and other people who smoke a pack a day do not get lung cancer.  SO it was hard to legally prove that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer because you couldn't point to any one case of lung cancer and say THAT one was caused by cigarette smoking.

So is any ONE hurricane caused by climate change?  No.  But does the global warming aspect of climate change create more hurricanes?  Absolutely.  Does it make the hurricanes worse?  Absolutely.  Ocean water is warmer than it used to be and that adds energy to hurricanes, making them more powerful.  Warmer oceans evaporate more, adding extra rain to the hurricanes.  Warmer water's energy turns tropical storms into hurricanes.  It also extends the hurricane season.  October hurricanes used to be EXTREMELY rare.  Plus, the sea level rise caused by the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps means that any storm surge starts from a higher level in the first place.

Ingredients for disaster.   And how!

Also on that show, I called Peter Rugh of Occupy Wall St.'s Environmental Solidarity Working Group, who was attending a Connect the Dots rally at Times Square that the NYC chapter of 350.org organized.  None of the presidential debates (except for the Third Parties debate) even mentioned climate change or global warming, so OWS and 350.org decided to have a rally before the hurricane and before the subways closed.  Peter gave an overview of that and then got some chants going.  "You're on the radio!"

Then I went with Helena to the near-by Duane Reade drug store to pick up a little bit of food for those who'd be staying for who-knows-how-long and bottled water (yeah, I know, I did a whole episode of Eco-Logic about it...).  There was a helluva line, with almost everyone buying bottled water.  As it turned out, there was drinking water at the station the whole time.

I got an e-mail from meteorologist Tom Wysmuller that he was on his way to NYC from Maine and would be available to me to give WBAI listeners some solid meteorological information.

At 7PM, engineer Shawn Rhodes got a ride home and I was the only engineer at the station.  Chris had already arranged with Tony Ryan, another engineer, to keep the station on, but he hadn't arrived yet (he knew I was there), so I engineered.  Max Schmid had sent in his show, "Golden Age of Radio," by internet and continued the fund drive, oriented to the web site. At 9:30 Tony got there, I told him about various preparations and miscellaneous information, and he took over engineering at 10.  I went to sleep in one of the offices, in a chair.

Monday morning.  Hurricane Sandy was off the North Carolina coast, predicted to hit New Jersey somewhere between Cape May and Atlantic City at about 8PM, which was when high tide was going to be.  So the storm surge would have extra water from that.  Plus, it's a full moon, which makes high tides higher (because the sun is adding it's gravitational pull to the moon's gravitational pull, which is the main source of tides).  It was going to be a precedent-setting hurricane, even at Category 1 (75 - 90 MPH winds at the eye).

Esther Armah was devoting "Wake Up Call" to environmental issues, particularly climate change.  She had excellent guests and took phone calls, so I called in to ask about climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  She recognized my voice and mentioned me as the host of Eco-Logic.

Then on one of the Indian Point lists, I found out Entergy did not intend to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant.  Activists were urging people to call the governor's office and call the Westchester emergency services to get them to urge Entergy to close it down.  Remembering 120,000 gallons of Hudson River water that flooded the containment building back in 1980 and various other leaks over the years and remembering that the Hudson River is salty at that point (it's really a fjord) and much colder than the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit that a nuke operates at, I was quite alarmed.  I called the numbers and told the Westchester person that I was with WBAI-FM.  She asked me for my number and said someone would get back to me.  That person ended up being a p.r. person from Entergy, who told me that they would only close it down if the winds got above 75MPH, which they didn't believe would happen (neither did I).  He denied that Hudson River water ever got into the containment building and said that Indian Point was 15.2 feet above river level and no storm surge had ever been higher than eight feet. Westchester County has had storm surges of 12 feet, without something like a Hurricane Sandy.  The p.r. person dismissed that, too.

There are windows throughout the WBAI offices on the 10th floor, mostly facing east and south, with a great look over the East River and Brooklyn and south toward Governeur's Island.  We can see the east end of the Brooklyn Bridge, some of the South Sea Seaport, Verizano Bridge and a heliport sticking into the East River where people like the president and pope come into the City.

As I walked through the station, my eyes were drawn to the windows much more than they usually are and I took a long look at any birds I saw, in case any were being pushed into our area by the storm.  For Hurricane Irene last year, there were pelagic (open ocean) birds on the East River and Hudson River quite a few miles north and even tropicbirds on the Hudson.  They're usually near the Bahamas and places like that.  At one point, I saw a large species of shearwater, either Cory's or Greater, gliding over the water.  They have much longer wings than a gull and a totally different way of flying.  From the distance I was, I couldn't make out any of the details that would have told the two species apart.  My first guess would be Greater Shearwater because of how dark it was.

At 10 AM, we did a two-hour special, with Tony playing appropriate music.  It was Chris, Esther and I.  Esther and I gave the governor and Westchester numbers over the air and we explained why the phone calls were needed.  Then someone tweeted the phone numbers and I think all hell broke loose.  I also explained, in the context of flooding in the subway tunnels, that salt water is a greater conductor of electricity than fresh water.  (I remember a physics or chemistry teacher doing a experiment using a lamp with two electrodes extending from it.  She put the two electrodes on a plate of salt, no conductivity, then into (distilled) water, nothing, then she added the salt to the water and placed the electrodes into the salt water and the lamp went on.  I've never forgotten that experiment.) Eventually, several New Jersey nukes and Indian Point 3 did get shut down.

Just after 10:30, I called Tom Wysmuller and he explained how hurricanes work and what we could expect and why.  He explained why the full moon makes tides higher and what hurricane categories are and that we have to add the speed that the hurricane is moving to the speed of the winds because that's how much of a pounding we're going to get to the north of the hurricane.  It'll be like a category 2.  Tony seemed to be especially glad to have had Tom on, but also wanted to keep that segment short.
      Anyway, I managed to get some science and real meteorology on to the air.

Matt Mazur and I went on to the give2wbai.org web site and Matt pulled out a sample of cds of different shows that we have available for people to get as part of a membership drive gift.  I chose different shows of different categories so there would be variety (including Eco-Logic) and we could ask people to go to the web site to become members of WBAI.  The storm was eliminating several days of the membership drive and that was my way of making up for some of it.  If we were going to play canned programs, let them be programs we could raise money with.

Tony had wanted me to take over engineering at noon, but was so energized over the show we had just done that he did one more hour. Then I took over, playing some recorded shows and then at 3PM, "Talkback" with Hugh Hamilton.  Hugh wasn't able to get to the station, so he did the show by phone.  I tried to use the ISDN line (higher fidelity), but got a recording that there was too much traffic and the lines were down.  I used regular phones, instead. Hugh did a 15 min. monologue of current events, including the hurricane, of course, then took listener phone calls.  Quite a few listeners had concerns about some or all of the 16 nuclear power plants in Sandy's path and Hugh introduced me to his listeners and had me field those calls.  Then after the show Hugh called me and thanked me again, in detail, for my help.  That means a lot, especially coming from him.

I told Hugh about what Matt and I had put together and he suggested playing one of his interviews in the second hour of when he would have normally been on.  He didn't want to do two solid hours of phone-on-phone.

Rebecca Myles of the News Dept.had come in to do some news updates and gave us a few minutes at 5PM then again at 6PM.  With recorded shows in-between.  Tom came back on with a hurricane update of his own.  The storm had sped up and was moving to shore much faster.  It would be hitting before high tide, a small favor.  But the winds would be more fierce.

Everyone at the station spent a lot of time at the window near reception watching the water from the tenth floor.  Waves were splashing on to the heliport and the walkway at the East River. After Rebecca's 6 PM broadcast, I played a Rick Wolff premium that I'd picked out with Matt.  There was a technical difficulty at about 6:30.  Chris and I filled the air a little while I tried another machine to play it and fast-forwarded to about where it left off. It was working fine, so back to the window to watch the storm from ten stories up.  High tide was approaching.  Hurricane Sandy was approaching.  Two ends of the T-shaped heliport were going under water.

    Then we saw it happen.

Water started pouring over South St. toward the building we were in.  The water hit the curb and went down Wall St.  Then it rose and in seconds went over the curbs to cover the sidewalks on both sides.  The rush of water kept rising higher and higher.  There is a fountain in front of the building that is a few feet high and it started pouring INTO the fountain.  A weird sight.  Normally, water comes out of fountains, not in.  Then our attention was on the traffic light across the street.  We watched the water creep higher and higher then someone said we were going to lose power (electrical equipment is in the basement, which was getting flooded, and Con Ed was going to cut off power to protect the system), let's get on the air and tell everyone.

And so we did.  I quoted what I said to Mercy on the phone, "Wall St. is now Canal St."  We predicted that we were going off the air soon and not too many seconds later, we were.

The lights went out.  The equipment went off with a loud crack, all the clicks of all the equipment going off at the same time adding up to a loud crack.

We went back to the window.  The water level was still rising. There were breakers over the heliport, as if it was a sand bar.  The fountain and the bushes in the park in front of the building were now shadows under the water.  I could imagine water pouring into the atm machine across the street, soaking the cash.  Then the water level reached the traffic light itself and it was moving to the motion of the water, not the wind.  "Trucks go under that light!" I said aloud.  And still the water rose.  Nearly to the level of FDR drive.  It was a captivating sight.  A street I've looked at and walked along hundreds of times being changed like that so suddenly. I'll never forget it.

There were also lightning flashes that turned out to be transformer explosions. I was looking out at Brooklyn when two of them exploded along the East River. The East River has most of New York City's power plants, most of them on the Brooklyn and Queens side. I think we saw the flash shown in this video of one of the few power plants still on the Manhattan side of the East River (which is not really a river, but a tidal estuary).

The water level might have gone as high as the floor of the second story or chest high in the lobby, depending on whose story you hear. One window looked west on Wall St. and you could see that the water was all the way to the stock exchange, but not very deep past Pearl St.

Walking around the station in the dark was, to say the least, interesting.  The few emergency lights on the wall ran out of battery power after a few hours.  Even the exit signs went dim.  Many rooms had no light, not even double-reflected light.  In some places, I walked around with my arms out and walked very deliberately, so as to not bump into anything in a way I'd regret.  It was akin to being blind, except I knew that I'd be able to see when I got to another spot. There were only two flashlights, though for the most part I didn't feel I needed one.

Michael G. Haskins was able to set up a broadcast from his apartment in Harlem.  But in the middle of the night, that ended.  Possibly due to Verizon problems.

Eventually, after much conversation and conjecture, I went to sleep.  But not for that long.  I awoke a little after 2 AM and went to the reception window.  Several other people were also awake. Most of the water was gone!  The tide had gone out.  Wall St. was wet, not flooded.  The park had a large puddle in it, that's all. The fountain was full of sea water.  The sewer grates were all covered with debris.  You could see the heliport again.

Most of the trees across the street were on their sides, roots intact.  I thought they could be saved, but in the morning, a crew with a chain saw came by, killed them and carted away the bodies.  (Overly dramatic?  Perhaps, but trees are so vital.  They clean the air and just plain look nice and the attitude of finishing them off instead of seeing if they are alright bothers me a great deal.)  I realized that the next high tide was not going to be as bad as I had thought it would be as I watched the storm surge a few hours before.

More conversation and conjecture then back to sleep.  Then at daylight came the waiting.  For word about the pumping out of the basement that would be followed by Con Ed inspectors before power was turned on.  Chris and station manager Berthold were trying to figure out how to get the station back on the air, weighing pluses and minuses of different options.  Rebecca walked home when it got light out.  She was ready to leave at 2AM, but allowed those of us worried about her safety to talk her into delaying that decision.

One by one, people with cell phones lost power.  Then we were told that if we left the building we wouldn't be allowed back.  This reduced options a great deal.  Searching for food was now out of the question because you would then have no place to go (I was assuming that SOMEthing in Chinatown would be open).  If I tried to walk home, but found myself underdressed with the one sweater I brought with me (I hadn't planned on staying when I walked out the door at 5 AM Sunday morning), I wouldn't be able to return.

There are a lot of books at WBAI, and I did a little reading (a book on Frederick Douglas), but found my mind too distracted to read well.  I got a nap in, and when I got up found that Berthold had decided on an alternative broadcasting spot and would be picking us up to go there.  For a while, there was no power going to the Empire State Building, so nothing could be broadcast.  If you were checking other radio stations, you would have heard a lot of TV being broadcast on the radio.  Once power came on at ESB, we could set up a remote.  Head engineer Graceon Challenger did not have optimal conditions to say the least, but managed to get something automated broadcast (an MP3 cd of multiple programs).

I told everyone that I was a 20 minute walk away and that Tom said he would come on again, but they didn't take me up on it, so instead I am home writing this.  Matt stayed overnight with us and went home to Brooklyn after a late breakfast of Mercy's homemade mulligatawny soup.  That day (Wednesday), WBAI was broadcast, with only minimal interruption and recorded shows.  There is no firm estimate of when power will be back on at 120 Wall St.  Maybe in a day, maybe in several days.  My next shift is this Sunday.  I wonder if I'll be at the station [I wasn't].  I strongly suspect that any environmental expertise I can give is now considered unnecessary.  I don't agree with that, but that seems to be what is happening.

When I got home, I learned about a fire that destroyed over 100 homes (reports vary) near Breezy Point in Queens, probably from a low-pressure gas line rupture.  That's not too far from where a high pressure gas pipeline is to be built.  A friend from Rockaway said there are quite a few other fires, too.  I don't know if the fires are from methane (aka natural gas), a transformer explosion or something else. [I still haven't heard an official report, but locals said it was indeed a gas pipeline explosion.]

Y'know, three years ago I wrote a hurricane comic book story for Psychosis #2. The editor wanted a modern horror story and I thought, “What's more modern than ecological horror?” Understatement.

Politicians who never used to talk about climate change are now talking about it. I hope they continue to talk about it and that their words translate into reality. I hope the lies about methane (aka “natural gas”) being “clean” go away. Fracking uses a lot of energy to get this greenhouse gas out of the rock. The money can and should be spent on renewable energy. Once the solar panels or wind turbines are built, that's the end of their greenhouse gas connection. Fossil fuel plants continue to create greenhouse gases for the lifespan of the plant. For those on islands who don't want windmills to be visible on the days when the fog lifts, look at photos of oil spills and hurricane devastation and tell me which looks worse. If any silver lining comes out of this hurricane, let it be a real move to renewable energy.

-- Ken Gale, NYC, Oct. 31, 2012 (Happy Celtic New Year!)   

Ken Gale standing under one of the traffic lights submerged by Hurricane Sandy, photo by Will Morgan
I didn't go back to the station until Nov. 16 (the day after we started broadcasting from there again). Before I walked into 120 Wall St., I walked beneath the traffic lights I had seen be submerged and looked up. I had been walking under traffic lights and looking up all over the City and was a little taken aback to realize that the traffic lights on the corner of Wall St. and South St. are a little higher than most. Even though I saw it with my own eyes, it was still hard to imagine that where I was standing at that moment had water so far over my head two and a half weeks earlier. Looking out the window in the WBAI reception area will never be the same again.

Walking around the neighborhood was also quite different. There were generators running all over the place, usually from the inside of some sort of trailer with thick cables leading from it across the sidewalk to a building. The smell of gasoline was everywhere, even when the wind blew. The wind would blow the smell of one generator away and the smell of another right to you at the same time. Many businesses and offices were closed, some with signs indicating a permanent closing, though many more were open than closed. There's a Verizon building not too far away that supposedly can withstand a nuclear bomb and there was a very big hole in it. I'm not surprised that I hear that phone service won't be restored until mid-December at the earliest. Hurricane Sandy: more powerful than a nuclear bomb!

Earl Caldwell invited me on to the second hour of his show that day to talk about what I saw and about the environmental aspects of hurricanes. I ended up saying most of what I would have said had I been on the air any time between the hurricane and that day. But as a fan of Earl's dating back to his newspaper columnist days, I felt quite privileged to be relating it on his show.

I've noticed that many more people are interested in talking about climate change than before the hurricane. I hope it translates to activism and policy changes. Commercial radio, which generally did an excellent job just before, during, and just after the hurricane crisis, is running advertising that is even more obnoxious than usual for this time of year. Many companies are doing ads of "we feel your pain, so buy our product." You could use those ads to define the phrase "crass and obnoxious."

After the climate change question, the most common question I've gotten was "Were you scared?", especially from people who knew where I was and what I saw when Hurricane Sandy hit. I was quite surprised at the question the first few times I heard it. No, I wasn't, except about Indian Point still being in operation during the hurricane (eventually, Indian Point 3 would lose power and shut down during the storm). I understood what was happening, I was ten stories up, and I was just fascinated to be experiencing it.

Hurricane Sandy is an event that will stick in the memory of everyone in this area who experienced it, directly or indirectly, for the rest of our lives. Like 9-11. Like the Johnstown Flood is to the people of Johnstown, even decades later. You can probably think of other examples.

Ken Gale
Host/producer
Eco-Logic, WBAI 99.5FM, NYC
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/eco-logic.html (environmental radio show)
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/ecoglold.html (list of past shows, podcasts & temporary archives and links to hear them)
http://www.comicbookradioshow.com/ra3.html (list of some permanently archived shows and links to hear them)

WBAI is a 50,000 watt station in the Pacifica network broadcast from the Empire State Building so our signal gets to New Haven, Trenton, Putnam County and the Poconoes and on the internet live stream and podcasts even further, of course.

When the air or water are clean, thank an environmentalist.  If not, become one.

I invite your comments, E-mail me


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