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Dispatches from the dark

Dispatches from the dark

by Deirdre Good

Along with thousands of people in New Jersey and the tri-state area, we lost power at the seminary in Chelsea the night Sandy came ashore in New Jersey. Coastal regions were flooded and washed away and the water came inland further than it has ever come. Today the President visits New Jersey, declared a disaster area. In the meantime, our lives have taken on a diurnal rhythm: we get up after daylight, we do as much as we can in daylight hours including the rhythms of worship, work and meals, and we cook and eat dinner using flashlights and candles and go to bed shortly after darkness descends. For news, we listen to the radio, and wait for the morning paper to be delivered.

Going out at night or early dawn before daylight means being in total darkness, where there are no traffic or street lights and people are only visible by their flashlights, if they have them. It is not a safe experience, mostly because it is unfamiliar to New Yorkers. In Maine, we have reflective strips and headlamps and reflective collars for the dogs. But we’re not in Maine now, and we’re not prepared for this.

Our friends in Zone A who did not evacuate had the alarming experience of watching waters from the Hudson river fill up their stairwell, rising towards the second floor. The waters flooded over Chelsea piers from the Hudson River and rushed across the West Side highway just up to the Seabury Gate, about a short city block east of 10th Avenue. Cars parked on side streets between 10th Avenue and the West Side Highway were half-submerged. South of us, the same thing happened in the West Village and Battery Park. In New York City Harbor, waves were recorded as high as 32.5 feet. Sometime during the night, the waters stopped. When our friends came out of their apartment the following morning, the waters had receded back down the street towards the Hudson River leaving flooding, debris and water marks on cars and windows in their wake. Our friends were happy to survive and show us photographs.

Schools have been closed for three days. Parents are feeling the stress of looking after house bound children. “I have a new world record for playing the greatest number of consecutive chutes and ladders games in a 24-hour period,” one mother told us.

This morning we ran into a Fireman working days who had come into Manhattan from Queens. He told us that the emergency fire station in Battery Park was flooded and is under water, so that station has been evacuated to the one on 23rd street and 10th Avenue. The fireman himself spent all day yesterday carrying elderly people marooned in high rise buildings down many flights of stairs. He spoke of tragedies from the storm that wouldn’t make the news. Someone had a heart attack in Times Square and as he lay on the ground, tourists took photographs of him thinking they were seeing a homeless person. But he was dead. A policeman was at home with his family in Staten Island. He went to check on the basement of his house when the ocean waves rushed in so quickly that he couldn’t escape. He drowned whilst his family was upstairs. In Brooklyn, Coney Island has all but disappeared: the Aquarium, he said, is gone.

But the city is slowly recovering. Mayor Bloomberg continues to hold press conferences. Con Ed has indicated that power may be restored by Saturday. Buses have resumed services on a Sunday schedule. Tomorrow subways open north of 34th street. Where there is power, leaf blowers are clearing away leaves and debris. Flooded basements are being pumped out. People are beginning to wonder out loud and ask how best to protect a city built only a few feet above the water and thus vulnerable to rising sea levels whose transportation services are in tunnels below sea levels.

Back at the seminary, classes have been postponed until Monday. Faculty, administration and students continue life together. The library is open 9-5. Notices posted in public places are updated twice daily. The Daily Office and Eucharist is said and celebrated. People share meals and there was an evening of board games last night. We have a gas powered generator brought to the seminary by our head of maintenance Anthony Khani that not only provides light but also recharges phones and laptops. It has been refueled with what is probably the last gas in Manhattan at a gas station in Harlem. To our north, the residential complex of Penn South (south of Penn Station) has its own power station so those who know family and friends there can enjoy light and heat. Others can find coffee and some amenities north of 29th Street.

proxy.jpgWhen we resume our common life together next Monday, we will be brought together with those who lived out the storm in New Jersey and elsewhere in the tri-state area. Together we’ll reflect on recent experiences one of which is worship and study of the One to whom “day and night are both alike” in the words of Psalm 139,

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,’

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.”

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.


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Donald Schell

Patrick Malloy, General Seminary’s Dean, offers a joyful glimpse of the seminary community’s resilient response to power out and the cold in his letter on the GTS website:

It’s a link on the home page, news column to the right. I particularly love his observation that pulling together to support one another and the wider community may have made an enduring gift to the quality of seminary community.


@ Kevin McCrane, we have heard amazing radio stories in the last few days of people like the 86 year old woman living on the 16th floor with no heat, water, phone or ability to get downstairs. A woman in her neighborhood was contacted by a friend three times removed from a cousin, and went to check on her, offering help & cell phone (miracle she actually had service). Family finally persuaded her to be rescued. In her dignified desire to tough it out, and her far-flung relatives concerted effort, and the kindness of several strangers, there was no loss of civilization. In a world where blackouts mean carrying water and food up 38 floors, walking dogs three times a day from the 22nd floor, and being unable to get refills of medications or keep it properly refrigerated, it’s a real luxury to be able to remember our gentle blackouts in. Maine. Civilization, in NY, is best expressed in the way we all pull together in challenging circumstances.

Jules Sheffield


Thank you Mr McGrane for your comment. Our lifestyle in Maine is similar to the one you describe and includes evening activities with friends. Parts of New York City and New Jersey are rising to the challenge of life without transportation, schools, electricity and other amenities. But where these challenges threaten life and limb it is a different story.


Here in the Ozarks, our hearts break for those on the coast, without power and without help. We don’t have such a strong connection with 21st century technology here, where storms are frequent and loss of power is common.

Many, if not most, homes have a secondary source of heat, be it hearth or woodstove, and everyone has oil- and candle-lamps. Blackouts are inconvenient, not a loss of civilization.

Blackouts here are a time to slow down, unplug from the frenzy that is called American life, and enjoy one another’s company over a board game by the light of a Dutch brass lamp hanging over the kitchen table. It’s not the desperation we see in New York, New Jersey, or the rest of the coast. Rather, to us, it is a reminder of a different way of life; perhaps a better way of life. But not what our brothers and sisters on the coast are experiencing.

God bless and keep you all there on the coast as you struggle this day, and the days to come. God help us understand the limits of “limited government”, and how we can help each other as fellow citizens through our common government, not only our common faith.

Kevin McGrane

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