Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked you to share a lot with me—why you subscribe to this newsletter, what you want to read more or less about, the expertise you could share with other readers. I’m really excited to roll out the series
I’m building with that information (coming your way in November), but I also recognize that, for someone who uses the word “context” in pretty much every edition, you know very little about me. So today, I thought I’d do a bit of sharing about a disaster that impacted me personally.
Nine years ago this week, I was working at a local television news station in New York City when I got a message to come in over the weekend. I’d known it was a possibility: there was a significant storm headed for a city, and I’d spent the past few days chronicling all the usual preparations, interviewing residents as they placed sandbags and filming businesses as they boarded up windows.
Still, I hadn’t expected the call that night, which is why it found me at a Halloween party dressed up as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, complete with my reluctantly-posing pet rabbit.
I was therefore admittedly a bit distracted as I packed for what I assumed would be a night or two on Staten Island, the borough I was assigned to cover. I grabbed three shirts, a pair of leggings, a pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, rain boots, and a company-issued raincoat. I still remember those specifics because of how often I thought back to that frenzied packing in the days to come, when I had every single article of that clothing layered Friends-
style in the face of the punishing weather.
I was clearly, remarkably unprepared for Hurricane Sandy.
My shift started in the early hours of the morning and stretched into the early afternoon. The day the storm arrived, I set up my bulky camera on the boardwalk, and despite it being heavy enough that I could barely place it on my tripod, I was soon struggling to keep it from shaking in the wind as the on-air reporter I was filming delivered increasing concerned dispatches. When I left for the day, I gave my parking spot to a colleague. A few hours later, her car would be swept up by the storm surge and not found for days.
I called my family from my hotel room that night, sitting on the floor next to my bed with the vague notion that I should be trying to stay away from the windows. I don’t remember when the power shut off—I think I managed some restless sleep—but I do remember it being gone when I headed out for my next shift, leaving it up to my helpless sense of direction to try to find my filming location in the dark, consistently having to turn around after encountering downed trees and powerlines.
The days that followed were an adrenaline-charged blur. I hadn’t packed any sort of food or water and ended up subsisting largely on granola bars and Halloween candy graciously offered by colleagues. I gave up my hotel room for displaced residents to stay in and slept in my boss’ childhood bedroom. I saw boats washed up on yards, sloshed along streets that now resembled rivers, and began to understand the layers of destruction a disaster causes. I spoke with people who had lost loved ones and feared for my own, many of whom were still without power. I heard politicians make promises to my camera that rang hollow as soon as I switched it off. I felt the shift that occurs when the national media comes in.
At some point, I was told I could take a day off, and I went back to my apartment, which still didn’t have power. I spent my first night back throwing out everything in my refrigerator by candlelight.
I cried the first time I returned to Staten Island, pulled over on the side of the road in my company car. I realized that I had been wrong when I thought I had “covered” the disaster—that it actually had just begun for so many people.
I’m usually reluctant to share these details, because I recognize that it’s not at all unique for a journalist to report on a disaster hitting close to home these days. And I also want to note that I experienced this storm from a place of privilege, with adequate support and resources to stay safe even though I put very little effort into my personal preparedness.
But there is a throughline from that day pulled over in my car to this newsletter reaching your inbox. This experience continues to guide the journalism I do and inform the way I approach people impacted by disasters. And, nine years later, I’m still not done covering Sandy.