Monday, November 5, 2012

Reflections on Sandy as a Journalist, then as a Runner

You never think the weather is going to be as bad as the predictions of the people on television.  I work with some of the best meteorologists in the country, yet even I had this vision of Hurricane Sandy being this minor inconvenience.  I expected a long night or two at work, some downed trees and a return to normalcy well before runners started to come into town for the New York City Marathon. 

I guess it is hard envision the worst storm you've ever seen before you actually see it.  By Tuesday night, it was clear that my optimism was misguided.  I ran to work Tuesday morning because the Mayor had already shut the subways down which put cabs at a premium.  I dressed in head to toe orange – orange hat, coat, shorts and even shoes – and could have easily been mistaken for a road cone.  I set out down the West Side Highway, heading directly into a strong wind.  With Sandy hours away, the 30th Street heliport and several piers had already flooded.  I stopped to tweet pictures.  At Central Park, every entrance was blocked by police tape.  The danger of falling trees had forced the city to shut down every city park.  Inside, the finish line for the marathon was left unattended.
Road Cone!

I didn't actually see the storm crash ashore in person.  I saw it on a collage of television screens transmitting pictures from our live crews in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.  I was in the windowless control room at work when hurricane force winds and a rapidly rising tide washed away boardwalks on Coney Island, in Atlantic City and in the Rockaways.  I was in the anchors' ears picking and choosing which soaked, windblown reporter to go to next, when I saw live pictures of a flooded street less than three blocks from my house.  I knew Lauren and Pepper were safe, but I felt helpless. I called them the second I got a breather from the booth. By the time I walked out of the building, nearly 14 ½ hours after I ran in, Manhattan was a ghost town.  The streets were empty, buildings were pitch black.  Coastal Brooklyn was underwater.  Entire neighborhoods in Queens were on fire. Staten Island was unrecognizable. That city that never sleeps, was knocked out cold.

The coverage in the days that followed is a blur of long hours filled with images of burned down houses and washed out roads and news conferences from mayors and governors.  The entire newsroom survived on pizza, Chinese food, Halloween candy and coffee.  As journalists, we worked our tails off around the clock to save people from the incoming storm, and then when Sandy had come and gone, we kept plugging along to get them the information they needed to get food, water, shelter or even just to get back to work.  We hardly paused.  It’s not always about shootings, car crashes and Lindsay Lohan.  But, I won’t get into my rant on why TV News is just as relevant as it was in the Cronkite days. 

Our home in Chelsea was without power, heat or hot water for a better part of the week.  I can’t complain though.  All of our possessions were unscathed and we had a hotel room to stay in and friendly neighbors to walk and feed the dog.  Some people lost everything.  Dozens lost their lives.  Still, the word from City Hall was that the marathon would be run.  Even though it was not the decision I expected after the clouds had cleared, I trusted that the leaders of the greatest city in the world were not making a mistake.  As one of the people producing the content of the marathon morning special, it was clear that if there was going to be a race, the tone had to change.  Along with one of the best editors in the business, I worked well into Friday morning to re-work months worth of scripts and video and put the emphasis on the race organizers’ efforts to raise money for storm victims.  When the sun came up, I went to the expo with a camera to shoot video for the first time since college and gather interviews with people from around the world who had traveled to New York to run the race despite the conditions and growing hostility from the community as a whole.  I went to the still-closed Central Park and found Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor who both talked about the healing power of running.  Everyone hoped that the marathon would be something New York rallied around just like it is every year, but the tide of outrage was rising.

With Ryan Hall hours before the announcement
As surprised as I was by the city’s decision to move forward with the marathon, I was more surprised by the anger directed at the participants.  People threatened to boo runners, throw eggs at them and even trip them.  They were threatening to boo people like my friend Bjorn who came here from Norway.  They were threatening to throw things at Sarah Reinersten, a tremendous athlete with a prosthetic leg hoping set her personal best.  They were threatening to trip people like my wife, who was running her first marathon and in doing so, had raised $6,000 for colon cancer research.  I understood why people were upset, but why were they upset with the marathoners?  I guess in the heat of the moment, in the midst of utter devastation, it’s hard to be rational. 

By Friday afternoon, the positive angle on the race had become almost impossible to spin.  A New York Post cover picture of generators being used to power the media center tent started a snowball effect.  Politicians were lining up to release a statement calling for the marathon to be called off.  A man in a truck who was headed to Staten Island to deliver water stopped to yell at me as I shot an interview on the street.  The police commissioner said the NYPD didn't have the energy or the man power.  At five o’clock, the marathon was cancelled.

I talked to the CEO of the New York Road Runners minutes after she made the announcement and it was clear the decision and the negative press had taken its toll.  It was a heartbreaking scene, but while I felt bad, I don’t worry about the long term impact on her or the other city leaders who came under fire for this debacle.  They are paid well to make tough decisions.  They have thick skin.  I worry about the future of the race.  I worry about people holding a grudge against something as harmless and beautiful as a marathon.  Running in the park on what would have been marathon Sunday, I saw the spirit of the long distance runner on display from thousands -- maybe 15,000, maybe 20,000 – of people who trained for months and in some cases, flew halfway around the world for a race that didn’t happen.  None of them told a woe-is-me story.  No one sulked.  Instead, they made the best of it, waved their country’s flag and cheered for their fellow runners. On the other side of the city, thousands more runners crammed onto to the Staten Island Ferry with backpacks full of food, water and batteries to deliver to the people who understandably were a little skeptical of inviting 47,500 runners to what is left of their borough.  That’s what I pray people remember about the 2012 New York City Marathon.

I don’t want Sandy to come back. Ever.  But the guy I waved at on the Harlem Hills, the man who ran with me on the Upper East Side, those people I saw cleaning up parks with their bib numbers on…. I want them to come back every year.  

1 comment:

  1. really great post, jay - thank you for sharing your perpective from up there! so glad you, lauren, and pepper are ok and i send my best wishes to all those involved in rebuilding hearts and homes!