Hurricane Sandy’s Human Toll

My father was one of the 117 people killed in the “superstorm.”

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Gretchen and her father

Please don’t tell me how Hurricane Sandy was the worst week of your life.

Or how hard it was to get to work. Or how long you lived without power or how you couldn’t shower for two days or how many flights of stairs you had to walk up.

It was the beginning of the tumult for me: The tragic finale of my hero’s life, as I desperately tried to save him from underneath the largest oak tree on our property.

Hurricane Sandy ended my father’s existence on Earth. The lifelong neighbor and family best friend and I worked in the 90-mile an hour winds unsuccessfully trying to free him, with trees crashing around us, Mom screaming to go inside.

The next few months brought their own turbulence: I moved in and out and in again with my boyfriend (only to move out for one final time). I left a job I deeply cared about without much direction for the future. I had some friendships end while others were hugely supportive and healing.

But how could you know all that? Is it possible topics that seem commonplace and like perfectly normal social fodder are perhaps not always so?

You’d be amazed by how often we talk about Hurricane Sandy and “rebuilding” here in New York. Almost daily I see an ad declaring: “Jersey Strong,” hear someone mention the storm or read about a FEMA report in the news. I’m sure the same is true for cancer and the people whose lives have been eaten away by its terminal wrath. Car crashes. Freak accidents.

Sure, only 117 people died in Hurricane Sandy — what are the odds you’d be talking to the girl who had to chainsaw her father out from under a tree that night? The girl who stayed with him while trees kept crashing down around them both? Because if he was going, I might as well go too. And still sometimes I feel that way. Why didn’t we just go together?

Hurricane Sandy’s infrastructure damage was dwarfed by its devastating human toll.

I screamed at the 9-1-1 operator, trying to remember how to do CPR. It was no use. He was killed by blunt force from a 10-ton tree. My hero, face down. The strongest man I’ve ever known, crushed by one massive blow. My CPR wasn’t going to change the outcome.

People like to talk about the weather. Extreme weather. They use it as a reason to bond. A shared experience. A reason to strike up a conversation. Something to post on their social media feeds (“Where were you when?” “How’s hurricane season?” “Can you believe those flash floods?” “Snowpocalypse!!”)

But have you ever stopped to think that a real live person loses a loved one nearly every single time there’s an extreme atmospheric event? That tragedy strikes and stays with a family much longer than those 117 times? I know I never did.

This week was the second anniversary of that terrible day. Maybe it wasn’t terrible for you. Maybe it was enjoyable as you cuddled away somewhere safe. Maybe you were hunkered down in your darkened apartment enjoying potato chips by candlelight. Maybe you were typing a memo in an office cubicle in Oklahoma. Maybe it just fine-tuned your connection to nature’s almighty power, preparing provisions and realizing just how truly dependent we are on the modern conveniences we afford ourselves.

My nails were painted bright red that day. It was the very first and last time I’ve felt strong enough to wear fierce red nails.

I looked down at them when I was trying to lift an enormous tree off my father. How can you pretend to be so strong if no amount of adrenaline will help you lift this tree off him? Where is that Herculean strength everyone describes in these moments?

Since then, I have had no choice but to press on and get stronger, ever so slowly. Day by day, moment by moment, year by year. And this year, with nails painted (almost) a shade of fiery red again.

Gretchen Sword lives and works in New York City. She spends her days advising and working with early-stage companies and her mornings/evenings/weekends teaching and studying yoga. Connect with her here or on Twitter @GretchenSword.

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