For nearly eight years, up until 2010, Joe Fernandez taught people about risk: how to prepare for it and what to do when the worst struck. Back then, he ran his own insurance agency in Northern Virginia with about 2,000 clients who relied on him as as security coach and counselor. Now he lives -- or until Monday, lived -- in Hoboken, N.J. That's the night when superstorm Sandy whipped the waters into a fury outside of his 14-story apartment building. And it's when he ignored everything he once preached. "It's probably why I'm not in the business anymore," he says. "I'm not very risk averse."
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Fernandez now works with me at LinkedIn in New York. I had asked some of my colleagues to send their pictures and stories of how the storm hit them and how they're recovering. Fernandez offered up a tale of hubris, bonding, fleeing and, finally, hope -- starting with a Tinkerbell flashlight and ending with a race to safety.
He emailed from his parents' house near Princeton, N.J., which somehow has power. Fernandez still hasn't been back to his home -- there was a 4-hour traffic jam when he tried recently -- and getting to the Empire State Bulding, where our offices are located, is nearly impossible. Others can't even begin to think about trying to show up: they're still wondering how to dig out from the wreckage.
Here's Joe's Sandy story:
My girlfriend, Abby, and I live in Hoboken on 14th St in the Shipyards waterfront community along the Hudson River. Like most of our neighbors, we decided to ride out the storm, only expecting high winds and a lot of rain. Last year, Hurricane Irene had virtually no impact on our section of Hoboken, not even the loss of power. We went through basic preparations with some skepticism, grabbing a case of water, a loaf of bread, and some junk food. Abby convinced me at the checkout counter to grab the last flashlight from the rack...a Tinkerbell flashlight, at that. As Monday morning came around and the streets were dry, I felt good that we didn't overreact. But as I walked up to the river during the first high tide, I realized this storm could be different. I moved both of our cars to the top floor of our parking garage as a precaution.
We grabbed lunch and a pumpkin beer in our neighborhood bar, windows boarded up with plywood and filled with skeptics, cracking jokes as the 20 flat panel TV's covered multiple live broadcasts of windblown reporters. As we made the short walk home, the wind gusts nearly blew us over. It was about time we hunkered down. Fast forward to 8pm, we still had power and CNN announced that Sandy had made landfall (for real, this time). We knew that high tide was coming and peered out the window to see the first sign of real trouble. Water began gushing out of the manhole in front of our building, quickly filling up the intersection of 14th St and Hudson St. We went downstairs and snapped the first street photo below, watching the water rush into the front door of our lobby. We ran back up the stairs and out the same windows, we saw water begin streaming in from the Hudson River.
The river water merged with the sewage water and the streets turned into a deep strong current in the blink of an eye. Minutes later, the fire alarms in our building went off, blaring: "A fire has been reported on your floor. Evacuate the building."
In a controlled panic, we hastily grabbed our two dogs and whatever we could throw into a bag and met our neighbors rushing back down into the lobby. By this point, the lower portion of the lobby was filled with 3+ feet of water, quickly rising towards the raised section that we had gathered in. With no place to go and rumors spreading about the source of the fire, a firefighter accompanied by our maintenance staff entered the front door, informing us that the fire alarm was triggered by the fire panel being underwater. Thankfully, there was no fire, and we barely noticed that they were standing in water over their knees. The bad news was that there was no way to shut off the piercing alarm and strobe lights...the rest of the night. Minutes later, the entire town went pitch black on the other side of the street, with only strobe lights flashing in the dark, adjacent buildings. Our building went dark a few moments later.
Finding no refuge from the noise in our apartment, we joined our neighbors in the hallway, which was lit by emergency lighting. This was the silver lining, as they always say. We grabbed our dogs, bottles of wine, and go-bags and moved to the 10th floor, where a neighbor announced that there was no fire alarm sounding from her floor upwards. Sitting on the hallway carpet, camping chairs, and tailgating coolers, we chatted for hours under the fluorescent lights with no windows and no view of the rising waters flowing through our lobby, covering our entire town. We were elevator acquaintances hours earlier, but at that moment, we became friends and the storm became a secondary topic. A few of us glanced at Facebook and Twitter from time to time, realizing that true gravity of the storm.
The piercing alarms finally silenced as the river water began to recede. As the morning arrived, the deserted streets were littered with debris with pools of standing water. Police cars and SUVs patrolled silently with their lights flashing, with the occasional officer commanding residents through his loudspeaker to return into their homes. "You are standing in raw sewage. Go back indoors. Curfew in effect until 6pm." The firehouse around the corner had every piece of surviving Hoboken FD apparatus parked in front of it, as the other 3 firehouses were flooded and abandoned. The word-of-mouth news and mobile status updates painted the grim reality that more than half of our town and over 20K fellow residents were still underwater, and the PATH station was filled completely with water.
We spent most of the day inside and later violated curfew to view the damaged pier and grab a bite from a pitch black Italian restaurant, which was serving spaghetti and pizza toppings out of foil pans for $12 a bowl. I snapped my last photo from the storm of the Manhattan skyline that was split into two halves by the Empire State Building, the haves (with power), and the have-nots (blacked out).
The next morning, we packed our cars with the pups and a suitcase and followed a steady stream of cars through the one open street out of Hoboken on the north end. We drove around debris and river garbage, passing building after building still lit up by only their fire alarm strobe lights.
As we navigated closed highways and streets en route to my parents house, the National Guard arrived in Hoboken and began rescuing our friends in the flooded sections of town. As we found relief in the form of hot showers, a real meal, and electricity, we received tweets and updates from friends and neighbors, as they got evacuated one by one from their homes by National Guard troops and trucked to safety. We all knew that Hoboken will bounce right back, and this is the storm that we will tell stories about for decades...in the bars that fill our mile-square...
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