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Down & Out in Darkest, Just-Post-"Sandy" New Jersey

11/02/2012 11:12 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Naming this storm "Sandy" was morally equivalent to naming the Ebola Virus something like Clementine or Guinevere or Angelina.

I'm quite serious: You do not want to have to say, in years to come, "Sandy took my loved one or my cat or my house or my business back in 2012." For that, you want a name that packs a wallop.

In fact, the naming of storms should be left to the Department of Defense... and they would have christened the one that just decimated New Jersey, New York, Connecticut (and, for all I know, much American real estate even farther afield) something like Stalin or Stromboli or Shock & Awe II.

Hurricane Shock & Awe II. Even that wouldn't really describe what we've been through, and are still going through, here on the East Coast. And, from what I just heard on CNN -- our first smidgeon of TV since Monday night -- my worst fears may yet be realized: Another storm may be following along in Sandy's tracks.

We -- my jazz-musician husband and I -- are eating where we've been eating (and thawing out and charging our intermittently useless cell phones) every day since we lost our power in Bergen County, N.J. early Monday evening, about two hours before Sandy made landfall at The 4 West Diner off Route Four, in Englewood.

As far as we can tell (and we're operating on half a tank of gas in a county where people are lined up 100-deep at a few seldom-open gas stations, waiting for hours and supervised by policemen, for just a jerry-can of fuel), everyone in northern New Jersey is similarly afflicted at best, and lucky to have even half a tank: forget "filling up the SUV." This is seriously urban New Jersey, and despite the rich tree cover (in our town, Teaneck, alone, over 150 trees are down right now, many of them entwined with electric lines or draped across roofs), few of us had generators in place before this storm, and few of us were anywhere near "ready."

Monday night involved, first, some six to eight hours of pure terror, as we cowered beneath the green and blue flashes of exploding generators, and watched -- we couldn't help but watch -- the 150-foot-tall trees whip round us in the storm, many of them coming down on our neighbors' houses. After the terror came the news blackout, the power blackout, and the continuing slow ebb of hope for a speedy recovery in this neck of the Jersey woods.

I knew it was going to be bad from the moment I heard Brian Williams tell me so early last week. I believed him, but most of my nearest and dearest hereabouts did not. How could they, really? All they had to go on, in terms of objective correlatives, were last year's Irene and Nor'easter-plus-snow and though, as usual, Teaneck's power was knocked out for about a week each time in those two milder storms, nothing has brought the concept of Global-Warming-is-Going-to-Blow-Us-All-Back-to-the-16th-Century like Sandy has.

The gazillion-dollar homes on the Jersey Shore stranded now in their sea-moats, the neighborhoods burned to a crisp and then flooded to the gills on the seaward side of Manhattan, the residents of poorer communities in Newark who never got the evacuation notice because they don't "tweet" -- well, we knew it would be bad, but we experienced (as on 9/11) a certain massive failure of imagination, on the part of residents and the powers that be.

In Teaneck, and the surrounding, dark Jersey towns, there appears to be no cavalry en route to help us, at least any time soon. I worry about the elderly, the ill, the addled. I worry about anyone less able to forage and think than my husband and I.

So, without power, heat, gasoline, groceries and all means of communication incoming and outgoing (even the Bergen County Record is a slim ghost of its usually robust print self this week) and, seemingly, at the bottom of PSE&G's service list, here we sit at longtime Bronx restaurateur Theodore Karounos' New Jersey diner, one of the only places in the county open for business, and packed to bursting round the clock since we first dragged in, along with hordes of others, hungry and frazzled, on Tuesday after the storm.

Jason Karounos, the owner's son, is managing the diner. His father, born in Sparta, Greece, and one of six brothers and four sisters to emigrate to America in the 1940s and '50s, has been here every day including and since the night of the storm, serving up a full menu of traditional New Jersey diner fare 24/7.

Jason had no doubt the roof here would hold, and the generator, even on Monday, with full diner occupancy, sputtered a bit but kept the lights on and the freezers cold.

I don't really know what we'd do without them right now.

Dean and I will go home tonight to a cold, dark house, but at least we have a roof free of trees and, more important, attentive neighbors who are out, even now, foraging for a generator to get the heat and light back on in parts of our two houses.

The TV is especially important to us here in the week leading up to the presidential elections. We're all concerned that a governor who can postpone Halloween seems unwilling even to discuss the matter of voting in a state that's fallen off the grid. As we have huddled together under the quilts these last three nights, listening to NPR until the batteries died and, then, cut off entirely from the world at large, it was brought home to us quite chillingly how tenuous a hold we have on the 21st century. Even on the 20th.

Before our seven Size-C batteries died, NPR's John Hockenberry, co-host of NPR's morning program, Takeaway, chronicled for us the story of this storm, its savage gifts and its many victims, lesser and greater, taking calls from people all over the Tri-State area.

The calls put our own situation, our sheer personal woes, into the perspective of a larger mosaic of suffering and loss, but one thing is still clear. While Governor Christie calls for a rebuilding of the Jersey Shore, and laments the destruction of a particular boardwalk sausage and pepper stand here, a particular summer attraction there, many of the rest of us would prefer to see federal and state money go to upgrading our 1940s-era electrical, transportation and communications infrastructure.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow's words as she stands before the Hoover Dam -- "Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure." -- echo in our ears.

We don't even know if our town's community center where, one and all, we go to vote, will have power by Nov. 6, and it matters to us, as much as do the roofs and open gas stations and well-lit convenience stores.

Tonight, without power and all else, I will be trying to file this story from Teaneck's Holy Name Hospital, where a corner Starbucks -- the only place in town serving coffee along with Wi-Fi -- will be open until 8:30 p.m. We were at the hospital earlier today so my husband, who's been harboring two kidney stones for a painful month (we've named them "Mick" and "Keith"), could undergo a CT-scan of his abdomen. Surgery -- not entirely elective, for him -- is in our immediate future but, along with so much else in Northern New Jersey, it will have to wait.

I was able to learn, at Holy Name, that infants (no one could tell me precisely how many) arrived along with Sandy on Monday night. They couldn't or wouldn't wait, and Holy Name was up on generator power to receive them.

Some people, including Theodore Karounos, his family, as well as the maternity floor at Holy Name, have their priorities straight. The rest of us, including Governor Christie, it seems, need to switch into a higher gear.

If you're out there reading this, speak up and out for us here, we who've gone silent in the Tweet-free-zone that is New Jersey. Tell Governor Christie we could use some gas -- we'll pay for it! -- some batteries, some information, some kindness, and the certainty that we'll be able to vote come Election Day

We may be still alive, most of us, hereabouts, but we're also still very much in the cold, Northeastern dark.

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