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Elizabeth Boleman-Herring Headshot

Leaning Backward (Not Forward) in Post-Sandy New Jersey

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"Without power" is such a pregnant phrase, and so monumentally apt for those of us across the northeastern United States who, on the fifth night [at the time of this writing] since Sandy, are still shivering in the dark, many of us still unable to fill up our empty gas tanks or stock refrigerators emptied of foodstuffs spoiled due to lack of... power.

It is difficult to find words to describe the state in which we now live, but we seem to inhabit a landscape that is a cross between present-day Port-au-Prince... and Copenhagen.

On one block in Teaneck, N.J., where we live, bedraggled souls bearing empty red plastic jerrycans wait in long lines for one or two or four gallons of gas, pumped out of the town's few sporadically functioning-on-generators filling stations (and even those now using an odd-and-even-day system enforced by hovering police cruisers).

On another block, just up the same street, Mexican or South American yard care crews blow leaves from the gardens of "The 1 Percent," where hard-wired garden lights still blaze.

Welcome to America, land of the powerful... and the powerless.

The streets here are deserted, but for the occasional fortunate motorist. As residents run out of gas, they are compelled to hole up, sleeping on sofas under multiple blankets and quilts, listening to portable radios only if they still have batteries with which to run them (and ours died on Night One).

After some frantic back-and-forth consultation with our nearest neighbors, we finally decided communally to spring for a $2,000 gas generator, which we purchased using the one van in our extended clan still 1/8th full of gas. However, having purchased the generator (off a truck, out of a Sears parking lot, brought north by enterprising fellows from South Carolina), we found we could not find the heavy-duty electrical cables needed to connect the machine to our homes, nor even a large jerrycan in which to collect the fuel needed to start it up.

So, we are -- two self-identifying middle-class Teaneck families comprising some six adults and two children, one of us with a broken foot, one of us with painful kidney stones, another without teeth -- still without power.

At our local bistro -- the Fairmount Eats diner, which a Greek and Egyptian pair opened about a year ago -- we showed up the day after Sandy, only to find Nick and Tariq also in the dark and frantically manning their cell phones in search of a huge generator... somewhere, anywhere at all, on the East Coast.

By Thursday evening, the immense food lockers chilled only by scarce dry ice, Fairmount had finally found an ambulance-sized 150 kW generator in Manassas, Va. Getting it north to New Jersey required further machinations. Finally, Tariq hired a flatbed truck and driver out of New York City, and dispatched them south. Four days after the storm, the diner is keeping an entire section of powerless Hackensack fed and warm, but every "four-top" at the restaurant has a tale to tell of extraordinary shock, survival and incredulity in the face of the region's "return to the 1970s."

It is incomprehensible to us that, in 2012, we are once again looking at gas rationing, a cash-only "economy," shuttered grocery stores, a police presence mobilized solely to prevent altercations among those awaiting scarce resources... and an ongoing news blackout for people stranded in houses without heat, light and media.

This is no longer The First World, I can tell you.

One Fairmount diner, Debbie, a young business faculty member from Little Ferry, along with her four-year-old Calico cat, Gema, was rescued at 3 in the morning on Tuesday, Oct. 30, brought out of her apartment via first boat, then school bus, to safety. Her town and nearby Moonachie flooded dramatically -- something no one foresaw in advance -- but Debbie is now staying with her parents in Teaneck.

All are now equally "powerless," however.

In Hackensack, at the Fairmount, Debbie's story is just one of hundreds told me today, as staff and customers alike struggle to comprehend how we've come to this sad pass, and how we're going to avoid revisiting this new dystopian version of America.

Before Mayor Bloomberg cancelled the NYC Marathon -- it wasn't exactly rocket science, Mike, but that's how tone-deaf so many "at the top" have been to our ongoing plight here -- and before Governor Christie took on board the fact that polling places might well be dark on Election Day and drew up some contingency plans involving heated government vehicles equipped with power and computer links, my husband and I used what gas we had left in my small SUV to make our way through the urban moonscape of Hackensack... to go vote.

Even that we found spectacularly difficult.

The County Clerk's office was manned by a skeleton crew handing out ballots, and we had to phone Dean's mother in Florida to find out what hours the building would be open.

I'll let that sink in: We had to phone Dean's mother in The Villages, Fla., because we could get no information closer to home.

We located the building, parked illegally, and persevered when we found the front door locked.

In a huge darkened government building we and a diverse group of some 50 residents of Bergen County filled out our ballots and then walked up -- those of us who could -- the three flights of stairs to deliver them to the powers that be. Dean and I took up ballots for several disabled citizens unable to scale those stairs (not strictly legal though, thank God, in the event we were permitted to function as delivery personnel for our not-so-able-bodied neighbors).

We were not about to let Sandy add disenfranchisement to all "her" other insults, though many people we've spoken to are simply unable even to think about voting for the time being: The stranded elderly and ill, hungry children, and long, impossible commutes to work come first and foremost in their minds.

So, here we are, very much as we were in the 1970s during the so-called "Gas Crisis": without power, and without a voice; waiting on rescuers and support from local, county, state and federal offices with which we have no direct or even second-hand contact; dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

Friends in Teaneck whose power has already been restored have taken us in as refugees, or we would still be sleeping in a cold, dark house, and facing freezing temperatures and another storm system in the week ahead.

Ironically, when we did at last reach an automated line at our utility, PSE&G, we were told our power had been restored. I'm here to tell you what it felt like to take in that intelligence.

I have this to say, loud and clear, to Governor Christie and to all other science-denying and FEMA-disparaging members of Christie's party, the Republicans: 1) Climate change is real; 2) Several so-called "Hundred-Year Storms" per annum are now a given; 3) In this region and, in fact, all over this country, we need new, 21st-century infrastructure, a smart grid, alternative energy sources and emergency management able to meet the needs of the times, as opposed to the needs of 1940 and 1970.

I'm not sure what it will take for "The Party of No" to get on board. Perhaps if the well-lit houses hereabouts where foreign-born crews are now blowing leaves went dark, cold and powerless, the rest of us would not be left in the bitter lurch.

P.S. Since we here have little fuel, are unable to send emails, and have only sporadic cell phone service, perhaps those of you in the rest of America (or even in Port-au-Prince and Copenhagen) could send a tweet out to Washington, D.C. on our behalf? We're powerless here, and we shouldn't be.

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