11/05/2012 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Changed Landscape After Sandy

Hurricane Sandy left behind a trail of death and ruin. Those of us who lived through it on the eastern seaboard will not forget it. Many lives have been lost and whole neighborhoods were swept away. The landscape was ruthlessly remade as coastlines moved suddenly and irretrievably. The power of the storm that was much greater than we expected. Millions of people are still without power but volunteers are coming from all over to lend a hand. Unfortunately, looting has been widespread in some areas. The recovery is tenuous as public transportation was crippled and gas lines are now being guarded by the police to maintain civil order. The aftermath of this catastrophe is bitter and painful.

Walking around my neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I can only be thankful. We are on higher ground here than most of the city. We had no flooding or loss of power so we've nothing to complain about. The storm was still a frightening experience, however. Many great old trees came crashing down. The winds howled and shook our homes. Sirens wailed all night long and it has continued for days as emergency crews race around the city to help people in need. Of lasting destruction, there was relatively little where I live.


One great tree that I will miss is this grand specimen that towered over the crest of Owl's Head Park in Bay Ridge. It, and many like it around the region, fell victim to Sandy's ravaging winds. Trees fell on houses and cars and were a big factor in the destruction. Some fell on people and killed them. This tree in Owl's Head Park was an important part of my morning walks. It is one of my personal landmarks. From the top of this hill you can look out over New York Harbor and feel the thrill of living in a great city.

Landscape is an important part of our daily lives. We take it for granted that it will remain a constant until a disaster comes and sweeps away the familiar. The more you assume that landscape is a constant, the more disorienting it is when it suddenly and calamitously changes. In some parts of the world, catastrophes are so much a part of daily life that religions and philosophies develop elaborate rationalizations to explain them. It involves fatalism, predestination and God's wrath. And it is ridiculous. Bad things have always happened and will continue to happen until the end of the world, no matter which god you pray to.

The flood waters had barely begun to recede when religious demagogues began shrilly spouting the foolish notion that this hurricane was in some way God's judgment upon us. This immature and baseless religious belief holds that all death and destruction are God's will and part of some larger, inscrutable purpose. It is altogether too frightening to face a reality in which terrible things happen for no reason at all.


Here in New York City we are supposed to be in charge of our own destiny. Hurricanes and acts of terrorism are not supposed to happen here. This is the financial and cultural capital of the world, or so we tell ourselves. The illusion of control over our destinies is part of what makes us who we are. We are dynamic risk-takers and nothing can stop us. It is our will power that makes things happen. We built a great country out of this will to succeed. I love this aspect of American character and nowhere is it as strong as it is in New York. Losing that illusion of control is devastating to some people but it's a reality that many people have to live with all over the world.

On the first day that train service was restored after Sept. 11, 2001, I took the N train to Manhattan. As the train emerged on to the Manhattan Bridge all the people on the train fell silent. Each of us was trying to come to terms with a new skyline. There was a gaping hole in the sky where the World Trade Center once stood and it signified the loss of 3,000 lives. It was deeply unsettling. For as long as I had lived in New York, when I came up from a subway tunnel anywhere in the city, it was possible to orient myself by finding the twin towers in the skyline. After Sept. 11, that landmark that anchored me to the city was gone.

This change in our lives was drastic and unnerving. News articles abounded and novels were written. We were all trying in our own way to come to terms with a new reality in which we were unsafe and everything we knew could be swept away without any warning. There was a collective crisis of faith. Many of us felt adrift. Conspiracy theorists and religious demagogues came out of their nasty little hidey-holes to spout filth and rubbish as they always do. It was a vicious act of terrorism perpetrated by criminals. In time we all found our way in this new world and life went on as it always does, and as it always will. Hurricane Sandy is no exception to the rule that life goes on. It goes on with pain in our hearts but it does go on.

I look on the loss of this great tree as a memento mori. It took well over 100 years for it to grow so massive and I will be long dead before another tree can grow to take its place. It may only be my son's children who get to enjoy the new tree. I hope that my grandchildren will one day walk through Owl's Head Park in the shade of great trees.