What I'm paid to do is be your news junkie. And for the last two days, Hurricane Sandy made that impossible. If you really want to simplify, a lot of my job comes down to watching Twitter every minute or three and making some sense out of it for you, my dear readers. I am constantly looking at some news trying to pluck out the stories that are interesting and tell you why. And yes, like anyone on Twitter, sometimes I'll get sidetracked and click something like the "25 Reasons Ryan Gosling Is Amazing." But that all stopped on Monday night when I lost both power and cell service.
The last time I had full access Twitter was Monday night. I had just read about the demise of a Muscle Maker Grill in Chelsea, and decided to run over as it was only a few blocks from my house and I figured it would be a chance to get outside since I had been cooped up all day writing updates for the Wire's storm coverage.
More from the collapsed building in Chelsea twitter.com/alex_abads/sta…— Alex Abad-Santos (@alex_abads) October 29, 2012
Shortly after the facade of that building fell off, Chelsea, along with the rest of lower Manhattan lost power. Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It dawned on the two evacuees that my sister and I were housing that wireless was out and watching that 49er game was going to be tough. But we still had cellphone service, and we were prepared to play that game you play on your smartphone where you waste battery wisely and tempt fate by clicking on the best tweets and best videos that pop up on your stream. What we hadn't anticipated was the unapologetic "No Service" message from AT&T.
Between 9:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., October 29 to Early Morning October 30
With sporadic service from AT&T, the Abad-Santos household relied on my sister's boyfriend's iPhone 5 to read updates. It's totally annoying when one person is in charge of selecting what to pass onto the rest of us. Not anything against my sister's boyfriend, but with the rest of us in the dark, I am pretty sure he derived some perverse pleasure by reading off updates like "Oh my god. Someone died just by stepping in a puddle of electrified water" and saying things like "Brooklyn Battery Park Tunnel is done" in front of a captive audience that was getting drunker (off of hurricane wine) and more out of touch with the outside world by the minute.
When someone does that, you can't really rip out the iPhone out of their hand. You want to, but you're polite. So you huddle around his iPhone, this modern-day equivalent of the caveman fire, and you stare at the blurry video, or the tweet from Ant De Rosa about the Breezy Point fire, or the report that accompanies this video of something exploding.
I only say something, because when you see videos like that and you're not in complete control of your information, you can't just Google up to see what it is or if it's fake. And you don't really get the context of what a ConEd substation is or if that explosion is the reason you don't have any power. And so you piece together what you think might be the story. Throw in reports like Manhattan's 19th Street at Tenth Avenue being flooded, robbers dressing up as ConEd people and holding people up at gunpoint, sharks floating around somewhere, and it quickly becomes frustrating trying to sift out the truth from the urban legends.
We also had a crank radio—my father is convinced the world will end, and gave my sister this contraption back in 2006 when she started college. We looked for the 1010 WINS news channel, and only found out through Twitter that it was down and was broadcasting on an FM channel.
At some point and shortly after checking the Atlantic Wire's live blog (maintained by Connor Simpson who lives in Canada well away from the storm) our iPhone connection to the outside was running on a sliver of battery and we decided to plug it into a computer. I didn't think about it at the time, but I guess this outage showed me how little we used computers if we aren't looking at news or social networks. We saw our fully-charged Macbooks as clunky iPhone chargers. Around that time our apartment of evacuees just decided to talk ourselves to sleep.
Sometime around 7 a.m. October 30
I don't remember what time I got up, but I remember I was greeted by my phone's "No Service" message again, and then tried to figure out how I was going to tell my boss and co-workers that I wasn't going to be able to come to work. It's hard without email or cell service. I also tried, despite knowing that it wouldn't work, to get my Twitter app to refresh. I did this twice.
At some point that morning, I remember hearing about 10th Avenue being flooded and wanted to go see. And I figured I might as well look and try to get some cell phone service. Around the time I saw evidence of the 10th Avenue flood (the water marks on some expensive building's glass lobby rose to about four feet), I got an ambush of texts from my mom, my boss, my co-workers, and everyone else from the night before. I can only try to explain to you how awesome that felt—for starters you feel kinda popular, and then you get little bits of news too ... like everyone else having a terrible time getting to work.
It started to rain some, and after refreshing my Twitter feed I headed back to my apartment. It was quickly decided that our dwindling iPhone battery should be used on finding a place with hot water and working power outlets. Trying to organize an evacuation mission with people who have cellular service problems of their own is hard, and took us hours.
We pulled out the crank radio again, and tried to find WNYC. Hearing Brian Lehrer is not unlike a news angel whispering to you. But consuming news in this way is just a bit odd for someone not used to it. It makes you realize that reading news silently and having your news consumption under your control is a privilege—you can't just make Lehrer start telling you about the Breezy Point fires or Ryan Gosling, or stuff that interests you. And it also makes you realize that people from upstate New York will call Brian Lehrer to tell you that they were barely grazed by Sandy, and will talk Mr. Lehrer's ear off about how Irene messed them up. And you also realize that hearing Elmo (Elmo was a guest of Lehrer's at 10 a.m.) and his disembodied voice is very, very creepy.
We were rescued by my sister's boyfriend's parents for a hot meal. And I spent the night at a friend's house who did have power (don't let the news reports fool you, there are magical people living on Manhattan's West Side below 39th street who have electricity). I did catch a news report here and there and logged into Facebook to check updates, but all that coordinating and text-tag was exhausting. I think I watched Ellen winning the Mark Twain humor award and was in bed by 9 p.m.
October 31, 2012
Getting back into the news cycle felt a bit like jumping into a too-fast, already-started game of Double Dutch. Stuff like those robbers dressing up like ConEd people had already been debunked, and I spent a good hour (and have been spending some time) trying to figure out if I was writing what people already knew. And this, I promise you, is for anyone in my line of work, an awful feeling.