It was a window into a post-apocalyptic world. Traffic lights were out. Power lines were own. Businesses were closed. Grocery stores were out of bread. Gas stations had long lines or nothing to offer. Roads were literally broken. Trees were halved. Cell phone towers were out of service.
As Hurricane Sandy raged, residential students watched through the windows of brick fortresses. From their dorms, they saw heavy rain, wind, some downed trees and the occasional flying drainpipe. On campus, the power outage lasted all of 40 minutes, and WiFi was restored before 5:30 p.m. the next day.
People settled on couches or in beds to watch movies, or gathered around tables to drink and disregard everything outside. Students planned Halloween parties and “hurricane survival” celebrations. The bravest, or perhaps the most reckless, went out for walks at the height of the storm. Some got into cars to go to parties or to indulge in photographic missions.
And then the calls started coming in. People found out that our bedrooms were flooded; their pets were unsafe; their parents were sitting in frigid darkness. They were told that their houses were at risk of collapse, or they knew someone whose was. They were informed that the world they thought they knew, that world of strength and security, had been temporarily exterminated.
The disconnect went past broken power lines and disabled cellphone towers. The true disconnect had to do with those who witnessed only the effects of the storm on campus.
Those not on campus watched from lower ground, as rain and wind turned the land we knew from one of perceived invincibility into one more vulnerable and utterly powerless than we’d seen at any time during our approximate two decades of existence.
Weary-faced individuals across the island walked out of their houses to scattered piles of bark and leaves, shingles on the ground, cars underwater. Eyes were exhausted, hair was unwashed. Nobody had the energy, or the means, to care about appearance.
Those outside of the Stony Brook bubble were sitting in an icy darkness, or crowding around tables with total strangers at Starbucks because they had nowhere else to go for warmth and an Internet connection.
Those within the bubble celebrated the week of canceled classes because now everyone had the opportunity to drink without worrying about going to class hungover the next day. No homework! Woo!
Their off-campus friends and neighbors wondered what to do about the fact that the structures they once called “home” no longer included walls or roofs.
But nobody is at fault; they didn’t know.
The morning after the storm, there was an all-engulfing surrealism about campus. The sun was out. Most of the wreckage had been cleared. Power had been restored, and crews were working to dispose of every last tree branch. Dining halls were open.
Some made plans to go home to help parents and neighbors wade through the wreckage and repair the damages. Some made plans to put on costumes and go to Halloween parties. People were concerned about the launch of the new Assassin’s Creed game — would Gamestop still be open?
Residential students sat at computers complaining about not being able to order sushi, completely unaware that the roads around the perimeters of campus were lacking functional traffic lights, that the university’s neighbors were without power, that there were people lacking drinkable water and edible food.
Facebook news feeds became lists of complaints about lack of Wi-Fi and limited dining hall options. Students were celebrating days without classes, and posting photos of themselves at Halloween parties.
There were people whose houses were on fire, and historic boardwalks floated away.
There were people looting — stealing what little their neighbors had, because they had even less themselves.
And Stony Brook students were drinking, partying and neglecting all responsibility simply because they could. Sandy wasn’t their problem; it was for the rest of the East Coast to deal with.
People don’t realize how easy they’ve had it on this campus. Everything is taken care of — the trees were picked up the next morning, the dining halls reopened, the Internet connection repaired by nightfall the next day.
Those on campus for the duration of the storm had not an inkling of what it was like outside of campus bounds.
Some might call the ignorance a defense mechanism. Nobody knew how to deal with the reality of the severity of the storm; they didn’t know how to process it mentally. They couldn’t conceptualize the idea that there were people who, in an instant, lost both possessions and loved ones.
It hasn’t seemed real.