I grew up in the Philippines where tropical cyclones are par for the course. Flooding in the streets, collapsing buildings, and suspending public transit were facts of life integrated into the seasons like falling leaves or pumpkin-spiced everything. Classes were only canceled under category 3 hurricane conditions and even then we risked much against 110 miles per hour winds to attend fourth grade English class.
I was young and oblivious to the danger the Philippines faced regularly due to storms. An oncoming typhoon only meant the potential for staying home, playing with my Game Boy Color all day, and having warm chocolate rice pudding (it’s a thing; it’s called champorado). I was unconcerned with overflowing rivers in the city, muddy landslides in the country, and body counts everywhere. As long as I was home with my family, I was fine. I was safe. I was fortunate.
My father called me this weekend when I was in my college’s library. He lives in the Philippines and I go to school in Poughkeepsie in upstate New York. I now make my home with my mother and stepfather in Las Vegas where the most dire natural disaster is drought. I went out onto the steps of the library to take my father’s call. He was checking in on me; he heard about the storm making its way up the Eastern seaboard, Hurricane Sandy.
There were ruminations about classes being canceled on Monday, for which I was thankful. I had several reading assignments I had yet to complete. The campus had gone into a lockdown before, for Hurricane Irene in 2011, but we survived with little to no damage. The general student expectation was the same. The sky was grey, but far from ominous. My father told me to stay safe, listen to the school’s precautions, and keep him updated. I asked him how they were doing in the Philippines, if a hurricane just breezed by.
“Oh, one just passed through,” he said nonchalantly. “It sank a ship near Zamboanga and derailed a train in Quezon, but you know how it is. We’ll be fine. We always are.”
That Monday, the school went into crisis mode. Class was out, the lines at student cafés went around corners, and the cafeteria was packed with students stocking tupperware to the brim, even though we were only on the fringes of Sandy’s path. But the fallen tree branches of a designated college arboretum were nothing compared to the near-apocalyptic scenes in the New York City area.
A building facade blew away in Chelsea, New York University was evacuated, the MTA subway system was shut down due to extensive flooding, half the city lost power, and the list doesn’t stop there as the city continues to assess the total damage from Sandy as I write this. From Staten Island to Long Island to Brooklyn to Queens, from New England to New Jersey to Canada to Haiti, the coast was and is ravaged.
I watched it all from my Twitter feed. I kept abreast of everything by watching news sources liveblog and livestream, but the personal updates were the most rattling. One of my editors at my magazine internship lost all electricity. Friends on the Upper East Side noted water surging in from the East River. A Filipino friend of mine abroad in London tweeted about her family in Long Island. It was too close to home.
I haven’t lived in the Philippines for ten years now and can’t quite recall the real emotional atmosphere in response to the usual Pacific typhoon. But I had to wonder about the times growing up when I played video games and ate champorado in the eye of the storm. How could I have been so negligent? At school, we only got howling winds and ambivalent rains from Sandy. By Tuesday at ten thirty in the morning, we were fully operational. People complained of rescheduled classes. Others expressed disappointment at the weak weather conditions. Maybe it comes with age, maybe it comes with distance, but we can’t and shouldn’t take safety for granted.
I’m fine. I’m safe. I’m fortunate. I just wish I could say the same of New York. I’m thankful that I wasn’t there and that I was told not to come into work in Manhattan for my internship this week, but I want to see my city, my beautiful city, the one I’d grown to love, the one I will one day call my home.
I’m in between homes, between the Philippines and America, and I know both will be okay. Sandy and her aftermath may not be as regular as falling leaves or pumpkin-spiced everything. In Manila, it always took a while to drain the streets, restore buildings, and reactivate public transit, but we always manage. It’s never easy, to see the rivers, the rubble, the rising body count, but there’s nothing to do but persevere, to keep up hope. And the same can be said for New York, for America, for everyone.
We’ll be fine. We always are.