When the floods come to your hometown
Hoboken, New Jersey
By Gary Hershorn
For thirty-four years I have been a photojournalist covering events the world over, but never have I had to live within a news event in my hometown. Too many times to count in my 28 years with Reuters, I have packed my bags and flown off to cover the news but never have I looked out my window and seen a story unfold before me. It is an indescribable feeling watching waters rage and rise in the street below, feeling as helpless as one can be.
It was a perfectly normal day in Hoboken, New Jersey. I was out and about knowing that forecasters were calling for Hurricane Sandy to come ashore somewhere between Cape May and New York late Monday night. By mid-afternoon I walked to a pier that juts out into the Hudson River to see if I could get some pictures of Lower Manhattan with gray clouds looming in the sky. I was fortunate to have some newlyweds walk out to the pier to have their wedding pictures taken using the New York skyline as a backdrop. The contrast of the white dress and the dark gray skies made for a nice photograph.
The only thing out of the normal was making sure I had the supplies one is supposed to have if a storm of this size hits. However, my biggest concern was if I was going to get wet covering Monday’s NFL game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
Traffic was unusually light as I headed in to cover the game, the parking lots were still half empty when I arrived. This was the first sign that something wasn’t right in the New York area.
Sitting in the media workroom at half time I heard some photographers talking about the storm. One person declared that New York was going to get seriously messed up so he was planning on staying in a Manhattan hotel rather then going home to make it easier to work for the next few days.
In the third quarter with the Jets losing badly I noticed the seats were half empty. Clearly, concerned people were heading home to take care of their families and homes. The game ended and there was virtually no traffic when I left the stadium. Almost everyone was gone before the final whistle.
On my way home I decided to go to a lookout in Weehawken, New Jersey to take some twilight skyline pictures of New York with dark gray imposing clouds hanging over the city. I came across a couple of tourists from Latvia jumping up and down in front of the skyline taking happy snap pictures as so many people do from this location – two people having fun while the millions of people living behind them in New York were already bracing for the worst.
Then I saw a single man taking pictures of the skyline from a perfect place in the park so I stood behind him and did the same thing.
I woke up to rain. Clearly the outer bands of Sandy were upon us so I decided to go to Sinatra Park on Hoboken’s waterfront. The gusts of wind at 8am almost knocked me off my feet. I was dressed in a heavy poncho that was flapping wildly in the wind until a woman came over and refastened all the snaps. She told me that she was a dresser for models taking part in runway fashion shows. I felt privileged that she took pity on a photographer who was clearly getting soaked. At 9am the police finally decided to close the park and told all of us to go home where it was safe.
So home I went to transmit the pictures I had taken of the morning skyline along with flooding already happening around the Lackawanna Train Station, next to the Hudson River.
Standing near the flooding with a city maintenance employee I was told to prepare for the absolute worst tonight if the river was overflowing its seawall already.
Next order of business was to get my car out of harms way. I packed my bike in the car and drove to a parking garage. The bike ride home in light rain was easy. Along the way I tried to get to the bicycle path along the river in Jersey City but every access point had a police car blocking the way. Back in Hoboken I rode past the waterfront again to take a few pictures and headed home to transmit a few more.
About 3pm I ventured on foot back to the riverfront for one last look before darkness set in. Unknown to me, the storm was going to hit about eight hours earlier then projected, at 6pm. A crazy game of cat and mouse ensued as an endless stream of residents walked to the waterfront only to be told by a roaming police car that the area was closed. Once the police car drove past everyone went back to the rivers edge only to leave when the car made a return visit. One couple went under a police barricade to go down a boat launch so a friend could photograph them next to the rapidly moving river. I couldn’t help but think they were crazy. One strong wave and it could have been over for them all for a picture.
Whatever wind I felt in the morning was nothing compared to the speed it was blowing now. I wanted to illustrate the wind but realized that was not such an easy thing to do in an urban environment. We are all used to the images of huge crashing waves on a beach or palm trees half bent over in Florida but in Hoboken there was nothing like that. I walked past a veteran’s memorial that had flags being torn to shreds. Finally I had something to show the force of the wind. It was now clearly too dangerous to be outside so home I went.
On the way I saw a large tree that had fallen across First Street crushing a car. I couldn’t help thinking this was not going to end well tonight.
About 7:45pm, shortly after finishing transmitting my last set of pictures I lost power. I looked outside only to see a raging river flowing under my second floor window. I have lived in Hoboken, a city notoriously prone to flooding, for over seven years and been through many floods but nothing came close to this. Water rose to a level of 4-5 feet in what seemed like seconds.
I set up a camera on a tripod in my window and spent the next few hours photographing the water rising. I used a BMW car unfortunately left in the street as a gauge for the depth of the water. When the water came up to the hood of the car I knew this was going to be the worst Hoboken had ever seen. With no power I was forced to transfer the pictures to my iPad and use its data connection to email photos to our editing desk.
It was now time to get some sleep since I thought I would have to work a long day the next day covering the flood.
I woke up about 6:30 and before getting out of bed I just laid there wondering what I was going to see when I looked out the window. I was hoping to see a water level low enough to go out and work in, but remembered the night before listening to the radio describing how water never leaves as fast as it comes.
When was the last time you relied solely on radio to get all your information? It was amazing to listen to the radio for hours; the reporting was fantastic but weird that I, a visuals person who is used to watching an event play out live on TV, had absolutely no visuals of what was going on beyond what I saw out my front window.
It was nothing short of a shock to see the river, lake or whatever you want to call it when five feet of water is still in your street. It was even more of a shock to the journalist inside of me that I was for all intents and purposes trapped in my apartment. I went downstairs to see what the lobby was like and found almost four feet of water there.
Feeling very much like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Rear Window”, I took pictures out my window of the submerged BMW and a few people wading through the waist-deep water, including a couple floating their dog in a plastic container just to get out of the area.
Unfortunately by late morning, all my internet access had been shut down as cell towers powered down when their back-up batteries ran dead. Frustration set in at having no way out of the building and no way of transmitting the few pictures I had taken.
In the end, not being able to send my pictures didn’t really matter because listening to the descriptions on the radio of the fire in Breezy Point, the flooding in Staten Island and the destruction at the Jersey Shore made me think people walking through water in Hoboken were not the pictures the world was waiting for.
Sitting in my front window, day passed into night and off to sleep I went hoping for a chance to get out and work on Wednesday, wondering what did I miss photographing all day in my city.
I woke up early again. Amazingly I could see the yellow line down the center of the street so I knew I could get out of the building and get to work. I turned on my mobile phones and to my surprise service had been restored. I found a couple of inches of water and sludge on our lobby floor and took a ride on my bike around the areas of Hoboken where the water went down.
Riding around the riverfront the damage didn’t seem so bad at first sight but it was eerily quiet. People were coming out of their homes and walking in complete silence. It was the exact same sense of shock and extreme quiet I experienced in New York the day after the 9/11 attacks. I never thought I would experience that again, let alone in the city I live in.
I made my way to the back end of Hoboken, the area that traditionally floods the worst and only one word can describe what I saw, crushing. My town looked and was destroyed. People were carrying their wives and children on their backs out of the floodwater and I thought how could this have happened here.
Stores I shopped in, dry cleaners I had clothes washed in, restaurants I ate in and a furniture store that I bought so many pieces in were wiped out. This was not a place I flew into to photograph unknown people grieving what they lost, these were people I knew, my neighbors. There are no words that adequately describe the feeling of seeing people dazed and confused in those first moments of realization they have no home left. By now the water was down to about 2 feet but it was contaminated beyond anything Hoboken had seen. Heavy black oil hung on top. I kept hoping no one lit a match because the whole town might burn.
As disgusting as I felt walking through this mess, it occurred to me every house and store at street level had this water inside.
What I also found was how hard it was to turn the camera on my neighbors. Pictures that I would probably take if flying into a hurricane in another state are not the ones taken in a place that you have an emotional attachment too. You could tell in seconds some people just wanted you to keep on walking with no words needing to be spoken. Others like the couple hugging and crying outside their destroyed home didn’t deserve to have that moment interrupted by the clicking of a camera and others were happy to have someone walking by to talk to, I imagine to divert their attention away from the mess they were starting to clean up. There was the man trying to bail out his front door stairway filled with four feet of water one trash can at a time even though the water was at the same depth all the way through his basement apartment.
I woke up and simply had one goal in mind; go to the office in Times Square to charge up every device I own. New York was a chance to clear my head, a diversion from the water in Hoboken, a chance to get something decent to eat and to see coworkers who had been out working since Monday in New York and hear their stories.
At sunset I went back to Weehawken to photograph the skyline of New York showing the darkened area of Lower Manhattan. No matter what you have to do, a desire to document something in a story this big does burn inside you.
Friday morning was my last opportunity to photograph the flood around Hoboken as I was leaving for Russia the next day. I met the owner of a web design firm whose office was gutted by the water. I will never forget his words as he cleaned out some belongings, “It’s just stuff, we will rebuild”. I looked at his expensive Apple computers and monitors that sat on tables where the water went one foot higher then the table tops and thought, he is right, it is just stuff but for others it was their life, their memories, their irreplaceable possessions. I guess disasters like this have a different meaning to everyone.
I photographed postman Mike Conroy delivering mail to a flood ravaged pharmacy who shook his head and said it’s the first time the postal service had lost four consecutive days of mail delivery in Hoboken.
For me the hardest part was seeing people I know suffer the way they did while I was one of the lucky ones having no personal loss. It seemed so unfair or random that in an area of such extreme pain some of us only had to deal with a few nights sleeping in a cold apartment, dealing with no power or sitting for an hour and a half in the cold at a charging station so we could communicate on our mobile phones.
Here I am on a plane to Russia bound for a meeting to discuss the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Life goes on as we start planning a future event that many of the photojournalists who covered this week’s storm will attend. I left behind Hoboken, a city still with half its residents powerless as of this afternoon. I sit here hoping the power comes back to everyone this weekend and to my apartment by the time I return from this trip.
I wished everyday I had been able to contribute more to the overall effort of our coverage but in the middle of a flood in your own city you realize there are things you have to do for yourself, things you have to do to help friends and time you need to just think about what else you have to do other then running around taking pictures.
That being said, while sitting at the charging station on Friday, someone showed me pictures they took with their iPhone out their window on Tuesday of national guardsmen performing a rescue of children and a pregnant woman from a building just around the corner from my apartment. I couldn’t help but think how much there was to photograph in my town that day that was never documented.