Running Before the Storm

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The wait seemed interminable. The four of us stood outside the apartment building on a chilly Sunday morning before dawn, amid New York City’s unceasing hum. I glanced up the street about every 20 seconds, unable to stop myself from looking for the town car that was to come and take us to Newark International Airport. It could not come fast enough for me.

A powerful wind coming in off the ocean buffeted me and caused branches of the street trees to thrash about wildly. With a shiver that was not just from cold, I realized that we were already experiencing the forefront of the approaching storm.

Abandoning my husband, Tom, his brother Paul, and Paul’s wife Karen to the elements, I retreated to the slightly less-frigid confines of the lobby vestibule. The night-shift doorman ambled over and we exchanged small-talk; more likely out of boredom on his part than any real interest in keeping me company. Still, it took my mind off the nerve-wracking wait.

At last Paul waved for me to come out. The car had arrived. Few words were exchanged as we hurriedly stowed our luggage and climbed in; Paul up front with the driver, and the rest of us in back. I was uncomfortably wedged between Karen and Tom, hugging my tote bag to my chest just to have a place to put my arms.

 I quickly lost my bearings as our cab wove its way through the dark streets of Manhattan. It would be a long drive from 59th Street near the East River to Newark. There was nothing to do but trust the driver to get us to airport, and hope there was no delay in our flight. I kept catching myself rubbing my thumb over the tips of my fingers, a nervous habit of mine and a “tell” of my state of mind. I flattened my hand out to stop it, only to find myself doing it again a few moments later.

This was not how our trip to New York City was supposed to be.  I was there to help facilitate a conference for my employer and Tom had tagged along. The conference ended on a Friday.  We planned to extend our stay until Monday evening for the opportunity to visit family and see more of New York. It wasn’t until the final hours of the conference that I learned about a hurricane named Sandy that was headed directly towards us.

When the conference ended, we moved from our hotel to a corporate apartment that Paul had access to; a well-appointed three-bedroom unit in a high-rise near the Queensboro Bridge.  Tom’s sister Eileen and her son Ethan came down from Connecticut, and his brother Bob and Bob’s wife Kathy came over from Brooklyn.  We ate, talked and drank wine late into the night, listening to repetitive reports on the Weather Channel. The enormous flat screen television showed a map of the hurricane; a blue whorl nearly as wide as the Atlantic Ocean advanced toward the northeastern U.S. coastline, jumped back, then advanced again over and over again.

Saturday was calm with a weak sunshine that warmed the spirit, if not the body. One of my “must do” plans for this trip was to explore Central Park. Karen and I headed there, leaving the others to go their own way. We ambled along through the park at a leisurely pace, conversing, except when I broke off to take photos. She told me all about her and Paul’s extended stay in Paris, from which they were returning. They live in Seattle but stopped over in New York to connect with us and to break up the long return trip.  It was very pleasant day, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about the storm and wondering what was going to happen.

That evening, our family group, plus a friend of Karen’s who lived in the City, went out for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Afterward, we gathered back at the apartment.  The weather forecast now sounded direr than the night before. I had hoped the storm would slow down or veer away from the coast. If anything, it had gained speed and was still coming straight for us.  It became clear that if we didn’t leave very soon, we would not be able to depart as planned on Monday, and would likely be stuck in New York for many days.

My employer had purchased my airline ticket and I was reluctant to incur a fee for changing my itinerary. But at this juncture, even a change fee would be cheaper than paying for a hotel and meals for several additional days. The apartment was only reserved through Sunday, so we had to leave there regardless.

It wasn’t until late Saturday evening that I called United Airlines to see what our options were. The airline was waiving the change fee for departures from those cities in Sandy’s path, but the only available flight to Portland, Oregon was Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m. Having no better option, I booked it. Since there were no flights available to Seattle, Paul re-booked he and Karen on the same flight as us to Portland. We said our good-nights and went to bed, hoping to get a few hours sleep before our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

The town car delivered us to the airport with time to spare, and Paul—a frequent business traveler—got us all into the United VIP lounge. Taking advantage of the free coffee and continental breakfast, I relaxed a bit with the knowledge that we were on our way home. Although I worried about turbulence during take-off with the increasing winds, it was not as bad as I expected.

As it turned out, the New York area airports ceased operations later that day. We had taken one of the last flights out. At home on Sunday evening, and the following day, we watched as Hurricane Sandy pummeled the coastline of New Jersey and New York. The devastation was so much worse than we had even imagined it could be. And I was never more thankful to be safe and warm at home than at that time.

Photo credit: Tamara Muldoon