Faculty Director's Foreword
Out in the Storm: New Yorkers Confront Hurricane Sandy began as a project to capture the sacrifice, bravery, and tragedy of war. When I received permission to develop an oral history seminar as one of York Preparatory School’s history elective for the 2017-2018 academic year, I realized that in my excitement I had overlooked the fact that I lacked a specific subject for the study and
immediately began to look for models from which I could take inspiration. I looked first to two classics by Studs Terkel: Working and “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two. Captivated by the latter book’s recollections of battlefield memories, I continued to survey wartime oral histories with Al Santoli’s Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It and Kim Heikkila’s Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam. By late winter, I thought I had a topic—female nurses who served in United States military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Foreshadowing the challenges my students would face, I soon ran up against a number of logistical problems: who were these nurses, where did they live, how to make contact with them, and about what exactly did I want them to speak. Even with the generous assistance of Ms. Joanne Walsh, York Preparatory School’s librarian, I could not satisfactorily answer these questions. As winter turned into spring, I became increasingly anxious about the seminar, worrying that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
I do not remember when it happened, but sometime in the early summer . . . serendipity. Hoping to narrow my attention to a particular event that affected New York City, it was not too long before I was recalling 2012, my first year teaching at York Prep, and the stories told by my fellow faculty members of their experiences of bravery, sacrifice, and tragedy during Hurricane Sandy. Had I found the elusive topic for the project? Finding myself in early July, however, I realized that much research needed to be done on the chronology and impact of the superstorm as well as identifying individuals who had stories to tell. As so often in historical research, happenstance stepped in when Courtney Cohen, a former student and environmental studies-history double major at Lafayette College, volunteered to serve as a research assistant for the project. Within weeks, Ms. Cohen provided me with annotated bibliographies on a variety of topics related to Hurricane Sandy as well as a lead that resulted in an interview with Doctor Timothy Hall of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute on rising ocean temperatures and their influence on hurricane strength. Confident of finding sufficient information and individuals willing to be interviewed, I now began the new school year, instructing the members of the seminar on preparing for and conducting oral-history interviews.
Over the ensuing year, the members of the research seminar conduct both primary- and secondary-source research, learned the fundamentals of conducting oral-history interviews, and designed this website. Although the research team confronted a number of setbacks, they persevered. I was privileged to direct their research and to witness both their academic and personal growth throughout the seminar.
After completing research junkets to the United States Coast Guard Station in Staten Island and to Belle Harbor and Breezy Point in Queens as well as twenty-two individual interviews, the research team succeeded in giving voice to individuals from various walks of life who experienced the fury of Hurricane Sandy and the fear, frustration, and fealty that followed in its wake. Out in the Storm: New Yorkers Confront Hurricane Sandy is the story of community captured best in a phrase by Monsignor John J. Bracken, a resident of Belle Harbor, Queens, “Rockaway rising . . . Belle Harbor strong” and Ms. Jerilynn Lalor's description of Breezy Point, Queens, as “small town U.S.A. even though you are in New York City.” Theirs and others’ are the stories of friends and strangers reaching out amidst the storm and surge.
Out in the Storm: New Yorkers Confront Hurricane Sandy, however, is also a cautionary tale characterized by two excerpts from The New York Times. On January 8, 2018, David W. Chen reported that New York City has “more residents living in high-risk flood zones than any other city in the country” and that fourth-fifths of the city’s buildings predate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) efforts to identify areas prone to storm flooding, a situation that needs resolution to avoid future catastrophe. “The collision of science with political and economic realities,” Chen writes, “means that the battle over how many more people will fall in the flood zones will be fought house by house, block by block, with millions of dollars at stake.” On May 27, 2018, Sahil Chinoy reported on the concentrated areas of the country where natural disasters regularly occur. Over the last one-hundred years, Cinoy reports, “the number of buildings has ballooned in parts of the country susceptible to tropical storms as the population in those places has also increased.” Citing Doctor Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale University, Chinoy concludes: “Only in the United States do relief programs and subsidized insurance make it attractive for people to move toward disaster prone areas.”
I write this last paragraph on a hot and muggy afternoon in mid-June as the 2018 hurricane season begins. Reflecting back on the stories my students collected over the length of the just completed academic year, I attempt to balance the bravery, determination, and humanity evident in them against the data collected and studies published about climate change and increasing ocean temperatures. Is the reconstruction that characterizes areas of New York City devastated by Hurricane Sandy a testament to the invincibility of the human spirit or a tale of Pyrrhic victory? I leave this question unanswered and invite you to listen to and compare the tales recorded and the data collected by the members of the Out in the Storm research team.
To quote Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark: “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”
Charles R. Kaczynski, Ph.D.