Darkness in the heart of town

Patrick Baglee writes from New York City:

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture at the Linnaean Society of New York, a group set up in the 1870s to discuss matters of ornithological interest in the city and its surrounding areas. The presenter on this particular evening, Dr. Andrew Farnsworth, was encouraging us to listen to migrating birds as they made their way over the city at night. In the quieter, darker hours, birds can be heard calling as they navigate over and through the concrete canyons of Manhattan on their way down to the Florida panhandle and toward their lush winter quarters in South America.

Night migration is preferred by many small species of songbird because it means they are flying through cooler air. This puts less strain on a bird’s already fast beating heart, and, offers greater safety from predators. Two of the main challenges to observing and listening to this nocturnal spectacle, particularly in an urban setting, are city lights and sound pollution. On occasions, light works in the ornithologists favor. From dusk on September 11th, when the columns of the Tribute in Light shine upward from Ground Zero, birds of all sizes can be seen fluttering through the beams. Warblers, thrushes and even herons are caught in the glare of the 88 searchlights for a few brief moments as they exit Manhattan Island.

On 29th October this year, Mother Nature at her most violent managed to extinguish at least one of these impediments. The most intense elements of Hurricane Sandy tore up the east coast and through New York State. The storm, which estimates suggest was almost 1,000km in diameter, decimated coastal communities and killed dozens of people, with others left missing. The tidal surge, made worse by the storm’s occurrence at the same time as a full moon, flooded the low-lying areas of Manhattan Island. For the fortunate, where topography meant the devastation of flooding was avoided, the Hurricane instead robbed them of power. At 8.30pm, Sandy turned out the lights of Lower Manhattan.

Of all the impacts of the storm, the loss of power and its impact on the quality and availability of light has been one of its most clearly visible and surprising aspects. The grid on which Manhattan is based and that governs the layout of the island above Houston Street creates blocks and delineations that very clearly show the have’s and the have-not’s when it comes to visible evidence of the absence of power.

Just before the lights finally did go out, they flickered twice, brightened for almost as long, and then went for good. Suddenly the majority of Lower Manhattan – from 40th Street down to Battery City – was plunged into an ominous disorientating darkness. The power outage took away the electricity to the streetlights, traffic lights, shops and dwellings. Taller buildings lost their elevators. Door buzzers failed. Water pressure dropped. Mobile signal was lost on the majority of networks. Only those with transistor radios could stay in touch with the news as it emerged.

If you ventured out on the night after the storm, as the wind subsided, the darkness had an odd effect on the taller buildings. As you walked along 5th Avenue, you could see the base and entrances of most. As you looked higher, the middle floors became less distinct; more like an obvious but unresolved wall of something man made that wasn’t the night sky but wasn’t quite concrete either. Then, as buildings reached the upper floors, the night defined their outline cutting it out of the steely grey of a moonlit sky. As you looked down the avenue to the south, there was no indication of activity, other than the glow of slow burning flares placed at the four corners of each intersection between cross street and avenue; like ceremonial flames, positioned carefully around a ritual that will never take place.

As your eyes worked harder to define shapes you knew to be there, you realized there were none visible. All that remained was a deep, heavy, almost oppressive darkness. After a few moments your eyes started to naturally adjust to these unexpected conditions. Every now and then, you would notice the flicker of a candle, or a sweeping arc of torchlight as a family made their way upstairs, or across their front room, or to the bathroom to make best use of their dwindling water supply.

The weak glow of tea lights and the narrow, almost useless beam of a key-ring torch work reasonably well for a short while. But after a time, the romance of getting-by with tiny pools of light starts to pale and you begin to yearn for an intensity of brightness that does not naturally reappear till daybreak. As the sun rose on the day after the storm, the skies cleared and were an intense and beautiful blue. The clouds passed over briskly. The air was clean and refreshingly cold.

For six days, light after dark for over a million citizens was provided by candle, torch and storm lantern. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of technicians who worked round the clock in perilous conditions, the power – and with it the light – eventually returned to Lower Manhattan and beyond. For others in the Five Boroughs who came face to face with the terrible force of the Hurricane, the most permanent darkness of all came far too soon.



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