By Sharon Churcher
For what seemed like five endless days last week, my life consisted of an unpleasant struggle to survive. There was water to be hauled in buckets from a communal tank and charcoal for cooking to be scavenged.
My handful of conveniences – a fridge, a hairdryer, an iron and a lamp – were powered by a petrol-fed generator tethered to my kitchen by a spaghetti-like arrangement of extension leads.
And that roared around the clock at a decibel level that the handyman who hooked it up compared to a small jet taking off. Of course, if I lived in one of the impoverished Caribbean or South American countries I cover as The Mail on Sunday’s New York correspondent, none of this would be any surprise.
Run dry: Sharon Churcher fills up at the North Salem Emergency Center after her well pump failed
But my ‘Third World’ living conditions were the result of Hurricane Irene hitting the insanely archaic, unco-ordinated and ineptly managed infrastructure of the New York commuter belt.
Far from being the ‘storm of the century’, by the time Irene reached the New York area in the middle of last Saturday night, it was downgraded to a gale. The rains were drenching but the maximum wind speed was 60mph.
Despite this, 370,000 city residents and another million in the surrounding area were ordered to evacuate by New York’s billionaire mayor, the media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, and other politicians desperate not to have the kind of scenes of death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 beamed around the world on TV.
Manhattan’s skyscrapers survived intact, as did my 18th Century cottage. It is in Westchester County, a suburb where the residents include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ralph Lauren, Susan Sarandon, Glenn Close and David Letterman.
Down and out: Fallen power lines in Hampton Bays, New York after Hurricane Irene struck
I had consoled myself, therefore, that if the storm was the catastrophe originally forecast, disaster relief would be instant. When I woke up on Sunday, however, the electricity to my home and some 75,000 others in the county was off. And when I walked down my drive, it was immediately apparent that this would not be the kind of brief power cut with which we are familiar in Britain.
While UK power is distributed on pylons that look strong enough to survive a nuclear blast, much of America – including my supposedly sophisticated neighbourhood – is served by wires strung along ancient wooden poles. The high-voltage lines at the bottom of my garden had snapped and, presumably still live, were trailing in pools of water. Within a three-mile radius, I counted at least 80 poles that had snapped off.
Water everywhere: People try to get a car out of a flooded parking lot in Washingtonville, upstate New York
There was no water in my taps. Thanks to America’s self-sufficient spirit, voters in much of the stockbroker belt, including my area of Westchester, have turned down costly proposals to install mains water.
We rely instead on old-fashioned artesian wells – one per household – hooked up to pumps and huge purification machinery. My cellar resembles a ship’s boiler room. When the power goes out, the electric well pumps stop working and the tanks run out.
My phones also were dead, along with the internet. Both services are carried along lines haphazardly attached to the same poles that deliver electricity.
Washed out: Repair crews work on Route 4 iin Mendon, Vermont, north of New York
I had joked to friends in the UK that I would ride out the storm in comfort using the generator. However, keeping it stocked with petrol required lengthy scouting treks as many neighbours had purchased similar personal power plants, and most filling stations had run out.
Moreover, the ghastly gadget refused to run my cooker. I don’t have a gas stove as there is no gas main in my area. There also was a run on charcoal as people tried to stoke up barbecues, but I finally found a sack at a supermarket ten miles away.
I wasn’t the only one ill-prepared. American politicians are very good at drumming up mass hysteria. But during ‘national disasters’ – as President Obama labelled the storm – little is expected from them except more oratory. The problem is that this country’s proudest achievement, democracy, has resulted in a bewildering pyramid of feuding elected politicians, appointed officials and volunteers.
At the top, there is Obama who controls the national civil service. It includes departments such as education and health (even though there is no comprehensive public health service). Obama also presides over the infamously toothless Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).
Emergency measures: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donates blood in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene
The agency, notorious for its blunders after Katrina swamped New Orleans, is in charge of ‘assessing’ damage due to Irene and dispensing grants for the rebuilding effort, which it is estimated will cost £5 billion.
While my suburb just needs new power poles, entire villages and roads have been destroyed in northern New York and Vermont. But the agency has only £500 million in its disaster budget because the Washington politicians who are feuding over the debt crisis have refused to vote for any more funds for it.
Beneath the federal government, there are legislatures and councils and bureaucracies at each descending level of the political structure: New York State, for instance, has an emergency department; so does Westchester County. There also are countless local bodies, as each town elects a paid supervisor who controls an entire civil service in miniature.
Destruction: Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin surveys the damage to Jon Graham's house in Rochester, Vermont
In my area, five ‘volunteers’ are each paid £700 a year to ‘control’ the ‘disaster relief’ effort from a room at the fire station. When I sat in on a meeting there last week, they were red-eyed, having worked since last Sunday without sleep. But they are almost totally paralysed by the layers of bureaucrats above them. ‘We have to add up all the money we’ve spent and submit a lot of paperwork to apply for aid and then just wait,’ a supervisor told me.
Despite the myth that Americans pay low taxes, this system not only is tailor-made for inefficiency but is vastly expensive. My council tax bill – paid to the town board – last year was £7,400 on a 2,200 sq ft cottage.
Most of the money is spent on local schools – which are entitled to levy money from homeowners, even though they also collect millions in state and federal grants. Income tax in the New York area ranges from ten per cent to 44 per cent.
Washed out: Highway 12, the main road that connects Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the mainland, after it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene in Rodanthe, North Carolina
After being told that the politicians couldn’t get a ‘straight answer’ from NYSEG, the electricity company, about when power would come back on, I tried myself. Thankfully, my Mail on Sunday BlackBerry was able to pick up a signal from the area’s one functioning mobile tower (another toppled down). ‘The average wait to speak to a customer representative is 41 minutes,’ said the robo-voice. It was a call centre.
When I finally got through, I told the woman who answered that power lines were down. She snapped: ‘If it’s that dangerous, you need to stand in the road, ma’am, and direct traffic.’
Despite NYSEG’s all-American sounding name, I learned upon further investigation that, like a growing number of key US companies, it has fallen into foreign hands, having been sold in 2008 to Spain’s largest energy company, Iberdrola.
Impact: A section of Highway 12 at the edge of Rodanthe, North Carolina, that was destroyed by Hurricane Irene
In Wayne, a New Jersey suburb that Hurricane Irene submerged, a British expat, Morag Kendall, was trying to dry out belongings she rescued after three-and-a-half feet of water poured into the house where she lives with her husband, Noel, an IT manager, and three daughters.
Morag said: ‘We’re staying with a British friend. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know what we’d do. We’ve had no help from the authorities.’
A sign with NYSEG’s logo finally went up outside my local fire station, saying, ‘WATER’. Had the firm’s Spanish owners finally come to the rescue, I wondered? ‘NYSEG has donated 14 cases of one-gallon bottles of Poland Spring,’ replied a town supervisor.
A 6,000-gallon tank of drinking water was parked nearby, paid for by the council tax.
Knocked out: Downed power lines are seen after the arrival of Hurricane Irene in Hampton Bays, New York, as power to more than three million people was knocked out
The scene was, if anything, even more ludicrous on the peninsula known as Long Island, which stretches from New York City to the exclusive seaside resort of East Hampton. Bill Clinton happened to be there last weekend, at a rented beach house. When the power was knocked out, his bodyguards hooked up a generator. Intriguingly, the American company which supplies his rental with electricity is paying a British company, National Grid, to ‘manage’ its operations.
An unidentified aide to one of Bill’s friends, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, fumed that it had been necessary to ‘track down’ a senior National Grid executive in Europe in order to complain about the pace of the clean-up. Bill’s lights finally went on last Wednesday. Mine flickered back at 5.30pm on Thursday, a day after I sent an angry email to a publicity spokesman for NYSEG and some three hours after I confronted two of the company’s employees who were sitting in a van and ‘assessing’ the potential risk of allowing broken cables to trail across residential streets.
I was lucky. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without light, heat or communication.
Line out: Residents in Annapolis, Maryland, look at downed power lines
For me, the return to the Dark Ages was irksome and uncomfortable, but that was all. A 77-year-old neighbour nearly died. He is having chemotherapy for lung cancer and needs electrically powered oxygen to breathe. With his phones out, his wife could not summon help but a friend got him to the fire station, where volunteers rigged up a temporary life-support system.
The Irene death toll, from North Carolina, where the storm made landfall, to the Canadian border, has been 48, a fraction of what initially was feared.
This is being claimed as a triumph for the patchwork of private enterprise and politicians who ‘manage’ crises such as Irene.
The power companies, including NYSEG and National Grid, have issued statements applauding themselves for their ‘storm preparation and restoration’. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the real reason for the lower fatality rate is that, compared with the 125mph, category three hurricane that was Katrina, Irene was a damp squib. And still they can’t cope.
Last night more than 127,000 suburban homes still were without power, some 66,000 of them in the Long Island area managed by National Grid.
An enraged Governor Cuomo advised the local utility board that handed the UK company its management contract to consider finding a replacement.
‘If National Grid hopes to renew its contract, they better get the power on now,’ he said.