Tracking Sandy: On armchair reporting in a disaster

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Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast. Photo by NASA. Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast. Photo by NASA.

Fourteen months ago this week, I spent a long night hunkered down with my laptop in a middle school gym on the Jersey Shore as Hurricane Irene, roaring like a freight train overhead, made landfall a few miles to the south.

At the time, I was the editor of a local news website covering a town on Barnegat Bay, which separates the mainland from one of New Jersey’s long, skinny, overdeveloped barrier islands. Like the rest of the Jersey Shore, the community had grown accustomed to watching potentially devastating storms die in their tracks or pass them by. The Ash Wednesday nor’easter of 1962, which killed dozens along the eastern seaboard and destroyed most of the beachfront towns near where we lived, was ancient history; with typically short memories, people rebuilt, populating the dunes with miles of mansions.

You can only bypass doom for so long. We waited for Irene last August with real fear, thinking she might be the Big One. She wasn’t, but she was no cakewalk. The kicked-up tides flooded the beaches and bayfronts, the power blinked out and stayed out for days, and when the storm itself hit, it brought powerful winds that toppled trees, tore off a few roofs, and kept me and my fellow reporters awake through the night, talking to the cops out on patrol and filing updates to the Web.

This time, it really is the Big One for the Jersey Shore. And I’m realizing that there’s an even more exquisite torture than waiting for a hurricane to trundle toward your home, and that’s watching a hurricane all but obliterate your former home from 300 miles away.

I don’t own any property in Sandy’s path. My husband, who stayed in New Jersey for work and has been calling Long Beach Island home these past many months, was safe on the other side of the state. But I still spent yesterday glued to my laptop, checking and re-checking the news outlets I used to work for, hungry for updates, photos, anything. Everybody else in the country was looking at Shore footage, too, as the storm—the largest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic—took direct aim at the South Jersey coastline.

I know I’m not the only one whose anxiety rose with the water. Live somewhere long enough, and your love for it is sewn onto you like a badge. But this compulsion I’m feeling to keep refreshing half a dozen news sites doesn’t come from worry alone. All day Sunday, as I headed home from a weekend in Maryland with friends, I was plagued by the feeling that I was driving in the wrong direction. All day Monday, I was wishing I could swap places with my exhausted former coworkers.

As a reporter, you just want to be where the story is. That itch to see something with your own eyes and share it may essentially be born from the same dangerous mix of bulletproof hubris and voyeurism that drives people to ignore evacuation warnings, but it’s hard to shake it. It got harder as the night went on and the reports got worse: storm surge meeting bay across the narrow strip of LBI, piers disappearing into the ocean, cars floating away, and, most terrible of all, first responders forced back by powerful water from houses where people screamed for help.

I’m not sure what we’ll see today when the sun rises on Sandy’s wake. All I can do is refresh the page, and wait.

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