As far as media consumption is concerned, Hurricane Sandy was, for me, an old-fashioned disaster. I don’t mean to make light of last week’s historic catastrophe. When my neighbors and I were evacuated last Sunday from our beachfront homes in the coastal New Haven County region of Connecticut I firmly believed that it would be weeks before we could return, if indeed we had homes to return to. Weather-casters in our area were predicting 12-foot waves on top of 12-foot tidal surges, all pushed along by hurricane-force winds. That’s not something you want to hear when your building sits about 15 feet from the water, even if it is on elevated ground, and not when memories of flooding brought on by Tropical Storm Irene are still so vivid.
Anyway, I feel very blessed as I write this. My home and those of my neighbors survived the storm without any significant damage, and -- remarkably -- we had our power as well as phone, Internet and television service restored by Wednesday night. The grounds are in ruins, but I’m not complaining. We made out so much better than millions of other people in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Adding to my good fortune was the fact that the friends I stayed with during the storm and its immediate aftermath never lost power. That brings me to the comment above about my media experience with Sandy being somewhat old-school. In short: Because their television never stopped working, we never stopped watching it. There were no smartphones or tablets in the house, and only two laptops, one being mine. I was grateful that I could send email and receive it from people who weren’t in the storm, or hadn’t lost power, or had access to charged mobile devices. But last Monday night, when Sandy struck, no amount of Web surfing or social media interaction delivered the kind of information flow or the impactful viewing experience that came from sitting in front of a high-definition flat-screen television with other people watching the world try to end,
I can’t recall a night of television like it. Surfing back and forth among local live coverage on the New York and Connecticut affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, plus CNN, I watched the towns I grew up in, the city I have worked in and the beachfront communities I often vacationed in literally fill up with water and come apart. The floods, fires, explosions and blackouts were terrible to see. After trying to sleep for a few hours, I was up and parked in front of the television by 5 a.m. the next morning. The devastation throughout the tristate area proved even worse than anyone could have imagined.
Local news crews couldn’t be everywhere, and it wasn’t until very late in the day that I finally saw my neighborhood in a report. There was deep water everywhere, and the cameras were focused on houses that had collapsed. I took as a good sign the absence of coverage from my immediate area, which is densely populated with condominiums and is adjacent to a beautiful waterfront state park. If buildings had collapsed or washed away in that area, reporters would have been all over it.
As the week progressed, I was able to venture out and visit friends in nearby towns who were still without power. Most of them had found ways to charge their phones, tablets and laptops during the week, so they all had a general sense of what had happened. But it became increasingly clear to me that they really didn’t grasp the full terrible scope of it all, primarily because they had been living without television. Those who were able later in the week to visit people with power and watch a few minutes of news were stunned by what they saw. Of course, much of the coverage they had missed had been available all along on their mobile devices, but they had used them sparingly, unsure of how long their batteries would last or when they would be able to recharge them again.
Curiously, I couldn’t find anyone who had kept informed by listening to a simple transistor radio, which is what I did last year during the long night and unforgettable morning when Irene hit the Connecticut coast head on. (My neighbors and I had not evacuated for that storm. We learned our lesson.) During Sandy and Irene, local a.m. radio ran the audio portion of live local television newscasts, allowing listeners to continue to feel connected to the very people they had been watching on television until their power was lost.
My interaction with media during this ongoing story continues to surprise me. Just yesterday I purchased an actual newspaper – the Sunday edition of The Connecticut Post – and learned still more about what Sandy had done to the town I live in and those around me. Maybe it was just some kind of flashback nostalgia to the reading habits of my youth, but I found the handful of carefully selected black-and-white photos of local devastation in the paper affected me more powerfully than the thousands of color pictures that are all over the Web.