Sandy: Ten Years Later

The morning after: South Ferry-Whitehall St Station.

Ten years ago, Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast, causing death and destruction on an enormous scale. New York City was hit particularly hard, with images of flooded subways and devastated coastal neighborhoods broadcast around the world.

As the MTA Press Office’s videographer and creator of the agency’s YouTube channel, I shot what I’m pretty sure was the first and most widely-publicized video of the damage to the subway. On this tenth anniversary of the storm, I wanted to share some memories of that time.

Getting Ready for Sandy

My main task in the days before and after Sandy was to capture our prep for the hurricane and any recovery efforts after. The entire agency was abuzz with storm preparations and I knew I had some long work days ahead of me. But as anyone who has worked in a public sector operations environment like MTA can attest, when the agency is in ”go” mode the adrenaline is contagious and everyone steps up. In those situations, you remember that you’re part of an organization of thousands providing an essential service for millions. The mission motivates.

Covering field operations was often physically grueling as a one-person video team, but I loved shooting in New York’s vast transit system alongside MTA frontline personnel. These track workers, train and bus operators, cleaners, station agents, conductors, engineers, dispatchers, signal maintainers, and thousands of others are the everyday heroes that keep New York moving. I always felt that a big part of my job was to support the operating staff, shining a light on the important work that they do for a public that doesn’t always understand or appreciate them.

Two nights before Sandy: at LIRR West Side Yard with a giant inflatable flood barrier. This was just one of the many temporary but impressive fortifications for the storm.

On the night of the storm, I went to sleep knowing that I would be driving around the next day filming at various MTA locations and uploading footage for the Press Office to distribute to media. As I drifted off to sleep in my Harlem apartment, I could hear the rain and wind outside my window growing more intense.

Lower Manhattan, The Day After

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I arrived at the South Ferry-Whitehall Street Station the next morning. The station complex, located at the southern tip of Manhattan, had reopened just three years earlier after a very expensive renovation as part of 9/11 rebuilding efforts. It was one of the few new stations in a very old subway system.

As I descended the stairs from street level to the main fare control area, I was shocked to see that the station was dark and flooded. The water was a few inches deep on the mezzanine and filled with floating debris, much of it washed down from the street. I turned on my Sony FS100 video camera and began shooting, following the lead of my escort from the subways department. He was also kind enough to hold one of the portable LED lights that I’d brought with me.

As we passed through the fare array, I could see that the water had reached the top of the escalators and stairs that led down to the South Ferry passenger platforms, several stories below. This meant that the station’s entire lower level — a 600 foot-long island platform with tracks on both sides — was completely submerged, along with the tunnels north of the station.

As an MTA videographer, I was fortunate to have seen lots of interesting areas of the subway system that are hidden from the public. But nothing had prepared me for this. As the cliche goes, it was like watching a disaster movie, except it was real life.

Over at the Whitehall Street platform, there was surprisingly no flooding but it was completely dark and eerily quiet, with only the occasional sound of water dripping from the ceiling. It was terrifying. I’d been on that platform hundreds of times before and I knew the layout well, but absent all signs of light, sound, and life, Whitehall Street felt like something out of a nightmare. Even though I knew I wasn’t in any danger, I left as quickly as I could after getting a few shots of the platform.

After leaving the station, I walked over to the nearby Hugh L. Carey/Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to capture a visit from Governor Cuomo and MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. The flooding of the vehicular tunnels, which connect Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, was an equally surreal sight. My mind struggled to comprehend how many gallons of water would have to be pumped out and I wondered if the volume was greater than what I’d just seen at South Ferry.

Covering Our Own Crisis

I raced home and downloaded the footage to my Mac and started cutting B-roll compilations in Final Cut Pro. I had to edit quickly because we wanted to provide the footage to news media as quickly as possible, a feat made tougher because my new cat Helena kept trying to sit on the keyboard.

A few hours later, Adam Lisberg, head of the MTA Press Office, approved the cuts and I uploaded them to MTA YouTube as unlisted videos. Typically, our workflow for media releases like this was to provide the unlisted link to reporters and editors but keep the video invisible to the public. I thought these compilations would be no different.

But to my surprise (and delight), Adam gave the green light to make the raw footage public on MTA YouTube. I set the links to ”public” and watched with delight as the view counts increased at a rate we’d never seen before on any of our other videos. Apparently, a flooded subway station was of interest to lots of regular people worldwide, not just New York transit journalists and diehard railfans, our usual audience.

By that evening, the footage of South Ferry was ubiquitous on web, social, and TV, as it would be for the next several weeks. I even had friends in Asia texting me to say that they’d seen my clips on their national broadcasts.

Three days later: back at South Ferry Station. Water level quite a bit lower, spirits higher.

It was thrilling to know that my shaky footage had gotten such exposure, but in the weeks following the storm it was mostly work work work and very little glory. I spent many long days driving around to various MTA locations, coming back home to edit and upload. Eventually my work covering Sandy recovery tapered off. Our offices re-opened and I could edit at MTA headquarters again, sans cat.

A few years later, we’d make a video of how and why we’d released that footage in the way that we did. The piece was called Covering Our Own Crisis, which is a title I still really love. In the video, Adam does a great job of explaining how releasing our images quickly and widely helped the public understand the enormous job of reviving the transit system.

Superstorm Sandy was a terrible and costly event for the MTA, but the aftermath of the storm was a great case study in how transparency and immediacy can really help agencies build trust with the public. I’m glad to have played a small part in the effort.