Mark Collier Staff Photo
Lauren Towle of Hoboken, N.J., at her parents home in South Barre on Saturday afternoon. Towle, who lives on the on the New Jersey coast, rode out Superstorm Sandy’s from the 12th floor of her apartment building. Towle uses a wheelchair.
When the power came back on in Lauren Towle’s Hoboken, N.J., apartment Monday night, she did what any 28-year-old would do: She plugged in her phone and her iPod, switched on every light in the place, and turned on the television loud enough to drown out the 70 mph gusts of wind outside her windows on the 12th floor. From the TV screen, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie urged residents to find safety and prepare themselves for a long night.
Towle, who has muscular dystrophy, considered charging her wheelchair, but was in the habit of waiting until the battery was nearly depleted before recharging. Her wheelchair was at half-power, and she was not planning on going anywhere.
With the lights now blazing and the stew she had started in her crockpot at noon warm and ready, she relaxed a little.
Then, darkness again.
“As fast as it came on, it went off. It immediately went black,” Towle said.
From the comfort of her father’s home in South Barre on Friday, Towle recounted her ordeal from the past week. She had made the decision to leave Hoboken late Tuesday — when service went from returning at 4 p.m. to possibly returning in 7 to 10 days — and is waiting out her city’s recovery in Vermont.
For Towle, one of four 2002 Spaulding graduates who live in Hoboken, the storm’s devastation meant the caregiver she relies upon for her daily routine could not get to her. And with no electricity to keep her wheelchair operational, she would, quite literally, be stuck.
Hoboken sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a square-mile grid of streets home to 50,000 people. Towle moved there in early spring of 2008, where she runs her own graphic design business and makes frequent trips into the city to meet with clients and for social events.
Her apartment building is just a few blocks off the water, with a view of the Hoboken boardwalk and the New York skyline.
The building easily withstood the effects of Irene a year before, and on Monday morning Towle said people were anticipating they would sail through Hurricane Sandy with similar ease. There was no sense of urgency as she picked up some groceries Monday morning — the makings of stew and a bottle of wine.
Outside it was misting more than raining, but the wind churned the Hudson River into a sea of white caps and bent the trees sideways.
“I had prepared very little,” she said. “I went through Irene with no power outages. I thought I’m going to be fine.
“I thought the building was invincible,” she said.
The windows in her apartment, which leaked a little during Irene, had been replaced. She could hear them buckle on some of the heavy gusts, but she was confident they would hold and that her building’s five generators would kick in when needed.
When the first power outage hit around 5 p.m., the generators came on as planned, and tenants gathered in the hallways to take advantage of the emergency lighting. Children colored with crayons, and Towle brought out that bottle of wine and got to know her neighbors during the two-hour outage.
When the power failed again, the situation seemed more dire.
“I can see the Empire State Building from my apartment,” she said. “The Empire State Building was lit up, but everything south of that was completely black.”
It was a jarring sight.
Alone in the dark and getting colder by the minute — her lack of mobility makes it difficult to generate body heat — Towle decided there was nothing to do but go to bed. Fortunately for her, just three weeks before, she had contracted with a woman in her building to assist her at bedtime.
Dressed in pants and long sleeves, and now bundled under her electric blanket, she hoped power would return overnight.
Instead, conditions worsened. Her doorman came up at 8 a.m. to let her know two windows in a nearby building had blown out and three of the five generators in their building were no longer operational.
She spent much of Tuesday with a friend, clearing out some of the refrigerator and listening to the police give orders out of megaphones to get off the streets. Her doorman came up several times to check on her. She was in contact with her aide, who lamented that she could not do more for her. After hearing the power would not return anytime soon, she decided the best thing for her to do was leave.
Everyone at that point was struggling to come to terms with the devastation, she said. “I rely on other people, I don’t want to be a burden on them.”
A friend charged Towle’s phone from a car battery, and she called her sister in Connecticut and her father to make a plan.
The weekend before, Towle’s sister had visited Hoboken, and as they passed the PATH station that shuttles residents under the Hudson River into Manhattan, Towle noticed the city had stacked sandbags four high in the elevator in preparation for Sandy.
Four high was not nearly enough.
By midday Monday a picture of that station had gone viral. The image showed water gushing around both sides of the elevator door, flooding the turnstiles.
By Tuesday, Towle’s sister, Lindsay, was also without power in Connecticut and, since her apartment is not accessible for wheelchairs, they made a plan for Towle to stay in a hotel that night. She hastily packed a bag in the dark, made arrangements for a neighbor to care of her cat, was assisted to her minivan, and headed north.
“There were no lights in Hoboken. Driving down Main Street, there were tons of people walking around,” she said. The places still with power, like Seacaucus, were noticeable. “They had plenty of power, all the restaurants were packed, the gas stations, cars were 10 deep.”
Towle made the two-hour trip on her half a tank of gas. She debated her next move Wednesday morning, but with no foreseeable end to the outage, she continued north to her childhood home.
This was Towle’s first visit back in a year-and-a-half, and as she drove around Friday, she took in all of the changes around Barre.
“It is like seeing it for the first time again,” Towle said. “Life goes on when you’re not here.”
Towle regularly checks Twitter for updates on her building. She said she is not looking forward to smelling the contents of her refrigerator when she returns and seeing the debris in the streets. She thinks about the half million people still without power nearly a week later.
The decision to leave was not an easy one, but it was the right one.
“We heat our house with wood. It’s really warm in my house,” she said. “I think about how cold I could be.
“I’ve got power in my chair, I’ve got power in my phone, and I’m warm and fed.”
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