At 6:30 p.m. on Halloween, Mrinalini Sinha finished taking her 9-year-old cousin trick-or-treating in Harlem. Back at her uncle’s home at 119th Street and Lenox Avenue with her roommates, fellow students from New York University, she’s excited to spend the night relaxing with her computer and her phone close at hand.
Barely five hours earlier, though, Sinha and her friends had been climbing down the pitch-black staircase of Carlyle Court, their powerless NYU dormitory, with only the light from their phones to illuminate their descent. Their room had no electricity and no running water. For two days, they had been climbing down those darkened stairs and walking down the block at Union Square West just to use the bathroom.
Sinha and her roommates, Michelle Epshteyn and Patricia Oviedo, were among thousands of NYU students forced to relocate Wednesday, Oct. 31. The university ordered the evacuation of residence halls lacking water and electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And like many of those students, Sinha, Epshteyn and Oviedo were looking to climb their way uptown and into the light.
“Anyone with the choice is trying to go uptown,” Sinha said. “Why would we want to stay here where it’s dark, where there’s no electricity, no Internet, in crowded school buildings?”
Most NYU buildings are in downtown Manhattan, almost entirely in areas south of 39th Street that lost power when Con Edison shut off service to lower Manhattan after the historic flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy.
University processes ground to a halt after the blackout. Monday night, all but six residence halls with working generators had lost power. On Tuesday, president John Sexton canceled classes for the week. Soon, the university announced that it would be shut down through Saturday, Nov. 3, to take care of problems arising from the downtown blackout.
Finally, on Tuesday night, the university sent resident advisors to students’ rooms to notify them that an evacuation would be taking place. Many students soon began seeking refuge uptown, where the lucky ones, like Sinha, had friends or family.
Still, many students praised the university’s response. “NYU has been so, so good,” Sinha said. “They’ve given us food, the dorms they set up for us to use during the blackout were only five minutes away, maybe less.”
But between Monday night’s outage and Wednesday’s relocation, students in the afflicted buildings were navigating in darkness, forced to leave their apartments and walk to nearby buildings to charge their phones or use the bathroom.
“Listen, I’m used to the power going out,” said Sinha, an international student from India. “In Delhi, in Gurgaon, we didn’t have power for 10 or 12 hours a day at a time. This is not the first time I’ve lived like this.”
But after leaving India, she said, she wasn’t expecting such a situation in New York.
Her roommates said they were also taken completely by surprise by the scale of the effects at the university. “I’m not used to any natural disasters, really,” said Oviedo, who grew up in Panama and only came to the U.S. for college. “When the hurricane news started coming, at first I was afraid, but friends told me it wasn’t going to be that bad.”
Epshteyn added, “Then it turned out to be that bad.”
Epshteyn grew up in Minnesota, near Minneapolis. “We lived in tornado alley,” she said. “I’m used to tornadoes ripping up power lines, but then the power is usually back in an hour or so. Something this big, I’ve never seen before.”
After the blackout, another problem soon surfaced, catalyzing the push northward: the widespread loss of cel phone service in lower Manhattan.
Outside Carlyle Court, pedestrians frequently checked with other to see if anyone was finding signal along fortuitous stretches of sidewalk.
“We’ll get cellphone signal in bursts,” said Epshteyn. “We were walking past Duane Reade last night when suddenly my pocket starts buzzing. I had 55 text messages from people that I just hadn’t gotten for hours sitting in my room.”
At the Kimmel Center, the NYU student center, tired students congregated in droves, hugging the walls of the lobby and central staircase to charge their laptops and find reception for their phones. Huddled around an electrical socket with a few friends at the top of the stairs, undergraduate student Leslie Chow said most people she knew were headed uptown and off campus to stay with friends, and she understood why.
“Look around,” she said, pointing to the frantic scene around her. “It’s super-crowded. I feel like everyone’s just kind of annoyed in here.”
Jennifer Scofield, a master’s student who lives in a university graduate student residence hall, said she was expecting the power to go out for a few hours. “But then the running water went out,” she said. “Soon we were filling a bucket with water from a hose to flush the toilets in our rooms.”
Scofield, unlike many fellow students standing in the lobby of Kimmel with luggage in tow, said she planned to live out the week where the university placed her. “I have some people in the area, but it’s harder to get to them now after the storm,” she said.
“A lot of people wish they had left before the storm,” she added.
With conditions in the area the way they were, the university’s offer of temporary housing in buildings with water and electricity was not enough to sway them from heading uptown to Harlem for the week. “Most people we know are staying with friends or with family. Who’d want to stay down here?” asked Sinha.
On Thursday, the gap in quality of life on either side of 39th Street intensified when the MTA resumed partial subway service in the northern portion of the island. Full service in lower Manhattan will not be possible until downtown stations are emptied of flooding and electricity is restored, something which Con Edison does not expect to be possible until Saturday, Nov. 3, at the earliest.