Superstorm Sandy began its genesis as a typical late season tropical storm. However, as the hurricane marched up the east coast of the United States, it collided with a powerful nor’easter and morphed into a monstrous hybrid. The storm charged across open ocean, picking up strength with every step, baffling meteorologists and scientists, officials and emergency managers, even the traditional maritime wisdom of sailors and seamen: What exactly was this thing?
Hurricane Sandy was not just enormous, it was also unprecedented. As a result, the entire nation was left flat-footed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration couldn’t issue reliable warnings; the Coast Guard didn’t know what to do. In Superstorm, journalist Kathryn Miles takes readers inside the maelstrom, detailing the stories of dedicated professionals at the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service. The characters include a forecaster who risked his job to sound the alarm in New Jersey, the crew of the ill-fated tall ship Bounty, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Christie, and countless coastal residents whose homes—and lives—were torn apart and then left to wonder . . . When is the next superstorm coming?
For the crew of the tall ship Bounty, the answer to that question came far too late. Four days earlier, the ship had set sail from New London, Connecticut, bound for Florida. As they made their way southward, the sea state worsened: 40-foot waves slammed against the ship’s wooden hull; winds topped 80 miles per hour. Late in the evening on Sunday, 28 October, the crew of the Bounty was forced to accept the inevitable: their ship was taking on a dangerous amount of water. Abandoning ship seemed all but inevitable. The only question that remained was whether the 16 people on board would survive what happened next.
Monday, 29 October
2:28 a.m. Elizabeth City, North Carolina 62˚F Barometer: 29.31 inches (dropping) Winds: 27 mph (NW) Precipitation: Rain
Joseph Kelly was pacing around his house, stopping every few minutes to check the weather. Storm surge in Maryland was more than four feet. Waves tore through the pier in Ocean City, Maryland. Twenty-foot waves were being recorded as far north as Islip, on Long Island, New York. Sandy’s predicted change in direction was happening. “The turn toward the coast has begun,” tweeted the Weather Channel. Kelly’s phone rang just after he read that. It was the Coast Guard base, saying that McIntosh’s C-130 crew hadn’t been able to drop dewatering pumps for the Bounty.
Kelly was incredulous. And more than a little mad. “What do you mean they tried to drop pumps? I said establish comms. That’s it.”
The operations chief on the other end didn’t know what to say to that. He stammered a little. Kelly hung up and got dressed. There was no way he was going to sleep now. He’d always told his pilots that he would support them even if he disagreed with their decision, so long as they could demonstrate a logical thought process. He was really hoping that McIntosh had one now.
They were the only two planes in the sky for hundreds of miles. That struck both crews as eerie. Wes McIntosh and his Coast Guard crew continued to circle over the Bounty, ducking down to make radio contact with John Svendsen, then returning to a safer cruising pattern. His crew was sick and getting pretty banged up. That worried him. Not far from him, the Hurricane Hunters had their own concerns. Jon Talbot didn’t like what the data was telling them. Dropsondes on board found a small surface area where winds were registering above 90 miles per hour. Thunderstorms were continuing to build around the storm’s center. They flew through a perfectly round eye 28 miles across and made note of that, too. “#Sandy is still a fully tropical cyclone at this time,” tweeted the Weather Channel. “No doubt about it.”
One 150 miles off of Hatteras, the Bounty crew was huddled in the great cabin. Some of the headlamps had started to flicker out. They were waiting, but for what they didn’t know. Captain Robin Walbridge had thought they could make it until morning. Now he wasn’t so sure. Josh Scornavacchi had snagged a guitar out of the lazarette. He was hoping there’d be time for Claudene Christian to sing one last song. But they didn’t get a chance. Their captain told them it was time to go. They struggled to climb into their survival suits. Claudene Christian had never practiced getting into one. Jess Hewitt showed her how and cracked a few jokes. “Remember the number of your suit,” she told Christian. “That way you’ll know where to put it back.” That made her friend smile.
Walbridge always warned his crew never to take anything with them in an emergency. “You can’t go back for anything,” he would say. “Anything.” But he did, somehow. Even injured, he managed to make his way down to his cluttered little cabin. He took Claudia’s picture off the wall and stuffed it into his suit. Doug Faunt grabbed his teddy bear. Jess Hewitt took the medallion given to her by the crew of the Mississippi: by valor and arms, pride runs deep. She also grabbed a hair tie and a cigarette lighter: She planned on having a smoke as soon as they made it back to shore. She went back down for a couple of other things, too: Prokosh’s captain’s license—it was a bitch to get a replacement one, she’d always heard—and his pea coat. He had to be freezing. Claudene asked her to go back again. She really wanted her journal, she said.
An hour later, and they were all up on deck. The ship was listing. The skies were clearing. Every once in a while, they could pick out the lights of the C-130 directly overhead. McIntosh and his crew had done exactly what their commander had told them not to do: They flew in and tried to help. When conditions there got too bad, they’d fly back to their safe holding space on the side of the storm.
“It was important. We were holding their hands,” says Mike Myers. “We were trying to say, ‘You’re not alone. Keep fighting.’”
Somewhere off in the distance, the Hurricane Hunters’ C-130 was struggling through its own flight pattern.
4:28 a.m. 130 miles off Cape Hatteras
On board the Bounty, the crew congregated into two groups, braced against whatever they could find to keep from tumbling down the steeply pitched deck. Jess Hewitt thought about capsizing and tried to reassure herself: I just need to keep breathing. If I can keep breathing, I’ll be okay. She and Drew Salapatak clipped their climbing harnesses together. You better not leave me, she told him. Meanwhile, Claudene looked around: Matt wasn’t nearby. She caught sight of him up near the mast. She smiled and darted to him. Even in the storm, Anna Sprague remembered thinking it was “a cool move.”
Claudene never wanted to be alone. Especially in the dark. She nestled in with Sanders. “It’s going to be okay, baby girl,” he said. That was his nickname for her: baby girl. He kept saying it over and over again: “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”
Above them, the C-130 kept circling, ducking down just long enough to check on the status of the ship. Every time they did, the turbulence became unbearable. The crew in the back were vomiting. The cargo bay door was covered in it.
Everything appeared to be in stasis. Until suddenly, it wasn’t. A wave—bigger than the rest—struck the side of the ship. The vessel screamed and rolled from a 45° angle to a 90° one. They were dangling over the water now. Debris rained down around them. A few crew members jumped. Some tried to hold on. Matt Sanders caught his foot—it was pinched and he was stuck. Claudene panicked. “What do I do?” she screamed. “What do I do?”
“Claudene, you just have to go for it,” Sanders replied. “You have to make your way aft and get clear of the boat.”
So she did. Or tried to, anyway. The last he saw of her, she had worked her back to the mizzen—back to where her original group had been crouching. She was standing on a rail, looking as if she was trying to decide whether or not she should jump. There was no more singing. He never saw her again.
The human body will do anything to avoid drowning. It begins with an involuntary desire to gasp. Go ahead, your cells plead, take a breath. The pulse accelerates. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood rise, creating first heightened alertness, and then anxiety. Once that carbon dioxide reaches a pressure of 55 mm in your arteries, there is no longer any reasoning with your nonthinking self. It will force you to take a breath. If you are still underwater when this decision is made, that is what you will inhale. And if you do, your larynx will spasm—violently—again and again as it attempts to divert the water to your stomach instead of your lungs. In the process, this spasm will also force you to exhale any last remaining air that you didn’t even know you had. Your body will do anything—everything—to keep your lungs safe. And this commitment will work, up until the very last second. No matter what, your nonthinking brain will preserve your lungs, the place where air converts into life. Autopsies of drowning victims reveal gallons of water in their stomachs, bellies distended in a last-ditch effort to preserve their lungs. So long as it is conscious, the brain will drink until it can breathe.
In the storm-churned sea, the Bounty crew was gulping down gallons of oily seawater as they tried to thrash away from the ship. No matter how hard they tried, they could not find enough air. They flailed against debris, trying to grab anything that might save instead of kill them. Most of them were quickly separated. Not Jess Hewitt and Drew Salapatak. They were still tethered together and now trapped underwater. Jess struggled and writhed and bit at her harness, all too aware of what was happening. But still she was pulled down, down, down. She felt like she had become a giant weight. She began to give up. I can’t fight this, she thought. She prepared to give up. And just then, she popped to the surface. Somehow, Drew had wriggled out of his harness and saved them both.
Jess faced the Bounty, now lying on its side. Each time a wave rolled by, it would possess the ship, raising its enormous masts and spars high into the air before slamming them down again. One of her crew mates got caught on the mizzen mast and was lifted 20 feet in the air. He thought he heard a voice say Jump, Jump! So he did, into the recirculating suction caused by the vessel. Svendsen was there, too. Jess watched in horror as the rigging slammed down again, one of the spars smashing against the first mate’s head. She turned away and tried to swim; she didn’t want to see any more.
Kathryn Miles is the author of Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, All Standing, and Adventures with Ari. Her articles and essays have appeared in dozens of publications including Best American Essays, Ecotone, History, The New York Times, Outside, Popular Mechanics, and Time. She currently serves as writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College and is on the editorial board of Terrain.org.