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Blacked-Out Hoboken Faces A Grim Week

Upper-middle class good cheer and misery in the shelter. "How can you prepare for a storm like this with no money?"

Hoboken on Tuesday (left Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images) and Thursday (right Jessica Testa)

HOBOKEN, NJ — There was an extraordinary sense of calm on Washington Street, Hoboken's main roadway, Thursday. Three days after Sandy flooded half of the square-mile city and cut power to 95% of its 50,545 residents, the crowds looked like crowds on any idyllic fall day in this gentrified suburb a short train ride from Manhattan: Parents pushed multi-kid strollers, couples walked sweater-wearing dogs, joggers jogged.

The disaster, for the better-off residents of one of the hardest-hit cities on the East Coast, has prompted a kind of cheerful snow day camaraderie.

One ground-floor apartment on Washington Street put up a "Free Wi-Fi reaches the street" sign. Brownstones on a rare block with electricity threw out power strips for passersby to charge their phones. People set up small camps around the outlets, hanging out in folding chairs and drinking cans of beer on the sidewalk. ("I don't think they're gonna arrest us today," one man said.)

For some, it's their first time meeting neighbors.

"We live in a 100-unit building and didn't really know anyone else until this happened," said Andrea Costa, walking her bundled-up dachshund-beagle. "Now we've been getting together for community dinners every night. People bring down whatever's left in their freezer."

What remain of public services seem to channel that superficial good cheer. Generators hum and shake outside buildings. Helicopters pass overhead every hour or so. Most restaurants are closed or serving limited menus — Benny Tudino's, famous in these parts for its 14-inch slices of pizza, offers only chicken wings. Walk farther south on Washington (toward the massively flooded Hoboken Terminal) and there's a FEMA agent standing on a street corner and U.S. Army trucks lining the sidewalks. People gather on the steps of City Hall, taking iPhone and iPad photos of a whiteboard with the latest updates about power and supplies. National Guard officers gather in patches of grass, waiting for orders.

Some have compared this battered end of Hoboken to a war zone — an idea almost romanticized by Hoboken residents. On Thursday, a little girl brought muffins to the idle servicemen and posed for photos with them. A block away, dozens of people clapped and hollered after a utility worker brought down a streetlight that was dangerously tangled in a power line.

This sense of solidarity has spread across the city. At Hoboken's Elk Lodge, the National Guard dropped off nearly 400 pounds of pasta. The public lodge has no power, so the Elks — all Hoboken born and bred — are cooking it by the lights on Christmas strings. Yes, there's an inspiring sense of triumph over Sandy in Hoboken.

"We'll be here as long as we need to be here — as long as we have food," said Elks member Eddie Madigan from the lodge kitchen, shouting over kids pounding piano keys in the rec room. "Once the power comes back on, that'll be normalcy. But each day is better and better. You do what you can."

But with cold weather coming and the reality of another week without power settling in, the mood is turning bleaker. The National Guard spent Wednesday evacuating "truckloads of people" from buildings surrounded by floodwater, one specialist said. Mayor Dawn Zimmer estimated Tuesday that up to 25,000 Hoboken residents were stuck in their homes, waiting for floodwaters to subside. Thursday was the first time many of them were able to walk around. Those who chose or were forced to evacuate were split across three shelters, left waiting to be told when it's safe to go back home.

The mood at one shelter inside Hoboken's Wallace Primary School was particularly grim. Stiff green cots were lined close together in a gym that had no heating on this 52-degree day. Many evacuees came here from public housing facilities forced to clear out Wednesday because of water contamination, said Janine Yarrish, a mother of three.

"We didn't get to bring a bag of clothes or anything," Yarrish said. "We weren't prepared for this. Not even."

Yarrish said the conditions at the school were fine, but she's frustrated at the prospect of staying here for a week. She's even more frustrated with Mayor Zimmer for waiting "until the last minute to evacuate people."

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for all ground-floor apartments Sunday evening. Sandy made landfall Monday evening. (Zimmer's order came hours after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's.) A few days before landfall, though, Zimmer sent out a voice mail to Hoboken residents letting them know how to prepare for the storm. And she's spent the last few days asking the federal government for help.

"We're begging and pleading and trying to get the National Guard to give us the equipment to be able to get in [to evacuate people]," Zimmer told Rachel Maddow on Tuesday. "I’m just worried wires in the waters and the waters are completely contaminated and getting more contaminated every minute really."

On Wednesday, after the National Guard arrived — and Yarrish and her children and neighbors were evacuated — Zimmer's tone was less panicked and more optimistic.

"We are going to get through this," she said at a press conference.

Still, Zimmer's message didn't reach everyone. According to 2010 census data, Hoboken is 82% white, the median age is 31, and the median household income is more than $100,000. The people who don't fall into that bracket — many of the people displaced by Sandy — don't feel much of the camaraderie, cheer, or calm of the "other Hoboken."

"We're not news people. We don't watch the news," Yarrish said. "And we've got no money. I mean, how can you prepare for a storm like this with no money?"

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