Isabel Borgata is not an octogenarian: she’s 91. She’s also a sculptor who’s been working professionally for the past 70 years. Borgata is not entirely healthy — she has Parkinson’s disease — but she is clear-eyed and resolute, and continues to work everyday.
When Hurricane Sandy hit Westbeth, Borgata, who’s lived in the artist’s residency since 1986, was already sick. She had been prescribed some incorrect medication that was wreaking havoc on her liver, which left her essentially bedridden, and “then from lying in bed I got pneumonia,” she said. The storm came while she was lying in bed; she looked out the window and watched it surge in the Hudson River. Around 7 o’clock on Monday night, she turned on the news. The TV blinked, and then the power went out.
When the power goes out in Westbeth, so do the heat and the water. During Hurricane Sandy, the phone lines went down, too, and cell phones didn’t work for the first few days. Borgata was stuck in bed in complete and utter darkness, “and at that point,” she said, “there was no taking me out.”
Since she lives down the hall from Goldring on the 11th floor of Westbeth, getting Borgata out would have required people carrying her down eleven flights of pitch black, slippery stairs. So instead, people carried things up to her: food, water, warm clothing, hot soup if they could find it. Family members came, as well as strangers: “I would be in here, lying in bed, and a flashlight would shine in my face — suddenly someone who had been looking for a person in an open apartment. And they’d have a supper.”
Neighbors were also incredibly important — one person in particular. Nick Suttle, a young commercial photographer who lives directly across the hall, was “really spectacular,” in Borgata’s words. Suttle stayed in his apartment at Westbeth — where he also grew up — the first night of the storm, but the next day, he left for Brooklyn in search of warmth, power, hot food, and friends. After that he slept in Brooklyn every night but returned to Westbeth every day, biking back to check on Borgata and other neighbors.
“There was some sort of loose organization amongst the more active people that were still here, trying to set up some kind of floor captains or whatever. Like, ‘You’re in charge of making sure these floors are okay,’ and that sort of stuff,” Suttle said. “But then, whenever week two kicked in, shit started to feel kind of dire, so then I was here, like, all day everyday.”
Although half of the building got power back about a week after the storm hit, by that time, people had run out of water even if they had saved it in their bathtubs. The odors from unflushed toilets mixed with the smells of rotting food, not to mention the damp stench through the building. People were starting to run out of of food, morale was low, and it was “bone-chilling cold,” in Goldring’s words. “Even people that could leave their apartments,” Suttle said, “it’s just tiresome, walking up and down the stairs.”
As if that weren’t enough, Borgata told me of a particularly mind-numbing experience she had during what she called “the disaster at Westbeth”: tourists showed up.
“I had a number of people who came and said they’d always wanted to see Westbeth, and figured now was their opportunity,” she said. “They were wandering through, just gawking. They would sit down, accept whatever little snacks might be around, and talk about, what a great opportunity to see Westbeth. That got me finally, because they had no intention of doing anything useful; they just were curious.”
Power returned to the rest of the building about two weeks after the storm, but when I visited, in late November, life hadn’t returned to normal. Nancy’s heat had only come back about a week prior, the elevators had stopped working the day before, the entire building was still running on generators, and FEMA workers were occupying the basement, which was off limits. Isabel hadn’t left her apartment for six weeks. But like Nancy, she was entirely gracious, and both the women and Nick told me their stories with stoicism, even something approaching cheer. When Isabel first told me that she had spent two weeks in bed without water or light and I blurted out, “What did you do?!” she responded with characteristic understatement: “Well, just sort of camped out.”