Camping With Cats At The Algonquin: A Hurricane Sandy Story

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By Melissa Roberson

My husband is in sports. And like the British empire of old, the sun never sets on it. So the day before Hurricane Sandy hit, he drove from our apartment in Hoboken, N.J., into the city so that he could unlock the door to the office for certain the next day. I was relieved for two reasons. He was taking our car to higher ground in a mid-Manhattan parking garage, and establishing a beach-head in a hotel in case I needed to evacuate with our two cats. (Because we would never leave the cats.) But that wouldn't happen, right?

The next day I woke up to, expectedly, no electricity. But we had a gas stove so I boiled some water for coffee, then remembered I had forgotten to pre-emptively grind the beans the night before. So there was tea instead. Then I looked out my 4th floor bedroom window which provides a scenic view of our building's 2nd floor, uncovered parking deck. There were quite a few neighbors gathered out there. And I remembered I had kind of ignored a 10am knock on our front door, not wanting to rouse myself from an Ambien-induced sleep. So I went down to see what all the fuss was about.

As I wandered down the stairs to the deck, I heard a rushing sound, like a river.

From the second floor door to the deck, I could see brown water flowing through our ground floor lobby. The outdoors had definitely come in. Once out on the deck, I was informed we had a gas leak in the building, and boiling water for coffee had definitely not been a good idea.

We peered out from the deck, seeing some Jersey version of Venice. Water flooded the streets in all directions. The few cars left parked were goners. A feral cat jumped off a fence and paddled frantically to another fence. There was a toxic smell of oil and gas emanating from all over.

When we could finally go back inside, I went back to bed and huddled under quilts, read, burned candles to read as it grew dark, conserved my cell phone battery by texting. Ate peanut butter. Visited neighbors by flashlight. This went on for the next three days, as it took time for the waters to recede and time for my husband to figure out a way to navigate the roadblocks back to me.

My final night in our dark cold apartment, I realized I felt a little bonkers from loneliness and lack of creature comforts. Most of my neighbors had left. My husband had to work that night but was coming the next day. I found a battery-operated radio, purchased post 9/11, and under the quilts and the spell of candlelight, listened to some far-off recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. It was cold there, too.

My God, I thought. I am having a pioneer experience.

The next day my husband arrived, and we bribed a friend to ride into the city with us. Mayor Bloomberg had decreed each car headed into the tunnel had to carry at least three people. In the city we unloaded ourselves, suitcases, friend, two yowling cat carriers, kitty litter, boxes, liners and food. Ok, it was the Algonquin. Not shabby.

Checking in, I literally wanted to kiss the folks at the front desk. I was grateful for the heat, the light, the sound of voice, and the fact that they welcomed cats. I knew they would accept cats. They had a live-in cat as a mascot. How could they not? But still, cats aren't wanted just everywhere. And as our wailing luggage trolley headed through the lobby to the elevator during a tinkling cocktail hour, I felt like we were some low-rent refugee version of a Liz Taylor/Richard Burton entourage. Didn't they always travel with a bunch of little dogs?

<b class="credit">Melissa Roberson</b>Chet makes himself at home
Melissa RobersonChet makes himself at home

Once in our room, the cats finally emerged from their carriers. In fact, they got kind of casual about the place. They settled right in. The lady who cleaned our room called our boy cat, whose name is Chet, Jeff. But I didn't care because she loved him and would play with him as he tried to stop her from making the bed.

Two weeks and thousands of dollars later, we could finally go home. Everyone at the hotel hugged us good-bye. We were like family now.

Back home, the electricity had been turned on, the gas re-ignited. Of course our hot water heater died from overstimulation at the gas line restart, so that had to be replaced. The elevator would not be fixed for three months. Replacement parts had to come from NASA, or something. I never truly understood what the problem was.

I did not file for FEMA money as my husband's boss handsomely reimbursed us for our hotel, and I thought that karma-wise, that would be the wrong thing to do.

What did I learn? That mine were first world problems. I was not coping with misery in Darfur or Somalia. That I could carry groceries, cat litter and laundry up four flights of stairs, even at the ripe old age of 58. That our neighbors were good people, but that I already knew.

And that a year later, when I re-checked into the Algonquin for one night, I would run into the very same lady who cleaned our room. And she would throw her arms around me in a big hug and ask about Jeff.

Melissa Roberson writes the Casual Fridays column for

More coverage of Sandy: One Year Later

Originally published