“We’ve never seen anything like this — Ida has scared us to death. We don’t even want to go downstairs to see the basement as all we can see from our window is the level of water.”
In the early hours of the morning, I was woken by a call from my family in New Jersey. Tropical Storm Ida had slammed through my cousin’s neighborhood, destroying infrastructure and flooding houses. My aunt and uncle — who are in their 60s and have spent the pandemic shielding with my cousin and her children after moving from India — had trembling voices as they described the devastation to me. They had never seen anything like this, they said, not even in the Punjab. They were used to tropical weather, but not a collapse of infrastructure and housing on this scale.
When they first arrived in New Jersey, my aunt and uncle were quick to praise the state and the United States. It was so much nicer than India, they told me, and they felt much safer. But Ida has changed all that. They are isolated, unable to take a walk or visit the gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship.) They didn’t expect to see a storm cause such upheaval in a country like the US.
“Some local members of the Sikh community are coming together with food supplies from the gurdwara and anything they can to help those in need in these difficult times,” they told me over the phone. “We don’t lose hope, we give others hope, and we will make sure that anyone in need of a hot meal will get one from the Sikhs.” They are determined to serve the suffering community they’ve joined, but they have their own hardships. They now need to borrow money from other family members to fix the damage the flood has caused: “We never thought a flood of this scale would hit New Jersey. It just goes to show that we never know God’s plan — we just have to be prepared and we weren’t, which is why it’s so much harder to accept what’s happened.”
The lack of preparations made by the state have been particularly shocking to my family. “We have no power, the house feels damp, we are cold, we just want a hot cup of masala chai and a hot meal,” they told me, before adding, “We realize there are people who have been hit far worse than us and we are grateful that we can somehow fix our home. But it will take time and it’s going to stay with us forever.”
Roads and public transport have been so severely affected in New Jersey that neither my cousin, who works at a nearby hospital as a nurse, and her husband, who has a job at the airport, have been able to travel to work today. It’s unclear when they will be able to next. In their neighborhood, there are a large amount of immigrants who speak very little English and who haven’t been able to understand the emergency services when they arrive or the news, leading to confusion and panic. Most of my family don’t understand English themselves, so say they have just been making do of what they can find out about the situation through Punjabi news channels.
My aunt and uncle used to dream of living in the US, but now they say they wish they were back home in India. The financial and emotional consequences of having their community suddenly ravaged have left them devastated. “We aren’t afraid of death — we are Sikhs, we live in God’s will — but we really feel the pain of those who have lost loved ones,” my aunt told me. “That’s what hurts, to see others’ pain and some [who] have lost their homes… My daughter and son-in-law will have to work double shifts and more in order for us to get back on our feet.”