NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- What happened to all the water?
Biking around Manhattan's Financial District, just a few days after Hurricane Sandy, I strained to find signs of the disaster.
There were fewer cars and people than usual, but far more than one might expect, given that the hurricane was the largest tropical system ever measured in the Atlantic. The Brooklyn Bridge was packed with pedestrians, so much so that I had to use my bell repeatedly to get across as walkers drifted into the cycling lane.
In the Financial District, in lower Manhattan, most businesses were closed, and there were lots of Con Edison trucks and emergency vehicles. In three locations, each about 15 blocks apart, giant trucks pumped water out of flooded office buildings. Still, lower Manhattan felt very much under control.
The New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday had reopened for trading after a two-day shutdown, and floor brokers were low-key and unemotional.
When I asked her to compare the resumption of trading after Sandy to her return to the exchange after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Doreen Mogavero, CEO of Mogavero Lee & Co., saw few parallels.
"Today is not a big deal. For me, it wasn't that personal," she said, adding that she would have stayed home if coming in had been inconvenient. Following the 9/11 attacks, she and many others on the NYSE floor knew people who had been killed, and they were determined to honor the colleagues they had lost.
"I would have crawled through glass to get here," Mogavero said.
Ben Willis, a veteran trader at Albert Fried & Co., was similarly nonchalant about trading in Sandy's wake.
"The most unusual part of today for me was the drive in from the Lincoln Tunnel -- from 30th Street down to Greenwich in the darkness and no stoplights. The only lights I saw were the flashing lights of the New York Police Department, but other than that, it was very dark. Very unusual." After that, however, "the rest of the day was pretty much standard fare," Willis said.
No one I saw was visibly in a panic or even stressed out.
Hira Lesea was tired, though. She'd been working from 8 a.m. to 5 pm at the NYC Love Street Coffee Truck, a friendly gathering spot for coffee addicts that stands outside the Museum of American Finance at 48 Wall St. Lesea guesses she served about 1,000 people Wednesday instead of the usual 500 to 600.
"A lot of people were really thankful, really happy that we were here. You don't realize that there's a lot of people that live down here and need coffee. Very different customers than we normally have. Nobody going to work, really. I had maybe four or five regulars. That's it," she said.
Emergency workers were hungry. One crew of about 60 men (they spoke on condition of anonymity since they aren't authorized to give interviews) had driven giant trucks all the previous day, arriving at their staging area in Staten Island at about 3 a.m. They are usually stationed in another region that has seen more extensive flooding in the past. They had to pump some 60 feet of water out of the basement of a large office building to allow Con Ed to restore power. The building's owner, however, was concerned that removing the water might cause the walls to collapse, so the workers were waiting while a structural engineer was brought in to evaluate the situation.
The men were hungry, but their boss in the white helmet was a bit skeptical when I told him a guy working at a hot dog cart some 10 blocks away claimed to have 50 hot dogs he could sell them.
"Isn't there a McDonald's somewhere near here? How far do we have to go to get to a place that has electricity?"
One of his men was less demanding.
"I'll walk 10 blocks to get myself a hot dog," he said.
With little food available in the area, it was unquestionably a good day to run a hot dog cart.
Abdelrahim Nader, manning his cart on Wall Street, said he typically sells between 70 and 90 franks a day. On Wednesday, though, he figures he served up 150.
The story was the same at the Milk Truck, another mobile food vendor on Wall Street that sold out of grilled cheese sandwiches -- an unusual circumstance, despite the fact that they'd brought more than usual.
The Milk Truck, Nader's hot dog stand and the NYC Love Street Coffee Truck created a mini-oasis among Financial District residents.
People in the area lacked not only food, of course, but electricity as well, which was why they were happy to find Daymion Mardel and Angel Hernandez offering them a chance to charge their mobile phones for free from the back of their car. Con Edison says electricity will be restored by Saturday.
Freelance commercial photographers who share a residence in Harlem, Mardel and Hernandez have mobile charging equipment they use regularly in their work.
"We decided that rather than have it sitting at home we could put it to good use for people that really need it," Hernandez said.
It may seem that none of these things -- the lack of food and electricity, Con Ed trucks dotting the landscape, the good samaritan cell phone chargers -- are ordinary.
Still, for a New Yorker who experienced Sept. 11, 2001, the occasional blackout or snow storm -- even Occupy Wall Street protests -- the Financial District's first day of trading after Hurricane Sandy wasn't a big deal. More surreal were the days following the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers. The world felt to most of us who work in the financial-services industry as if it might collapse, even though everyone and everything on the street looked completely normal.
Maybe another thing that made Sandy seem like such a non-event in the Financial District was that the water disappeared so quickly. Despite pictures of floating police vans I'd seen online Tuesday night, I had to look hard to find a puddle. An extra pair of shoes and socks I brought along weren't necessary.
Still, for Sandy's seeming insignificance alongside the terrorist attacks, the blackouts, the snow storms and the financial crisis that I've witnessed in my 15 years as a New Yorker, Sandy is in some ways more unsettling.
The sea is rising, and it will cost $10 billion to properly protect the city, according to The New York Times.
In February 2009, Mayor Bloomberg released conclusions issued by the New York City Panel on Climate Change. The devastating, if little-known, report said New York City is in danger of permanent flooding. By the end of the century, New York City's temperature is projected to increase by 4 to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit, annual precipitation will rise by 5% to 10% and sea levels will climb by 12 to 23 inches. A coastal flood that typically occurs every 10 years could happen as often as once a year, the panel warned.
Talking to people about Sandy, I don't get the sense that we're scared enough to put pressure on our political leaders to fix this problem. Some might not even think there's anything wrong.
An example of this nonchalance can be seen in the fact that shares of real estate investment trusts (REITs) with large exposure to Manhattan real estate, including SL Green & Co. SLG and Brookfield Properties BPO , actually opened higher on Wednesday and finished essentially flat.
Analysts I spoke to were focused on the apparent minimal damage caused by Sandy and they waved away my questions about its implications for New York's future.
The fact that extreme weather events like Sandy are becoming far too frequent is worrisome enough. Even more worrying, though, is that few of us seem to care.
-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.