Center for Strategic Communication

On Monday night, Hurricane Sandy hit the armory of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, leaving the soldiers without power, hot water, or anything but the most rudimentary means of communicating with the outside world. So the next morning, the Regiment’s officers made an emergency plea — to the producers of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

As they had done for the last three years running, the lingerie company was holding its annual television event at the Regiment’s historic armory, located at 25th street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. For the show, the producers had hauled in eight massive 500 kilowatt generators. Of course, the producers said, we’d be happy to help. Hours later, the lights flashed back on.

“We were dead in the water until Victoria’s Secret showed up,” says Capt. Brendan Gendron, the Regiment’s operations officer.

It’s one of many unexpected turns the New York Army National Guard has been forced to take as it copes with the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. On Tuesday afternoon, the Guard was about to ship 450 soldiers to Missouri for a mock disaster drill. Now, not only are those troops staying in-state, but the New York Guard is getting ready to accept nearly 1,000 additional soldiers from the Ohio, Massachusetts, and other states.

And there’s a new worry looming. About 350 soldiers from all around New York State have joined the 69th, and are currently sleeping in the Lexington Avenue armory. But by early next week, a good chunk of those troops have to find a new place to rest. (Depending on who you talk to, that may or may not have something to do with the impending show Victoria’s Secret is about to put on.) In either case, the officers haven’t yet found a decent replacement.

A soldier from the New York Army National Guard borrows a forklift from the producers of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Photo: Noah Shachtman

The initial call to the Victoria’s Secret crew came at about 7:20 on Tuesday morning. Consulting producer Dave Shapiro and his co-workers were staying a block away at the Hotel Giraffe. They came over, and ran some feeder lines from the Aggreko generators through a transformer and into the building. Some basic lights in the hallways and the basement’s hot water heater were back up and running. It was enough to get started.

Then one of the associate producers suggested they might be able to power the whole armory up. They went into the basement and found the main switch connecting the century-old landmark to the lines of Con Edison, the local utility. The idea was to shut down the connection between Con Ed, then attach the Victoria Secret lines during to the armory’s busbar — the long metal strips that conduct electricity to a switchboard. It was a kludge, and it had to be done right: the producers didn’t want to fry the building when the local Con Ed substation finally started generating electricity again. “I have to admit, I was very skeptical,” Shapiro says.

But it worked. By 7 p.m on Tuesday night, the armory was fully powered; even the elevators worked.

The soldiers were still having communications problems, though. Many of the local cell towers were down, and so was the armory’s internet’s connection. Luckily, Shapiro had answer for that, too. For the show, he had leased a T1 line connected to a microwave dish on the roof. “We plopped two routers in their command center,” he says, “and now they’re sitting on our internet backbone.”

The troops also needed help distributing food. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had begun bringing tractor-trailers’ worth of emergency provisions to the armory. It was up to the troops to break up the pallets, load them in military trucks, and bring them to the seven distribution centers in Manhattan where the Salvation Army would hand out meals to Hurricane victims. One problem: the 69th didn’t have a fork lift. So again, they turned to the Victoria’s Secret crew.

Meanwhile, the New York Army National Guardsmen have been plenty busy helping others. They assisted in the evacuation of Bellevue Hospital, bringing patients during 13 flights of stairs in the dark. Now, only a single patient remains — someone who required heart surgery, and was too frail to be moved. So two shifts of 30 troops are hauling diesel fuel up to the 13th floor, where the hospital’s generator is located, in order to keep the power running while this one patient recovers from the surgery.

Across Manhattan, soldiers are lugging 120-pound packs of batteries up to rooftops so that cell towers can be temporarily switched on. At Floyd Bennett Field, there’s an even bigger food distribution hub. On Thursday night, Marines from the Brooklyn-based 6th Communications Battalion saved 14 people when a transformer blew in Rockaway Beach. The Army Corps of Engineers is busy draining the water from New York’s tunnels. In Brighton Beach, troops evacuated a 350-person nursing home. Nearly 350 soldiers riding 150 armored Humvees are keeping order in Staten Island.

It’s a big enough effort that nearly 1,000 troops from other states’ National Guards — two military police companies, two medium truck companies and a forward support company — are rushing in to assist. 300 more Marines and sailors aboard three large-deck amphibious assault ships are now in the waters off of New York and New Jersey. Hopefully, they’ll be able to pick up where the lingerie company left off.