My Week With Sandy

How did this happen?

——

I can’t start this piece.

It’s been over a week since Hurricane Sandy crushed my country, my state, my island – and my hometown, and I’m just not sure where to start.

Two floors down from me, there’s a cousin and her dog, displaced from a powerless home and sitting on our couch.  Two houses to our left, there’s a roof that’s covered by a tarp because a tree split in half and fell on it. Three minutes by car to my right, there’s a gas station with a two-and-a-half-hour wait – at minimum.  And six miles south, a city lies in flooded devastation.

Humor is a big part of my writing.  Everything on this blog typically comes attached with levity.  This piece will largely be an exception.

People have lost power and phone service and cable.  People have lost backyards and basements and porches.  Some have lost their homes.  Some have lost family members.  Some have lost everything.

Let’s start from the beginning – before the beginning, even.

——

Irene…

Hurricane Irene was the sixth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.  It caused an estimated $15.6 billion in damages across the United States and an estimated $16.6 billion in total.  It claimed more than 50 lives.  And yet, here on Long Island, there was a generally prevailing feeling about Irene – a feeling that it could have been much worse.  There were warnings to get out from homes on the beach, to be very wary, to prepare for the worst – and while Irene created significant damage, it never really made it to that point of “the worst”.

Hurricane Irene may have been the worst thing to happen to Hurricane Sandy.

We heard the warnings again.  Get out, our leaders claimed.  This one’s as serious as can be, they cried.  But plenty of people who lived by the water didn’t listen.  They survived Irene.  They survived whatever came before.  Why wouldn’t they survive Sandy?
Of course, if you listened closely, you soon realized why you might not survive Sandy.  And by Sunday afternoon, it was too late.

…and Sandy.

——

Sunday

On Saturday, June 1st, 2013 – assuming the Mayans were wrong, which, at this point, might not be a valid assumption – my sister Caroline will graduate from Holy Trinity Diocesan High School, ending a 10-year run of our family at Holy Trinity.  It began in 2003, when I entered as a freshman, continued through my brother, Russell, and his arrival in 2006, and will commence with Caroline’s exit in 2013.  But for our family, this year marks another end of another high-school related era – the end of the Nassau/Suffolk Catholic High School Cross-County Championships.  (That’s a mouthful: let’s just call it “league champs”.)

That’s Caroline in the green. She came in fourth place – three spots worse than she hoped – but did set a personal best. Impressive in such windy conditions.

For eight consecutive years, my family has led Trinity’s presence at the league champs, bringing tables, tents, food and drink while organizing an effort where every parent brings something.  Nine years ago, to quote my dad, “there was a card table and a box of doughnuts.”  They knew they could do better – and they have.

But this year was different.  Sunken Meadow State Park, off of Exit 41 on the Southern State Parkway, is typically a giant wind tunnel – a wide-open space out on the ocean.  But this year, even by Sunken Meadow standards, seemed ominously windy.  A giant group of seagulls constantly glided overhead, circling the proceedings.  It was as if they knew. It was as if they were just waiting for something big to strike.  The meet officials, in a move I’ve never seen in my years around cross-country, decided to start the girls’ junior-varsity race exactly one minute after the boys’ race, to streamline the meet.  And by “streamline the meet”, I mean “get everyone the hell out of the park”.

Signs on the bathroom doors warned us: “THE PARK WILL BE CLOSED BY 5 P.M. TONIGHT.”  This was going to be no ordinary hurricane.

Around 8:00 that night, I walked outside and stood on the front lawn, starting straight up at the trees.  The world, except for the wind, was quiet.  It was peacefully eerie.  It didn’t stay peaceful for long.

Monday

My front yard holds two trees, both visible from my bedroom window.  One is a maple tree, sturdy enough to hold on without consequence from multiple climbing attempts from my childhood.  The other is a giant blue spruce, visible from a few blocks away.

I had never worried for even a second about either of those trees coming down – never, at least, until Monday.

I’d compare Monday’s wind to something, but – how do you compare the incomparable?  Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the word?  This wind – this unseen, invisible, titanic force – was making noises the likes of which I’d never heard.  It was causing branches to sway in directions that didn’t exist.  Imagine going into a Wal-Mart, buying every fan, placing them in one ten-yard area facing the same direction and turning them all on at once.  Then triple it.  That was Monday.

Both News 12 Long Island and ABC News had reporters down on the Long Beach boardwalk on Monday morning, where dozens of people stared out at the oncoming water and dunes of sand.  On News 12, a man stumbled backward off of the dunes and out of the frame, never to return into our picture again.  On ABC News, a father said he took his two kids down to the beach just to see what was going on.  They’d survived Irene, and they weren’t planning on going anywhere.  A girl who couldn’t have been more than three or four years old was even interviewed.  The mood was casual, even comedic.

Had those people realized that they were seeing the last of the Long Beach boardwalk as we know it, their reactions might have changed a bit.

——

The house lights flickered on and off constantly, like something out of a bad horror film, but we never lost power on Monday.  I don’t know how.  TV and Twitter kept updating the number of the 1.1 million Long Island homes without power.  400,000.  500,000.  600,000.  And on, and on, and on.  But somehow, some way, we remained alight.

Late that night, my dad and I attempted to drown out the swirling winds with a movie: Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff.  Near the film’s climax, Eastwood finds himself alone in a bar after beating some of its residents to a pulp, and in turn, being beaten to a pulp, himself.  There’s a loud knock on the door as Eastwood lies in a bloody heap on the ground.  But it’s not coming from the television – it’s coming from our door.  It’s our neighbor’s girlfriend, asking if we need any help.

“Help with what?”

“Oh…the Cardellas ran over to someone’s house because their tree went down.  I thought it was you.”

“What tree?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh.  Well…thanks for stopping by and checking.”

“Sure!”

And she ran away, back across the street through the swirling wind, as my dad and I stared at each other.  Quickly, we threw on jackets and shoes and grabbed flashlights.  And two houses to our left, we quickly discovered the source of concern – a gigantic tree in the front yard of our neighbors, Adrian and Ray, that had been split in half by the wind like a twig.  The top half of their tree rested on their roof.  As the Cardellas emerged from the back of the house, we realized that the tree wasn’t so much “on” their roof as it was “in” their roof.  And in their bedroom.

Here’s a picture from the next day.

Sandy wasn’t just living on the edge of town anymore.

Tuesday

I woke up and immediately rolled over to my right to stare down at the surge protector on the floor.  The red light was dim.

Damn.

As long as I live, I’ll never understand how the corner of Harvard and Grove Avenues survived Monday without losing power.  From about 1:00 in the afternoon until I went to sleep around midnight, I kept expecting the lights to go out.  They never did.  As we soon discovered, they were cut out – shut down around 5:15 in the morning by LIPA, for safety’s sake.

Walking around in the daytime, it’s easy to see why.  A small crowd gathered outside Adrian and Ray’s as my dad and some other neighbors placed a tarp over the roof.  Just across the street, another tree lay on the ground, having fallen across a seemingly sturdy fence.  A few houses past that, one backyard’s shed and another’s construction vehicle were crushed by the same giant trunk.
A few of us walked down to my grandmother’s house, a 15-minute stroll away.  One block was invisible past the third house in from the corner thanks to a gigantic tree blocking the width of the road – a dead end turned even deader.  In front of grandma’s place, not one but two giant trees blocked a pathway for any cars.

The floral carnage was one thing.  The liquid destruction was another.  Next to Silver Lake Pond – that’s Silver Lake Pond, not Silver Lake Ocean or even Silver Lake Lake – we found a bakery and a liquor store in flooded shambles, with bottles and bread strewn across the floor in helter-skelter fashion.  We soon found out why.  Silver Lake Pond had turned into The Land of 1,000 Silver Lakes, with ducks swimming around in puddles inhabiting the middle of the grass.  A low bridge used for a walkway between the pond was accessible by kayak or helicopter only.

Down on the water in Baldwin Harbor, things were predictably worse.  Scores of trees were freshly ripped up out of the concrete and grass like un-stapled pieces of carpet.  Giant trunks covered up mangled power lines.

The worst scene of all was a burned-out corner house, with the structure and backyard completely fried to a crisp, undoubtedly from the night before.  A young couple had moved in not four months ago.  I couldn’t identify them among the dozen-and-a-half people standing outside, captivated by the terrible sight.

Outside of cars, there were no signs of anything resembling modern-day technology down here.  The traffic lights swayed back and forth, an empty shade of black.  Cell phone reception was non-existent.  (“It’s like I got this phone in a Happy Meal”, said my mom.)  A boarded-up 7-Eleven claimed it was “OPEN”, with orange writing enveloping its cardboard window placeholders.  It lied.

Later that night, my dad and I drove down to Rockville Centre, a town fueled on generators that was up and running.  We went not for electricity or hot food, but for cell phone service (the train station, for whatever reason, had some) and wireless Internet (Starbucks wasn’t open, but its free Wi-Fi has a range of “a few feet outside the window”).  I even caught a few minutes of a friend, Alex Silverman, on WCBS-AM.  He spoke of the destruction in New York City and in Breezy Point.  Without any TV or Internet, we could only imagine the pictures.

Part of me wishes we were still just imagining.

Wednesday

It only took 31 and one-half hours.

Around 12:15 in the afternoon, on my way out of the bathroom, I heard my mom ask from downstairs “are those lights?”  They were, and lo and behold, our national nightmare was over!  My sister and I flew out of the house with arms aloft, singing “The Power” by Snap!.  (OK, only I was singing Snap!.  By the way, I would like to issue a moratorium against bands with pronunciation marks at the end of their names.)

Down the street, two young girls started dancing and chanting.  “We got po-wer!  We got po-wer!”

After about five seconds of this, I felt euphoric yet petulant.  Who am I to wildly celebrate the return of lights and television when there are thousands of people not far from me with ruined homes and ruined lives?

But power meant TV and Internet, and TV and Internet meant pictures and videos.  You’ve likely seen them by now.  The Seaside Heights roller coaster, torn apart and tossed into the ocean.  A mini-waterfall rushing into Ground Zero’s construction site.  Breezy Point burnt to the ground, looking like a bomb had turned the area to ashes.  They were images I needed to see at the time.  I don’t think I ever need to see them again, though.

Our house became one giant party that night, good for hot food and hotter showers.  Someone’s iPhone or iPad filled nearly every first-floor outlet.  We barbecued steak, chicken and hamburgers for 15 people, and leftovers were few and far between.  It was a fun night, full of old friends, good food and wine and better stories.  For everyone, it was a welcome distraction from the last 48 hours.  We knew, of course, that there would be more distractions to come.

Thursday

At this point, life started to simultaneously move closer to and further away from the normal.  The power stayed on at our house, while more homes around Long Island had their power return.  But outside of my dad, who works for the N.Y.C. Transit Authority, almost nobody around was going in to work for pure lack of electricity.  And gas…oh, gas.  With only a handful of gas stations, I saw lines stretching around the block.  And the next block.  And then the next block.  And the block after that.  (Nearly a week later, they’ve barely changed.)

A five-minute drive from my house to St. Christopher’s Church took 35 minutes because of a line for gas at a Hess station.  The station’s a few blocks out of the way, so while going in that direction would typically have seemed silly, that Hess was at the only working stop light around.  But after nearly a half-hour which featured U-turns on U-turns, well…common decency and waiting for lights go straight out the window.

OK, because I can’t resist…this is not related to “U-Turns on U-Turns”.

Around 3:00, my cousin Tim showed up for a shower, unannounced – except for the text message “im outside your house” when he was, well, you know.  It was that kind of day – people came in and out at will, and our shower received more compliments than ever before.  It’s a fine shower, to be sure.  But when you eat a steak after practicing as a vegetarian for five years, it’ll inevitably be the greatest steak you’ve ever had.

A friend messaged me that night to see if I wanted to go out into Rockville Centre.  I declined, knowing that I’d have to be up in the morning.  Because we were going to Long Beach.

Friday

One boat sat next to an Outback Steakhouse.

One boat stretched across a pair of parking spaces outside a car wash.  Two boats leaned up against the car wash.

One boat lay fifty yards away from Ruby Tuesday’s.

On the radio, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was the cruelly accurate song.

I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”, as U2 fans know, is the opening track from the band’s 1983 album War.  I don’t think this dawned on my mom as she said the following phrase – one that I would hear many variations of over the next two days:

“This looks like a war zone.”

——

Island Park is a small, decently well-off village just before the Long Beach bridge.  The 2010 census will tell you it has a population of 4,655 and a total area of 0.4 square miles.  Its median family income is over $63,000, and only 4.5% of its families live below the poverty line.

Driving through Island Park on Friday afternoon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that some things in that paragraph might change in the future.

Island Park “was”.  It “had”.  Its families “lived”.

I certainly hope I’m wrong about this.  But the boats were just the beginning.  Fences were ripped up.  Building roofs were caved in.  How does a town with every single business, restaurant and house hit hard recover?

No one stopped to assess the damage – the only people visible in Island Park were just passing through.  That included me, my mother, Doris, my sister, Caroline, my mom’s cousin, Ginny,  and our close family friend, Mrs. Nappi.  (And Ginny’s dog, Spencer.)

We exchanged few words on our way through Island Park – mainly “look at that” or “oh, my goodness.”

It didn’t get better.

——

I’ve written a lot here, and it might be time for a little perspective.  Yes, Long Beach was probably one of the hardest-hit areas on the Eastern seaboard – but there were certainly harder-hit towns.  And we went down there a whole four days after the storm – enough time for drastic cleanup and care-taking, theoretically.  So what I saw on Friday in Long Beach was far from the worst.  And that’s the truly scary part, because some of these images will stick in my mind forever.

The first thing that struck me was a piece of the boardwalk in the street, three-quarters of a mile away from the actual boardwalk.  Not that we could see the boardwalk – our view from the beach from a few blocks away was obstructed by giant mounds of sand in the street.  A John Deere Gator with flashing police lights slowly and silently rolled by.  Not far behind, a pickup truck moved on with three air conditioners stacked on top of one another, next to a washing machine and a refrigerator.

It was an unequivocal disaster.  Entire living rooms were rearranged on front lawns.  From the volume of appliances on some front lawns, there must have been houses with literally nothing inside.  Cars were thrown wildly around, sideways and backwards and into each other and all over the place.  Long Beach looked like Talladega Superspeedway after The Big One.

A CNN aerial view.

After dropping Ginny off at her house, we were headed for our desired destination – one of two Long Beach homes owned by our cousins, the Potapchuks.  (It’s Polish.  Don’t ask.)  The house, a massive home that could easily fit two families – and may have, in fact, been designed to do so – has a five-room main floor and a four-room floor in the basement.  Fortunately, the basement wasn’t housing anyone on Monday.  Unfortunately, it was housing just about every random thing the Potapchuks own.

Our Friday task was simple: get everything we could out of the basement.  The Potapchuks are a family of seven, with my five Potapchuk cousins either in college or graduated, so they’ve accumulated everything there is to accumulate.  And after a few feet of water on the floor, everything needed to be thrown out.  I can’t even tell you how many garbage bags I carried to the curb on Friday.  25?  35?  50?  60?  More?

Midway through the cleanup, a young man in a camouflage shirt walked up to the house to dispatch information from City Hall.  He informed my aunt Bernadette that the city’s sanitation department would come by seven days a week to clean up garbage.  And thank goodness for that.  The grassy strip in front of the sidewalk had turned into rolling hills of black garbage bags.

My cousin Jaclyn surveyed the scene after hearing the news.  She asked a question that was so simple, yet so curious:

“Where are they going to move all this?”

I had a similar thought, just phrased differently:

How do you throw out an entire town?

——

There were about 10 of us at the Potapchuks’ on Friday, moving item after item into bag after bag.  My aunt Ann Marie had one of the more interesting tasks – she became caretaker of the family photos.  Upstairs, what was once Bernadette and her husband Richie’s room became a floor covered from wall to wall in pictures – some water-damaged, others somehow dry.  It wasn’t the only place for memories.  Downstairs, Jaclyn came across a shelf in one of the side rooms.

“I used to sit up here”, she said to sisters Samantha and Jeanette, “and call myself President of something.  Of what, I don’t know.”

——

In a side closet, Jeanette found an item that must have been long-lost.

“Mom!  The rolling pin!  Do we need this?”

Bernadette was mildly amused.

“Sure, give me the rolling pin and a rusty knife so I can stop looters.”

It wasn’t entirely a laughing matter.  We’d pass a large piece of cardboard on the way home, sitting in front of a house down the block, with unmistakably large capital-letter red text:

“LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT.”

——

Mom decided to take Caroline and I for a quick drive past the beach before we left.  We drove past what appeared to be a bunch of cops, adorned with their black police uniforms, before realizing this was something different.  This was a Search & Rescue team.  From Boone County, Missouri.

“I’ve never seen a search and rescue team”, said my mom.  “I don’t ever want to see one again.”

Boone County, Missouri is approximately 1,102 miles from Long Beach, New York.

Saturday

To this point in our tale, my mom’s cousin, Ginny, has been given the short end of the narrative stick.  Let us remedy that.  Ginny lives in Long Beach, approximately five minutes to the west of the Potapchuks.  She didn’t miss out on the storm.  Ginny’s basement was enormously flooded, to the point where it had to pumped out several days in a row.  A rising water table didn’t help.

Part of the shame was that Ginny lives in a rather beautiful house.  Another part of the shame was that Ginny’s been looking to sell her house, and she had a prospective buyer.

She hasn’t heard from the buyer since the flood.

My dad and I went down in the morning to get our hands and feet dirty.  We stopped by the Potapchuks’ first to fully empty the basement floor, save for part of a home gym and a pinball machine that hasn’t been functional since before I was born.  The hundred-plus garbage bags, still stuck to the front of the sidewalk, greeted us upon our arrival.

Ginny’s house was the groups’ next destination, but with a slight detour for me and my aunt Ann Marie.  We wanted to take a walk down to the beach and see how Sandy had manifested herself at the point of attack.

To do the beach and the boardwalk justice without showing the pictures would be unfair.  But as I’ve unfortunately discovered, my mom took the memory card out of my dad’s camera on Friday.  So those pictures of the beach are gone – swept away like so much of Long Beach was in the storm.  Suffice it to say that the place where I spent days upon end during my childhood summers will never be the same again.  The boardwalk looks like a field of mole hills in some sections.  In others, it is completely disintegrated.  A bathroom is completely caved in, with the wooden boardwalk smashed on top of its concrete roof.  The walkway ramps from the boardwalk to the beach are washed away.  Pieces of wood lay randomly strewn about the sand.  Ann Marie and I flipped most of them upside down so the nails will stop sticking straight up into the sky.

Not my picture, but, here’s the boardwalk at one of its worse areas.

On the way back from the beach, we stopped in a sand-filled parking lot.  Two cars were smashed into each other and into the side of a house, nowhere near parking spaces.  Another car sat alone in the middle of the lot with its windows open.  Its doors were unlocked.  Every inch of it was covered in sand.  As I morbidly examined the car, a middle-aged, balding man with an LIJ Medical Center jacket walked up.

“Is that your car?”, he asked.

I informed him it was not.  I was merely a curious bystander.  For him, however, it drew some eerie parallels.

“My car’s destroyed.  I had a blue Mazda Miata.  The windows and the trunk just popped open.”

He couldn’t get to work in New Hyde Park without it.  And no cab service would take him because of the gas shortage.

And to think I screamed in joy when I got back power.

——

We pumped out Ginny’s basement, knocked out some SHEETROCK in the Potapchuks’ and headed home.  It had been such an intensely focused day that I had forgotten Syracuse University, my proud alma mater, had even had a football game.  By the time my dad and I drove away, it was an hour late.  (They lost, 35-24, to Cincinnati.  I’ve now accidentally slept through one Syracuse game this year – a 17-3 loss to Minnesota – and accidentally forgotten another.  Timing is everything.)

Our return home was greeted by my grandmother, a frequent visitor over the past week, who’s still without power, though she lives just a few minutes away from our house.  My aunt Susan, who’s been taking care of Grandma, was also at the house, and Ginny and her dog Spencer soon joined.  It’s been a routine over the past week – the three of them come to enjoy the heat and a good dinner and depart to sleep at my grandmother’s house every night.  And somewhere in between, Spencer, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, will inevitably start barking, and he’ll settle down when we throw him part of a carrot.  (Are dogs supposed to like carrots?)

It’s been an odd routine that’s become part of the norm.  I have a monstrous family – my mom’s one of eight, my dad’s one of four, and I have 34 first cousins, with the vast majority of the family in the state of New York.  But at some point, for everyone’s sake, it needs to end, so my grandma’s not sleeping in freezing cold every night.

——

I’ve thought a lot about climate change over the past few years, and it deeply concerns me.  I’m frustrated when people say the economy is far and away the biggest issue this country faces right now when we’re seeing unprecedented weather year in and year out.  Bloomberg Businessweek agrees…

And I hope that’s a silver lining to this whole terrible storm.  I hope that the devastation surrounding New York City and its surrounding areas serves as the wakeup call this country needs so we’re not all underwater in a few decades.  And I hope I’m not alone in thinking that.

I don’t believe I am.  Maybe I’m naive, but I’ll never stop believing in the power of the human spirit.  And it’s not because we’re New Yorkers, or Long Islanders, or New Jerseyans, or even Americans.  It’s because we’re people, and this is what we do.  We got hit hard.  But we’ll move on.  Why?  Because we have to.  Because when push comes to shove, we’ll bring out the best in ourselves and others.

Walking away from the beach on Saturday morning, I mentioned out loud to Ann Marie my fears.

“How do you even rebuild this knowing that another storm will come along someday?”

Her response came quickly.

“You build it better.”

——

Postscript

I thought I was done with this piece, which started as one thing and morphed into something completely different and overly sprawling.  But I want to pass along one final anecdote from yesterday evening, on Tuesday, November 6th.

I was ready to leave work at St. Christopher’s around 4:00, when I came across a U-Haul truck in the middle of the parish parking lot.  It was full of clothes, food and other essentials for my parish’s hurricane relief drive, which has seen an enormous outpouring of support.  I directed the truck driver to back up near the elevator heading down to the lower Church, which was housing the event.  We made small talk, and I recognized that he and his wife were doing a noble thing in delivering goods to parishes around the area.

Then he told me they drove up from Florida.

He and his wife – along with a little girl, seated in the front of the U-Haul – live in Florida, but the man’s a retired firefighter from Freeport, a town next to mine.  When they heard of the hurricane, they rented a U-Haul and drove north.  They’ve stopped to meet friends and family along the way, and they’ve been picking up supplies as they go.  1,200 miles north, they’ve compiled a truck with hundreds upon hundreds of supplies, and they couldn’t have been happier to do it.

It’s emotional for me to even write about this, and I met this couple for five minutes, and I don’t even know their names.  If you ever stop believing in the intrinsically good power of people – think of this couple from Florida.  They came 20 hours north – with a young girl – just to help.  No one asked for them.  No one may have needed them.  They just drove because they felt it was the right thing to do.

We’re going to be OK.

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