You sit in your home and watch things like this on TV all the time. A tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, a mudslide, a flood. You sit on your couch and think, “That is terrible, I feel so bad for those people.” On October, 29, 2012, the people of Long Beach, NY as well as many other towns in Long Island, NYC, and NJ became “those people.”
You stand in your kitchen cooking dinner and see images of the National Guard, FEMA, The American Red Cross, and volunteers sorting trough the remains of people’s belongings, rebuilding, and saving lives on your television. You may send donations, you may send money, you may even volunteer your time…or maybe you just offer up a thought, a prayer, a message of hope. You never really understand the reality of what a natural disaster actually means until you live through it. I had been on the other side of the television many times and felt terrible for whatever it was and whoever it was having to live through the disaster. It was a whole other world being one of the people on the television.
The weather service had predicted a hurricane or possible a tropical storm hitting us the week before. We had been hit the year before with Hurricane Irene and the damage to the community wasn’t too bad… a few fallen trees, power outages, a few flooded basements. This time it was different…very different. My town, as well as all the other zone A flood zones had a mandatory evacuation. My husband and I as well as many other people in the town did not evacuate. We lived in a second floor apartment and figured we’d be okay…stupid I know. But during Irene many evacuated and nothing happened…it was sort of like the boy who cried wolf. I was prepared…I had flashlights and candles, extra batteries, and extra water ….I even filled up the bath tub with water. I had plenty of food and plenty of wine. I was prepared. Or so I thought.
The worst of the storm hit the evening of the 29th. My sister came over to our apartment because she lived in a basement apartment and we figured it would be better on the second floor. We sat in my apartment, watching TV, drinking wine, laughing. The rain and wind weren’t too bad. Then around 8:30pm, it was the peak of high tide. Long Beach is a barrier island…we have the ocean on one side…the bay on the other. Steve was out on the deck when he yelled for us to come outside. Water was coming down one side of the street…slowly at first. Then a little faster. The water got higher and higher. I had never seen anything like it in my life. At that moment the power went out. We didn’t know then but that was the last power we’d see in our apartment for a month. The water continued to rise…it covered the roofs of the cars on our block. We could see debris and pieces of the boardwalk floating down the street. I felt like this couldn’t really be happening. It was all so surreal. We could hear car alarms and explosions all around the neighboring streets. Our landlord knocked on our door asking Steve to go next door to help carry our neighbor who is in a wheelchair to the safety of the upstairs apartment because his apartment was starting to flood. A few hours later the water seemed to stop rising and we finally got some sleep.
The next morning we walked outside to look around. Everywhere, people started emerging from their houses with dazed looks on their faces. It felt like we were on a movie set. This could not be the town that I knew and loved. There were cars pushed onto people’s lawns or into the middle of the street. There was garbage and pieces of fence in the street. I saw brick walls knocked over. Huge sections of the boardwalk blocks away from where they originated. I even saw someones hot tub in a parking lot. And the sand…it was everywhere. Piles of it…burying peoples cars…up to the windows in people’s houses. There were cars that had caught fire from the salt water short circuiting the battery. Several houses burned to the ground.
We headed over to my sister’s apartment to see how it fared the storm. When we got there we couldn’t even open the door because the water was almost up to the ceiling. We couldn’t believe it. Nobody thought it wouldn’t be this bad…but it was. She lost everything.
The days, weeks, and months after the storm were filled with uncertainty for so many people. Where am I going to live? How will I ever rebuild? Where can I get gas for my car without having to wait hours on a gas line? And the daily things we take for granted…where will I be able to get food and clean water?
I was teaching in a school in Far Rockaway, Queens, which is also a barrier island. My school was flooded and we got word that we would not be able to return for a while. In a matter of hours, Mother Nature had turned my whole world upside down. No place to live. No school to return to.
Within hours of the storm hitting, people came to our town. People came to help. People came to support us. People came to give us hope. People came with truckloads of supplies to hand out. People and businesses in the community opened their doors to offer whatever they could to others when they, themselves had taken a big hit. Food, blankets, water, a cold beer, or a hug. People organized fundraisers and food drives to get the much-needed supplies to the people affected. I got messages on Facebook from people just checking in to see if we were okay and if there was anything that we needed. The kindness of family, friends, and strangers was overwhelming.
I can not say thank you enough to my family for giving us a place to stay for a month, everyone who donated supplies to my school, and everyone who sent thoughts and prayers our way. You will never know how much it is appreciated.
Now, a year later, things are different. The places we once knew are not the same. There is a new boardwalk and some of the businesses have reopened. Some people have rebuilt their homes and some are still in the process. But everyone is recovering in their own way, at their own pace.
“Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
Everyone in this area has a story…a different experience from the storm. The photos I took in the days after the storm are in this video…this is part of my experience.