I was finally able to write about my experience over the last few months. While I planned to write about my hometown eventually, I never expected anything like this to completely throw any plans, or semblance of routine, completely off track. Midland Beach is a town that is ingrained in the history of many families here, including mine. It continues to pull through the muck that Sandy brought onshore, but the waves could not sweep the spirit of this town away.
Three years ago, I decided to go on an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans. At the time, five years had passed since Hurricane Katrina tore through the city. We volunteered in a local shelter and listened to the heart wrenching stories of people who lost everything in the storm. On the last day of our trip, we visited one of the hardest hit areas—the Lower Ninth Ward. What I saw that day was unimaginable and pictures shown on the news did not do the destruction the least bit of justice. Roads were dusty and dirt-covered, still-standing houses bore the spray painted marks of FEMA and rescue workers, foundations and staircases stood without a house attached. I never saw anything like it before. Never even entertained the thought that my own neighborhood could share a similar fate.
It’s been three months since Hurricane Sandy swept into the East Coast with unprecedented power and I still can’t comprehend the destruction it has caused. Midland Beach is where I grew up and still live today. My mom grew up in this town, and my dad only one town over in Grant City. I grew up knowing the beach and boardwalk as a peaceful place to take a walk with friends. Miller Field is where I roller bladed, played on the swings, and learned to ride a bike. Midland Beach is my home and I have come to love and appreciate its old school, nautical charm. There was a reason why so many, like my grandparents, came here for summer vacations, when Staten Island’s coastal areas were destinations in their own right.
I also grew up knowing Manhattan in all its hectic, hazy glory. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, my parents began bringing my sister and I into the city when we were young. I grew up in New York City—a city that in my mind has rightfully earned a reputation of invincibility.
Hurricane Sandy turned that all completely upside down.
On that night, Oct. 29, after watching the news all day long, we were all on edge and decided to turn it off and watch a movie. Madagascar 3 to be exact. Equipped with wine and cheese, we settled in for the night, with the wind at a constant howl outside. Despite the warnings and evacuation orders for those living in Zone A, my parents did not want to leave our house. The year before, when Irene came ashore, our phone rang off the hook and the police patrolled the streets telling people they should evacuate. But nothing happened. For this storm, no one knocked on our door and the phone did not ring. The media seemed to be blowing this storm up the same as they always do—getting everyone all riled up for no reason. My parents, knowing the area as well as they do, were certain that the water could not come up this far from the beach. Neighbors, who lived here their entire lives, never saw the water come up this far either. Everyone was staying put.
The flashing lights of damaged power lines kept catching our attention and the wind was roaring outside the windows and louder than our TV. More than halfway through the movie, a panicked knock came at the front door. We all looked at each other, wondering who would be crazy enough to be walking around outside. It was our neighbor from across the street telling us that the ocean was a mere two blocks away. So within 10 minutes we were leaving the house with some belongings in hand. I remember looking around wondering what to take and thinking that maybe I might not see my bedroom again.
Once outside, all we could hear was wind and sirens. We decided to take two cars and we were going to a family friend’s house. I have watched plenty of disaster movies and this is exactly what it looked like. I thought I was living in a huge Hollywood production, that, at any second, someone would yell cut, and it would all go away. But this was real and people were panicking. By the time we turned the corner off our street, the water was already just a block away.
We were extremely lucky to have made it out when we did. That was something we didn’t quite comprehend until we went home the next day and started to hear everyone’s stories. We began to realize that we didn’t just dodge the water in time; we outright survived the biggest natural disaster to hit our little town. A miracle is the only way to describe the condition of our house–the water filled the basement and flooded two of our cars, the rest of the house was untouched.
I spent much of that next day, the 30th, in my car with the heat on and charging our cell phones. Every once in a while I would get some texts, but phone calls were impossible. I think for many people, this brought back the memories of September 11th, when everyone was asking where their family or friends were, if they were okay, or if anything had heard from them. We didn’t have access to the news, so we really didn’t have any clue as to how bad the damage really was. As that day went on, helicopters hovered overhead, emergency vehicles blared by constantly, and people were walking around in a daze. I started to get a sense of what happened when I saw a pick-up truck pull up at the corner, and a group of about four people hopped out the back, soaking wet and without shoes. My dad saw people being dropped off in boats at the other end of our block. All we kept thinking was what the hell happened after we left?
After a couple of days, the constant roar of helicopters reminded us that the rescue effort was turning into a recovery effort. We turned on a radio and heard the words death toll, survivors, victims, the National Guard. Death toll? The National Guard…could it be? A day or two later, I went to pick my sister up at the bus stop and I saw the National Guard and the medical examiners truck drive by in about a two-block span. Little by little, I realized that we were living in the middle of one of the worst hit areas, but it was impossible to take all of this in at once.
When the water was finally pumped out of our basement, we were able to begin cleaning out everything that the water tossed around. Mostly old tools, toys, and bikes, but in the end, it was all just stuff. We knew that we were lucky to have a roof over our heads and more, to still be alive and safe.
Evacuating your home and coming back to the mess that Sandy left behind was probably one of the most stressful, upsetting, confusing, and heart wrenching experiences. But the outpouring of generosity from friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers was something I can never fully explain. In that week after the storm, before the Red Cross or any government agency or politicians arrived, locals took matters into their own hands and began helping in whatever way they could. Families drove by in mini-vans handing out bottles of water and snacks. One group set up camp in a yard a couple blocks away and fired up their grills, feeding the whole neighborhood with hot food. Neighbors who had power back offered us extension cords and friends offered us heaters, places to stay, and hot meals. Makeshift donation centers popped up on corners around town to hand out clothes, food, and other basic necessities.
Grateful isn’t a strong enough word. We were grateful for all the big and little acts of kindness. We were also grateful because we knew that we were the lucky ones. As we began to get our own house back in order, we tried to help others and pay it forward.
The assistance that is still needed in my town and the other coastal areas here on Staten Island is insurmountable. But for the first time in a long time, I am proud to say that I am from Staten Island and that our friends and neighbors are the ones who continue to help those in need.
I will never forget what one man said to us while driving around in the Lower Ninth Ward that day three years ago. He explained to us that it took years for the levee to be fixed, because it was under the jurisdiction of the government. But when it came to rebuilding people’s homes, it was local, non-government related groups who really stepped up and helped those in need. Organizations like Habitat For Humanity and Make It Right (Brad Pitt’s charity) helped build brand new homes in New Orleans. He said if those same people were able to fix the levee too, it would have been accomplished much quicker and built better.
It’s been heartbreaking to see homes being torn down and swept away into huge piles of debris. At the same time, there are sites and sounds of rebuilding that I hope will continue. I think much of the progress so far, like in New Orleans, is due to the local, grass roots groups coming together to help people clean their homes, provide them with funds, or simply offer a hot meal. For those that completely lost their homes and their belongings, I sincerely hope that the insurance companies and the government come through to give them the assistance they need to get back on their feet. However, from what I have seen so far, and still see each day outside my front door, the locals are the ones who will continue to keep the neighborhood going.