Shelter From the Storm

Hurricane Sandy was a year ago, but will stay with my family forever

Photo by Ralph Raffio

This photograph at right is not staged. I know that because I took the picture myself. It is a normal parking sign that is still attached to an upright, regulation-height traffic pole. The pole is sunk into a concrete sidewalk in a quiet working-class neighborhood in Long Beach, New York, on the street where my cousin Jennifer lives. The misplaced beach sand that nearly covers the sign was deposited here by the devastating superstorm known as Sandy.

That was a year ago. A very long year, for the people who were touched by the storm, many of them members of my own family. Sandy’s floodwaters may have receded, but their wrath lives deep down inside of the people I love; likely it will fester inside of them until they are gone.

Nearly two dozen of my relatives were directly impacted by the storm. Several were hurt quite badly. Most couldn’t occupy their homes for months after Sandy hit; a few can never return again. At least two of them said their final good-byes to one another when the storm was in full force, certain they would perish. An elderly aunt to one of my cousins drowned in a ground-floor apartment in Howard Beach, Queens, even though that is quite some distance from the Atlantic shoreline.

I don’t live in New York anymore but I went back right after Sandy hit. The main reason was to deliver food and supplies to relatives in Long Island and Queens. In my car were coolers packed with milk, eggs, meats and cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables. I brought water and canned goods and even wine, basically whatever could be crammed inside the trunk and cabin of the car without blocking my view during the six-hour drive. Gasoline was scarce and very necessary in New York after the storm, and so I brought fifteen gallons in three plastic containers to hand out to anybody who needed it.

I come from a traditional Italian-American clan, and so I was sure to pack plenty of good, crispy bread, if for no other reason than to lift people’s spirits. The morning that I left Maine, I stopped at a very fine bakery and ordered so many boules and baguettes and ciabattas and striatas that three different people had to work on my order. One of them asked what on Earth would I do with so much bread, which led to a brief discussion about the trip I was about to set out on. When I went to pay for the bags filled with bread, so many that I needed help getting them all to the car, I was informed that my money was no good. Then I was told to have a safe trip and to relay all best wishes and prayers to my brother and cousins and uncles and aunts back home.

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I was not fully prepared when I arrived. Long Beach was uninhabitable and in lockdown. Armed military vehicles patrolled the streets day and night; only residents with ID and those accompanying them were allowed in. The town was under curfew. Not a residence or business had power or running water. Authorities warned people that the mountains of beach sand that had been deposited on the streets and sidewalks and inside people’s homes were contaminated and potentially dangerous.

When I walked down cousin Jennifer’s street, the soles of my boots weren’t on asphalt but on sand. Several feet of it. The sand was piled so high that I was at eye level to the second-floors of buildings, not the ground floors. Every vehicle in town was totaled by the overnight storm, either by water or flames. The people who lingered on the streets and sidewalks had a look of grief not often seen in a country like ours. I have never seen more destruction or despair in my life, and I have seen some.

For about a week, my family and I cleared out houses and apartments, relocated people to temporary housing with other relatives, and generally did all the things that had to get done. We would work all day, in different groups and locations, then regroup in the evening at Aunt Laura’s, where we would eat and drink and recount the various happenings of the day.

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Laura lives in the ground-floor apartment of her daughter Ursula's house in Queens. The house was untouched by Sandy and so it was being occupied by several family members, including cousin Jennifer and her parents. Laura's husband of 67 years, my uncle Dominic, had passed only recently, which was a big blow to our entire family. One morning over coffee, Laura mused that she thought Dominic might have left when he did in order to make room for all the others after the storm hit. We all went to work that morning in silence.

That evening Jennifer and I were about to leave Long Beach and head over to Laura’s when we noticed that one of my tires was nearly flat. Every square inch of the cabin and trunk were filled with her belongings and so getting access to the spare donut in the trunk wasn’t an appealing idea. The first service station we found open was several miles away. It had no power but there were a couple of portable generators running to keep a few lights on in the shop. The owner immediately put two of his men on our car, one to remove the bad tire, which was shot, another to go out and try and find us a new one. Two hours later, Jen and I were getting ready to be back on our way. When I went to settle up the bill, the owner wouldn’t take my money, and he wouldn’t let me tip any of his men either. “Take your family to a nice dinner,” the man told me, shaking my hand very firmly. “After this is all over.”

Just this past weekend, my brother Joe and I took around a dozen of our relatives to a restaurant in Queens. I hadn’t seen some of them since Sandy. When we hugged each other before sitting down to a nice dinner, I knew right away that this would never be all over. For any of us.