And This Too Shall Pass…Slowly

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Two days after Sandy tore through New York City,  J. and I headed out to check on my father in Rockaway Beach. I hadn’t heard from him in over 48 hours and all the bridges to get to him were closed. I begged the police officers at the foot of the Cross Bay Boulevard bridge to let me into the demolished area and they obligingly waved us through. The peninsula had no electricity, and with no traffic lights I sped through the streets, passing residents dumping their lives on to the curb. When I made a left into my father’s block, true panic hit. The picture above is what I first saw.

At this point, Rockaway Beach had barely been mentioned on the news except for the fire at Breezy Point. I was numbed to see the boardwalk I had played on since I was a kid, completely gone. What might have been a beautiful scene — the sun beaming down on lapping waves — was eerie. There was an ABSENCE OF LIFE, of anyone. I felt like I was on the movie set of The Day After. And when I found the remains of wooden planks dangerously splintered and smashed against the facade of my father’s building, I jumped out of the car in full-adrenaline mode with J. at my heels.

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My father has been disabled since his stroke in 2001 and I knew that without a boardwalk, he was most certainly trapped in his apartment with no way out. I glanced at the basement, the door was jammed open and inside the sand reached three feet high. J. and I circled to the front and climbed over the monstrous wooden shards, with every step they rose and descended like a twisted see-saw.  Side-stepping past the broken glass door that led to my father’s lobby, we breathed in the rank odor of mildew mixed with salt water and decay. We opened the door to the stairwell and were enveloped in complete darkness. Where was the emergency lighting? I was suddenly relieved J. was with me. Would I have had the courage to climb those stairs alone?

We reached the 4th floor in seconds, pounding on the door of 4D, hyped on anxiety and fear. “DAD! DAD!! We’re here. Are you in there?” 

When I heard my father’s voice, I  dropped to my knees, like I had done so many years earlier when he was barely conscious and the doctors told me he wouldn’t need brain surgery after all. The triggers from the past took me back to the scared girl I once was and had squashed deep within.  I had been afraid that he might have fallen and been trapped under heavy furniture. He was once stuck inside his bookshelves for a few hours, when his Irish pride finally relented and he phoned a friend for help.

He came to the door slowly, but with obvious relief. Thank you, Jesus. We were the first human voices he had heard in days.

Inside, his apartment was unscathed, but outside he was surrounded my destruction, emptiness and a broken community. He had no electricity, no TV, no phone, no mobile, but plenty of dried goods and water. His plumbing and gas were still working.  He insisted he would be okay until we decided what to do, so we left him alone for another two days. I left a note in large caps that read, “TODAY IS WEDNESDAY, RAINBOW WILL BE BACK ON FRIDAY AT 10 AM”, in case he became disoriented and forgot. I felt guilty leaving, but with the elevator out we couldn’t risk him falling down the stairs.

Two days later, J. and I returned with six burly firefighters I had recruited  from the firehouse on 116th Street. I thought he might refuse to leave, but when we arrived, he already had some of his things packed. A week living like the Amish can motivate even the most stubborn. They helped him down the dark stairs and over the broken boardwalk shards, guided by the light of J’s cell phone (yes, the firemen forgot flashlights).

Phase I was over. On to Phase II — attempting to make it to Staten Island in a rented Zipcar with less than a 1/4 tank of gas. We hadn’t found a single gas station open in either Manhattan or Queens. Unfortunately, I had burned a lot of gas just looking for one.

As we reached the Verrazano Bridge, the car’s electric panel flashed, alerting us that we had 0 miles left on the tank. My father babbled on nonsensically, while J. grew quieter and quieter and I prayed. I couldn’t believe after rescuing my father, we might be stranded on the side of the road. And it wasn’t like we could be easily rescued — no one had gas!

Driving on fumes and a miracle, we made it the additional 3 miles to our destination, a family friend’s house. They had insisted I bring him there because they had a spare apartment downstairs that was vacant. I was touched by the offer and the solidity of my father’s friendship with Bernie, a man he knew since he was six.

My stepfather and mother arrived an hour later with half a canister of gas which we siphoned into the Zipcar so we could make it back into the city. The post-traumatic stress never eased, and my father, a creature of habit, wound up getting a ride back to the Rockaways after 10 days. He would rather live with no electricity than in an unfamiliar place.

Rockaway was by far one of the hardest hit. Hundreds of homes were lost and family restaurants burnt to the ground. My father’s electricity was out for over a month. But with the help of a caring community, FEMA, and the donations of local food trucks, he never suffered more than discomfort. One of my most haunting memories post-Sandy is encountering an old woman on the beach who turned to me with glassy eyes, tears staining her weathered face…she tried to say something, but no words came out.  They didn’t have to. And this too shall pass.

Rockaway Beach, post-Sandy

Terrence Kirby, Rockaway Beach, post-Sandy

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I Underestimated That Bitch Sandy!

If I could get in touch with my mother right now, I’d actually let her indulge in saying, “I told you so” over and over. She had been ranting about this storm since last Wednesday when I was too busy to care — wrangled up in grad school midterms and World Series prep at work. I should have paid closer attention. My mother is like the boy who cried wolf too many times, after a while you just stop listening.

Last year’s Irene had spurred full panic mode in my family, leading to what turned out to be the unnecessary evacuation of my father from Rockaway Beach to my mom’s house in Staten Island, where he was stuck for a week. And it turned out to be not much more than a rainstorm. I thought this time it would be more of the same — worry up, hurry up and then nothing. I was wrong.

It was awkward for my father to stay there last year with his ex-wife and her husband, my stepdad, but it surely must be more awkward for him right now to be without power and a phone. He didn’t want to evacuate, he’d ride it out, he said. I’m sure he’s fine, just frazzled. But I don’t know for sure. In the morning, I am driving out to Rockaway Beach, if I can get over the bridge to check on him. I don’t know what I will find. I’ve seen pictures of the streets covered in thick sand. Will I be able to drive through that? I’ve seen more pictures of over 50 houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point, just a few miles from him. I’ve heard the boardwalk lifted off and flew into a building’s lobby — destroying the pool. Ok, he does have a glass lobby, but thankfully, no pool.

He’s on the fourth floor and had plenty of food. But he’s also partially disabled since his stroke ten years ago, and this is feeling eerily familiar. The unease, the unknown. I will never underestimate a storm again.

I was foolish to think I could enjoy a day or two off from school and work — not with this massive anxiety. Sandy, you bitch, you got me!

 

Thank You Sandy!

Even after witnessing the zombified masses assaulting every aisle in the grocery store today, after locking down the furniture on the rooftop, after receiving numerous calls/texts/prayers from both my alarmist mum who lives in Staten Island and antsy father who lives about 20 feet from Rockaway Beach — I’m thankful for Hurricane Sandy. Sure, she’s a pain in the ass and getting larger by the hour (like Kirstie Alley after she stopped swallowing Ex Lax), but she is also a GIVER. A giver of a day off from school and work. She is providing me with more hours to sleep, more time to cuddle with my puppy and boyfriend, and an unexpected holiday from routine. The daily grind of shower, subway, coffee, work, grad school, dinner, study, read, sleep — needed to be broken. At least for a day. Maybe if I’m lucky it will be two days.

Ah, how I look forward to not hearing the alarm clock in the A.M., to not putting my underwear on backwards in my morning frenzy, to not tumbling down the subway stairs to catch the B train as the doors are about to shut in my face!

Rest, sweet rest. So Sandy, I hope you’re not too hard on us, maybe just a little bit of flooding that quickly recedes…by Thursday.