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.
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.