“Everybody out!” the firefighter shouted as he banged on our doors. It was the evening of October 29, 2012, and Superstorm Sandy had arrived in New York City. My packing time cut short, I threw on my slicker, grabbed my bag, and headed downstairs. A crane on the site of a new skyscraper up the block had snapped and was left dangling 70 stories in the air. One by one, the buildings on our street had been evacuated, and now it was our turn. I mentally ran through the list of what had made it into my bag — a pair of pajamas, flashlight, laptop, camera, cell phone, wallet, teddy bear, book, three bottles of water, and a box of graham crackers. I kicked myself for some of the things I’d failed to pack, but reminded myself that the storm would be over by morning and then I’d be back home.
I kept a close eye on my computer that night and felt my chest tighten as I watched updates pop up from people back home in Rockaway, Queens. The ocean had run across the town to the bay on the other side. Water had overrun the first floor of homes. The boardwalk had snapped and was floating in pieces up the streets. Transformer fires had started and were spreading rapidly since the flooding was too high for the fire department to get through. During the height of the storm, our internet went down, and I lay in the dark worrying quietly. This was going to be a lot worse than any of us had prepared for.
My hometown was one of the areas placed under a mandatory evacuation order prior to the storm. Given their experiences with past evacuations, the vast majority of Rockaway residents refused to leave. Others, including my family, left immediately, knowing bridges would close once the storm picked up, leaving no chance for a change of heart. My mom booked a hotel room in midtown Manhattan. We gathered the essentials from the house to store at my place, and my sisters and I returned to our respective schools to hunker down.
Picking up the pieces
The days after the storm were completely surreal. It was a week before I was able to get back into my apartment, so I joined my mother in her hotel room. My sisters soon joined us as we began to piece together what had happened and account for friends and family members that had stayed behind in the evacuation zones. Miraculously, everyone was safe. The gas shortage that followed the storm prevented us for several days from getting back to see the damage for ourselves. When we finally got home, we found that the flooding had come up through the basement as well as the main floor of our house, destroying anything below the water line and making the structure unlivable. In spite of this, we were among the lucky ones.
Whole houses were gone, ripped apart by the ocean or burned to the ground in the transformer fires. The Harbor Light, a neighborhood restaurant that my dad had owned when I was a kid, was reduced to a half-collapsed awning with an American flag hanging from it. We reminded ourselves that we’d been through far worse together. Just a month earlier, my sister had been hospitalized and diagnosed with diabetes. My father, a New York Fire Department captain, had died in the World Trade Center. If we survived all of that, we would get through this. In the weeks that followed, we salvaged what we could, found a place for my mom to live, and started the long road to recovery. And while we did this, our lives still went on.
Through darkness to light
One of the most difficult challenges for me in the year that has followed has been reconciling the emotions I’ve experienced. I’ve been overcome with relief that everyone in my family is alive and safe, and filled with profound gratitude for everyone who has reached out and supported us over the past year. Yet there also were days when I felt so overwhelmed I thought I couldn’t keep going, moments when I angrily asked God how much more I was expected to deal with, and situations where I felt myself losing patience with people who expressed surprise that we weren’t “back to normal.” As a psychology doctoral student, I could objectively recognize that all of these are normal emotions to experience after a loss or tragedy. But as someone caught in the middle of them, I was ashamed of my own weaknesses and the times I failed to focus on the blessings I have in my life. It’s no easy feat to embrace your vulnerability, but over the past months I have learned that admitting my own human weaknesses has allowed me to open myself up and experience God’s love through others on a different level.
I always come back to the goodness that I’ve seen in others. Sometimes it was the little things that would catch me off guard — a classmate offering to help me get an assignment done when I’d lost class time to recovery efforts, or my professor offering his car so we’d have enough gas to get back to Rockaway to vote. Sometimes it was watching others come to Rockaway’s aid — serving hot food to those who couldn’t relocate, filling the school gym with supplies, or going around to people’s houses to help with physical labor. And then there was the boundless generosity of spirit in those who had lost so much themselves, but were still helping in whatever ways they could. People in Rockaway whose attics escaped the flood pulled out whatever winter clothes they had and shared them as the weather got colder, while others maxed out their credit cards buying contractor bags, masks and work gloves to be used as cleanup began.
The stories of sacrifice and bravery during the storm were countless. One of the most notable was 23-year-old Dylan Smith, who saved multiple people from burning homes by escorting them through the waters to safety on his surfboard. Dylan died right before Christmas in a surfing accident, reminding us once again that no matter what the scope of homes and possessions lost, it will never compare to the loss of things that really count.
As I write this, my family’s home remains unfinished, as do so many others. One of my younger sisters sleeps on an air mattress in the dining room while work continues. My mom lives in a rental in New Jersey, and my youngest sister stayed at school through the summer. I’ve left grad housing for an apartment with a roommate and some sense of stability. We’re hoping that the work will be done in time for all of us to come home for Thanksgiving. While it may not be the same, it will be good to be home, and we have a lot to be thankful for.