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DIGGING OUT: Clearing debris in a New York neighborhood.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
DIGGING OUT: Clearing debris in a New York neighborhood.

True grit

Compassion | Churches, businesses, and homeowners face loss from Sandy and dig in

Issue: "Divided we stand," Dec. 1, 2012

NEW YORK and NEW JERSEY—The normally peppy jockeys on a top-40 radio station on the Jersey Shore couldn’t stop talking about Superstorm Sandy between songs. They had to tell themselves, again, that the famous boardwalk was gone. They had to tell themselves, again, that friends’ homes were gone. “You literally wonder where the next meal is coming from,” one said to her co‑host on 94.3 FM, lamenting that she had recently fed her children crackers. The co‑host sympathized and pointed listeners to places for relief, for hot meals. Then they turned the hits back on.

Two weeks after the storm hit, Sandy is all people can think about or talk about here, even on pop radio. Houses were filled with soaked insulation and mildew had started to grow on wet sheetrock. The Silverton Diner in Toms River, N.J., was one of the few places open in the few miles near the ocean, and everyone eating there was talking about adjusters, insurance claims, lack of insurance, and stories they’d heard from neighbors. “You can only think about it so much,” said Natalie Zozzaro, whose house sits on one of New Jersey’s barrier islands, where the hurricane gave its hardest punch. She’s only been able to visit her home once since the storm for a few hours because the National Guard has sealed the islands off. “Every time you turn around, it’s like, ‘What did you lose?’”

The storm’s vast span is what you feel driving around the Northeast. It swamped New York’s financial district, decimated the Jersey Shore, and scoured Long Island. At 950 miles wide, Sandy was bigger than Hurricane Katrina (though not as strong), and one of the biggest storms to hit the Northeast, ever, even though it by that time technically had been downgraded from hurricane status. The storm knocked out nine gasoline terminals—the suppliers to gas stations—out of 57 in the New York metropolitan area. The outages forced gas rationing in New York and New Jersey that continued two weeks after the storm. A nor’easter that dumped snow on the flooded region about a week later compounded widespread power outages. And Sandy’s death toll in the United States now stands at 113, with 43 killed in New York City.

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The storm was big, but small people, businesses, and churches met its destruction with teeth gritted. For one extended family in Toms River, N.J., the storm flooded five of their homes. One flooded church in Staten Island became its neighborhood’s own emergency management agency. One tugboat worker who lost everything in his Brooklyn apartment is now living on a tugboat. One Hoboken woman lost everything in her food pantry, but experienced a miracle.

Red Hook, Brooklyn

Chris DeCamps, 30, works for his family’s tugboat and barge business in Brooklyn and lives near the water. He’s at home on the sea, but on Oct. 29 the sea came into his home. About four feet of water swamped his apartment in Red Hook, destroying most of his possessions. He had evacuated before the storm, and when he came home afterward, he said it looked like someone had ransacked his house. The water had lifted everything and then upturned furniture as the storm surge went back out. 

“It was like the tide coming in and wiping out a sand castle then going out,” DeCamps said.

The surge also filled the family business warehouse, ruining its inventory of spare engine parts, shackles, and other boat supplies. DeCamps said no hurricane has ever flooded the warehouse in any of the employees’ memories. “Our shoreside operation in New York, it was a setback,” he said.

DeCamps’ apartment won’t be inhabitable for at least a month, so for now he is “staying at work,” which turns out to be a bunk on a tugboat. Friends have offered him places to stay, but, “The boats are right here,” he said. “I’m familiar with living on them.” The mariners on the tugboats not only gave him a bunk but also have been helping him do laundry and clean out his apartment.

“What I lost was just my possessions,” said DeCamps. “I didn’t have a lifetime worth of things. In some ways it’s a blessing to be forced to live a simpler life.” 

Midland Beach, Staten Island

Midland Beach, a blue-collar neighborhood on Staten Island, was one of the hardest hit areas in one of the hardest hit boroughs of New York City. Twenty people died on Staten Island in the storm. A week after the storm, people were still pumping water out of their homes, rescuers discovered another drowned body, and a snowy nor’easter was bearing down. Block after block was lined with piles of ripped out home interiors, like an apocalyptic yard sale. One woman stood on the sidewalk with her hand over her mouth watching as sanitation department workers loaded all of the insides of her house into a trash truck. Those trucks, rumbling up and down the streets, went to a newly created landfill on the island that rose several stories tall—all debris from destroyed homes.

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