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.
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.
In the middle of the Midland Beach neighborhood, Oasis Christian Center, a church roughly the size of a bungalow, buzzed. The storm wiped out the church’s Sunday school classrooms and youth pastor’s office, but once the members cleaned those rooms out, the church opened for business. Several Staten Island pastors, though not officially connected, formed a coalition and divided the neighborhood by blocks, giving each church a set of blocks, with Oasis as the nerve center. “We may not agree perfectly doctrinally, but those relationships are there,” said Dave Watson, a pastor from the northern part of the island who is friends with Oasis pastor Tim McIntyre.
The power-less neighborhood would grow dark around 4 p.m., with the end of daylight saving time, but the church served hot meals and had generators running. The Mennonite Disaster Service set up a camper in the yard by the church and began funneling its supplies through the church. National Guardsmen hauled debris with their hands. Teenagers from the public high school across the street came to help. A pastor from Pennsylvania had hauled in $750 of gas for generators, a rare commodity. Eventually church members had to spray-paint a sign on the front of their building saying, “NO MORE DONATIONS.”
April Harris for the last 30 years has run a food pantry, In Jesus’ Name, in Hoboken, N.J. But when people needed a food pantry the most, Sandy destroyed Harris’ entire inventory. People who had food stamps couldn’t use their EBT cards because power was out, so this was the moment for In Jesus’ Name to step in. But Sandy filled the pantry with 5 feet of water, even though the pantry is eight blocks from the water and has never flooded more than a few inches.
Five days after the storm, Harris splashed through the wreckage of the pantry, the sludgy water mostly pumped out. She handed me a cardboard box, wet from the flood. This box, she said, is a miracle. Everything was destroyed but this, the most critical item to her post-storm operations: a box full of cards with the names and addresses of the 500 families that regularly come to the pantry. The bottom of the box was soaked, but the cards were stacked in order in the box, and dry. She assumed it floated on the surging waters, but it didn’t make sense that it survived when her other files in the same spot were ruined. The water tossed her refrigerator onto its side—but not the box full of cards. With the box, she knows all the families to check on, and to prepare food for. The people who didn’t have food before the storm would be even more vulnerable afterward, she knew.
But where to find food? More miracles showed up: World Vision had canvassed the neighborhood and learned of her need, and began dropping off boxes of food. Families from some of the 12 churches Harris partners with, as well as middle-schoolers from a local Christian school in the same building, Mustard Seed, were helping her set up a temporary pantry. She had a day of hungry people to get through, but she could see her work stretching for many more days. “The city’s been doing a great job, but what about the poor after?” she said. “After the big relief effort, the impact is going to go on.”
Toms River, N.J.
Dozens of relief volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse were sleeping at the Church of Grace and Peace, in Toms River, N.J., and woke up to no power and 8 inches of snow from the nor’easter on Nov. 8. They made a hot breakfast on their gas stove, dug their trucks and equipment out of the snow in the parking lot, then schlepped out to chainsaw fallen trees and tear wet sheetrock and insulation out of houses under snow. Brent Graybeal, the program director on site for Samaritan’s Purse, called his wife back in North Carolina and asked what she thought about having Thanksgiving in New Jersey.
A few miles from the church, police checkpoints guarded the Silverton neighborhood closer to the water, so only residents and relief workers could enter the ruined area. For days after the storm, the neighborhood was so flooded that even military trucks got stuck, so no one was allowed in. Now the residents were returning to see how bad the destruction was.
Jane Geoghehan, 73, is a nurse and a paramedic who lives in the neighborhood. Immediately after the storm, she stepped up to do emergency response, even though her knee replacement was bothering her. She and other paramedics took care of the people the military was rescuing from flooded homes. Meanwhile, everything in her house that she has lived in since 1960 was washing away. Geoghehan’s home never flooded more than a few splashes in the 50 years she had lived there.
Geoghehan’s five children almost all live within a few miles, and their homes flooded too, but not as badly as hers. The Geoghehans are a family of first responders: Her children work for the police and fire departments and were also working through the storm in 12-hour shifts. “We’re used to being the ones helping, not the ones asking for help,” said Kevin Geoghehan, Jane’s son who works for the local police department and is a paramedic. He joined first responders down south in 2005 to help during Hurricane Katrina. The smells of Sandy brought Katrina rushing back to him: seawater mixed with sheetrock and everything else.
Jane Geoghehan was a tough paramedic as she stood in her wrecked kitchen and watched Samaritan’s Purse volunteers rip carpet, floorboards, sheetrock, and cabinets out of her house of 50 years. She offered to drive the workers back and forth to bathrooms whenever necessary. “I told my kids, ‘Now you don’t have to clean out my house when I die,’” she said. But she paused for a second after mentioning that she lost her wedding pictures. Her husband died in 2006. “It’s horrible, but you can’t do anything about it. … I can’t afford to move. I’ll replace what I can. I’m lucky I have very close family.” Another one of her sons came in to check on his mom and then asked a Samaritan’s Purse supervisor about bringing a team to rip out flooded insulation at his house.
“I don’t know why it happened,” said Graybeal, the Samaritan’s Purse site director. “But every community I go to, I see God’s people rise up. … It’s not about rejection. It’s about restoration. That’s what we see.”