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AFTERMATH: People pass a destroyed beach house in the Rockaways in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
AFTERMATH: People pass a destroyed beach house in the Rockaways in New York City.

Trying to forget Sandy

Superstorm Sandy | Businesses rebound, homeowners struggle, and churches prove themselves as the recovery from last year’s superstorm wobbles forward

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

STATEN ISLAND, the JERSEY BARRIER ISLANDS, and the ROCKAWAYS—Four months ago, Superstorm Sandy slammed businesses, churches, homes, and schools, breaking meteorological records in the Northeast. In most of Manhattan, it’s hard to see vestiges of the storm, though some banks on Wall Street remain shuttered. But many of the worst-hit neighborhoods—Midland Beach in Staten Island, the Rockaways in Queens, and the Jersey Shore—look the way they did the day after the October storm. Demolished homes sit crushed, with red tags indicating they are uninhabitable. Sidewalks are piled with moldy sheetrock and torn up floorboards. Utility crews buzz around streets.

In Brick, N.J., which sits on the bay behind the New Jersey barrier islands, debris still washes up on the shore. A refrigerator in someone’s yard came up one day, part of a roof came up another. Drains are still plugged with sand, so when it rains the streets quickly fill. Around Ortley Beach, the part of the New Jersey barrier islands where Sandy’s steamroll created a new channel where land used to be, houses sit smashed, tossed on their sides, buried in sand, filled with water. Ortley has a curfew, so people have to be off the streets by dark. Other parts of the barrier islands recently opened to residents for the first time.

Tim McIntyre, a pastor at Oasis Christian Center in Midland Beach, Staten Island, gets calls from his extended family asking, “Is it all back to normal down there?” He laughs. He expects the recovery process will take all year, but even when it’s finished, “The face of this community is not going to be the same.” 

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The coastline likely won’t look the same either. In January, Congress passed a $50.5 billion Sandy aid package, which is mostly for repairing infrastructure. New York state wants to use $400 million of its portion to buy out flooded homes along the coast and turn the land into public parks or natural barriers against future floods. That proposal awaits federal approval.

The people and places WORLD covered right after the storm hit are in various states of recovery. One tugboat business in Brooklyn is rebounding after losing its inventory. Mustard Seed—a Christian school in Hoboken, N.J., that itself experienced flooding—has for the foreseeable future taken in a Catholic preschool that lost its building. Homeowners are weaving their way through insurance policies and government regulations before they can rebuild, either waiting for money or new zoning.

But in some places there’s a smell of new wood and fresh paint, where rebuilding is beginning. And churches are still doing the work they did effectively during the storm—seeking out the needs in their neighborhoods and finding ways to fill them. Churches have been so effective that in Staten Island, FEMA told faith leaders the agency would turn to churches as a platform for first response in future disasters. Ironically, FEMA doesn’t provide disaster relief to churches, though it does to other nonprofits. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to change that, but its future is uncertain in the Senate.

Among the people I interviewed, the biggest hurdle to recovery was a psychological, spiritual, emotional one: They’re fatigued from the months of aftermath and they’re struggling to want to stay in their homes. They don’t even want to talk about the storm any more. Like those who have experienced any kind of trauma, Sandy has forever changed the way they see and interact with the world around them.

Jersey Shore

The Zozzaros lived through Sandy’s assault on the Jersey barrier islands, but since then the family experienced additional disasters. Before Sandy, Natalie Zozzaro, a therapist at a school for the disabled who surfs in her off-time, lived with her mother Patricia Zozzaro in a small bungalow in Seaside Park, N.J., where they raised a boy named Cameron, now 19, who has cerebral palsy. The walls were covered with his artwork. 

Seaside Park is a barrier island town of smaller, older homes where people mostly live year-round, unlike the wealthy enclaves of summer homes to the north. The Zozzaros had a beach bicycle that Natalie would pedal with Cameron seated in a special seat on the front. Natalie’s brother Jim Zozzaro said a few months ago of his mom and sister, “Cameron is their life.”

This past summer, Cameron’s biological parents reentered his life, and wanted Natalie and Patricia to stop contact with him—after their serving as guardians for 15 years. Over the last couple months the parents won guardianship of Cameron and ended all visitation rights to Natalie and her mother. For Natalie, this was a bigger loss than any possessions a natural disaster could take. Meanwhile, Patricia Zozzaro was admitted to the hospital for heart problems. Her health problems became more and more complicated, and she underwent surgery. 

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