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Trying to forget Sandy

"Trying to forget Sandy" Continued...

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

In the midst of that turmoil came Sandy, flooding the Zozzaros’ home with four feet of water. Authorities sealed off the barrier islands completely. With the possessions she had in her car, Natalie moved into an apartment an hour away, near her brother Jim and his family, shuttling between work and the hospital and her temporary home. When the authorities finally allowed homeowners back for a few hours a day, Natalie started squeezing home demolition between work and hospital visits. A few weeks after the storm the hospital transferred Patricia Zozzaro to the intensive care unit. In December, she took an unexpected turn for the worse. She died Dec. 10 at age 70. Natalie was crushed.

“She’s the person I spent every day with, who I raised a kid with,” Natalie said. She dreaded telling Cameron, whom she can still see on a professional basis at the school for the disabled where she is a therapist. “I told him, ‘God decided it wasn’t good to fix her body. But it’s good, she’s with God.’” Natalie knew that Cameron understood she was gone—many of his disabled friends had died. And he showed signs of grieving. Patricia Zozzaro baked with Cameron every Saturday, and a nurse told Natalie that when she offered to bake with Cameron he became inconsolable.

So in December Natalie returned to work on her destroyed house, where a family of three had become a family of one. Even if Cameron was gone, Natalie believed he would come back. She carefully washed off his toys, and packed away whatever she could. Cameron was stressed about the storm, so Natalie explained to him what happened to each one of his belongings to comfort him. “I said, ‘Tigger survived, I evacuated with Tigger.’”

Natalie thought she could save the top four feet of the walls in her home, which her mother had painstakingly papered herself. She thought she could save most of Cameron’s room. But water and mold crept upward. She came to the house one day and the relief workers who had graciously been helping to tear out the ruined Sheetrock had torn out everything: all of her mother’s wallpapering, all of Cameron’s room. Now the house interior is stripped down to its frame. For the normally buoyant Natalie, that was a breaking point. 

“The marks from Cam’s wheelchair on the wall were gone,” she said. But on a recent Sunday, when two carfuls of people from her brother’s church came over to see the house, she was upbeat again. “It’s open, airy!” she said about the destroyed walls. “It has a rustic feel!” 

Natalie has considered leaving the house behind and moving to be closer to her brother Jim and his family, who have become her lifeline. She says that the best thing to come out of the hurricane is the closer relationship she has with her brother. But the barrier island home is closer to Cameron. “People keep telling me, ‘That chapter of your life is over,’” she said. “I’m not ready for that—building a house without Cam. ... I know God has a plan, but trying to be patient through the plan isn’t easy.” 

Rockaways

The storm has turned parts of Far Rockaway, a hardscrabble neighborhood to begin with, into a ghost town. Bodega after bodega remains shuttered. The local grocery store is still closed. A CVS pharmacy hasn’t been able to reopen so it brought in a trailer in the parking lot to provide locals with medicines and other essentials. Al Zarek, a local who’s coordinating disaster relief with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), said people in the neighborhood have to go elsewhere for even the most basic needs. Relief organizations are still offering food and other goods a few days a week. But the four months of disaster are eating at locals in other ways.

“A lot of people are still mentally getting over it—whether to leave,” said Debbie Rowe, who was helping gut out her brother’s house in the neighborhood.

Aida Rubin, a custodian in East Rockaway, N.Y., is mentally struggling, too. “The hurricane did something inside me,” she said. “It frightened me.” When I arrived at her house on a Tuesday morning, she had finished a 16-hour shift the night before and had a strong pot of coffee going before she left for her next shift. Rubin, a widow of more than a decade, moved into the house with her husband 30 years ago, and now her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild live in the upstairs. The house sits several blocks from a canal that connects to a bay that connects to the ocean. The area is protected by several land barriers, unlike the Jersey barrier islands, Far Rockaway, and Breezy Point, where the sea destroyed whole neighborhoods on the shoreline. Despite the protection in East Rockaway, plenty of homes are now condemned.

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