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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Rubin’s first floor flooded, sending her washer, dryer, stove, and refrigerator floating up to the ceiling. The floor had to be gutted. Rubin and her family also lost three cars in the flooding. Rubin’s church, Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the OPC’s disaster crew have worked on her home over the last several months. Now the downstairs is stripped down and clean, with a new washer and dryer. It awaits new insulation and rewiring. Rubin is effusive about the church’s help but her biggest hurdle now is her own discouragement.
“I said, ‘Lord, please let them condemn my house, I don’t want to be here anymore.’ I’m psychologically done.”
Zarek reminded her that spring was coming. The seawater killed Rubin’s garden, but she plans to dig up the ruined soil and replant.
Parts of the region are already replanting. Chris DeCamps, a vessel manager at his family’s tugboat company in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is almost upbeat about his family business, the Vane Brothers Company, in the storm’s aftermath. Sandy destroyed the business’ inventory of equipment for various operations on the water, along with its computers.
“Given what’s happened, things are pretty good,” said DeCamps. DeCamps own apartment was flooded in the storm and he moved onto one of the tugboats to live. Now his apartment is rebuilt, and he’s moved back to solid ground. “As devastating as it was, the people in the industry weren’t as affected because we’re used to water events, to unforeseen dramatic events. They see boats come in damaged. The guys just rolled with it.”
The Vane Brothers tugboat operation was critical in New York’s recovery, as a part of the logistical chain that serviced larger boats and transported barges of essentials like fuel that were in short supply. So even though navigation channels were obstructed and the harbor damaged and the business’ inventory flooded, the tugboat company had to jump-start or the chain would break down even more than it already had. In the midst of the gas shortage, the tugboat business shuttled oil to transfer stations, the critical gas distributors that were knocked out in the storm. The business also started helping with repairs to the harbor.
“We were trying to do this from cell phones, so we were just improvising,” said DeCamps. “We had to be operational.”
“The two bathrooms are operational!” Pastor Tim McIntyre announced to about 40 members of his church at the 9 a.m. service one Sunday morning in late February. Oasis Christian Center stands in the middle of one of the worst-hit parts of Staten Island—Midland Beach, a tiny neighborhood where the storm killed eight people. Midland Beach is a blue collar neighborhood, full of construction workers, firefighters, and police officers. McIntyre himself has a background in carpentry that he dusted off as his church helped the neighborhood rebuild.
The storm wiped out the church’s first floor, its kitchen, and Sunday school area—including its bathrooms. Until February, the church held worship services at another church nearby. At the end of February, the first floor was entirely rehabbed, with new walls, ceilings, and a new kitchen. Twenty-seven families connected to the small church either lost their first floors or their entire homes.
Despite its own damage, Oasis became the neighborhood’s nerve center during Sandy: Disaster relief groups used the church as a platform to find and meet needs. The Mennonite Disaster Service is still working in the neighborhood, and plans to be there for the long haul. (The MDS group that arrived in Midland Beach had spent the last eight years in New Orleans rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, according to McIntyre.) The church sent out 300 work orders for homes in the neighborhood, and the Staten Island Association of Evangelicals, which worked through Oasis, eventually covered 2,500 homes.
“For the first time, the church on Staten Island is being looked on favorably,” said McIntyre. “FEMA is now looking to the churches to be first responders. They’re setting up a system now so that if something were to happen again, God forbid, they come to us first.” The New York mayor’s office recently held a mold remediation seminar for the neighborhood at the church.
The city was still hauling dump trucks full of debris to a post-Sandy landfill that stands a few stories tall. A city worker at the landfill said he expected to be on the job for a month or two, but now he doesn’t know when the city will stop collecting debris. Chain link fences around a baseball field are curled and blown in, and downed trees still lie on the field. McIntyre said many people left their homes after the storm and haven’t been back. For that reason, police cars and spotlights sit on every corner of the neighborhood, to guard against looting.
“There are still many needs, and we know that the deepest need is the need of the heart,” McIntyre preached to his church. “If you talk to people, it’s the frustration, it’s the anger, no knowing what’s next. You know what they need now? They need care.” He continued: “Even outside of Sandy, what is the mission of the church?” A common answer, he said, is to save people so they can go to heaven. “The gospel is bigger than that. ... Jesus says in Revelation, ‘I make ...’” He paused.
“All things new,” the congregation said back to him.
“And that happens now,” McIntyre said.