Flanked by water on three sides, Tottenville, on Staten Island was battered by Hurricane Sandy. The southernmost settlement in New York State, Tottenville could easily be a charming town in eastern New Jersey, had Staten Island not been annexed by New York in 1898 and had it chosen to secede in 1993. None of those political what-ifs would have softened Sandy’s wrath. Tottenville was ravaged, as was much of the island, which saw some of the worst damage in New York City. On the few square feet of undamaged siding on a small one-story house in Tottenville, someone has spray-painted the community’s feelings: “Goodbye Sandy,” the graffiti says. “You broke our hearts.”
But then Mother Nature sent in Sandy’s coldhearted little sister, the storm called Athena, to mess things up a bit more. Just about eight days after Hurricane Sandy, on the morning after the presidential election, the skies over New York City grew dark. The temperature, already chilly, plummeted; the wind whipped in circles and soon enough pummeled the area with lots and lots of heavy, wet snow. Under ordinary circumstances, a nor’easter, as such storms are called, would have created some havoc throughout the city, but with 600,000 people in New York and New Jersey still without power, the snow and wind and cold had the potential to be deadly.
Thee nor’easter was a sucker punch to the nose for Staten Island. First, the storm stymied the momentum of the cleanup operation, and second, it dumped half a foot of sopping snow onto already soaked ground. If there was any hope that the water would fully recede, it’s now dashed for a while longer, as small lakes cover much of the roadways in the lower ground.
The relief work continues. North of Tottenville is the neighborhood of New Dorp, which lies east of the island’s central hills. Still partially without power, New Dorp, like Tottenville, has an area where houses remain intact and areas where homes were completely devastated by Sandy’s flood surge. On a blown-out storefront in New Dorp’s dark zone whose metal doors are torn in half, a bedsheet sign hangs taped to what’s left of the wall. It reads: “Hallowed Sons MC-Just Ask for Help.”
The Hallowed Sons are a motorcycle club from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which lies across the bay from Staten Island. Since the first day after Sandy, they have been helping the people along Cedar Grove Avenue keep going. Around the clock since that first day, members of the club have rotated through in shifts, cooking food for residents, workers and volunteers, hauling supplies and patrolling the neighborhood for looters. One of the group’s members has family that lives in New Dorp, so they came from Brooklyn with donated food and basically didn’t leave. Hallowed Sons members sleep in tents and left only briefly when the nor’easter struck.
“We’re going through frankfurters and hamburgers like water,” explains Donna Graziano, who was running the group’s food-service operation. The Hallowed Sons have been serving about 2,000 hamburgers and hot dogs each day. Though their small headquarters is well stocked with food, Graziano says they need aspirin, over-the-counter medications, cleaning equipment and detergents, and above all, baby supplies. Families with infants lost strollers, booster seats and cribs, and Graziano says they will need such things if they are ever able to return home.
The Hallowed Sons are filling a vacuum in New Dorp because, with a few exceptions, the “official” response appears to be AWOL. Soldiers from the New York National Guard’s “Fighting” 69th Infantry were working to clear debris from the roadways and distribute food. The sergeant in charge of one patrol said he did three tours in Afghanistan but working on Staten Island is the proudest operation of his military career. City sanitation workers were clearing heavy debris throughout the day. Nearly everyone we spoke with had praise for both groups, but it’s hard not to see that their efforts are compartmentalized. The sanitation workers, for instance, were clearing only debris in the roadway or what had been carried to the curb. When it comes to the exhausting and morbid task of hauling the destroyed and waterlogged belongings out of their houses, Sandy’s victims are on their own.
Michael Marotta, a retired supervisor at the Department of Sanitation, has spent the past week gutting his house on Center Place, in New Dorp, which is just a few hundred feet from the bay. “Picture that you take everything you own and it goes out the front door,” Marotta says, taking a break from that very practice. Sandy struck only two days after he had finished remodeling his kitchen, and his son had just installed the new appliances. Now it’s all gone, along with the Sheetrock and the drywall, leaving the exposed skeleton of the house’s interior. “This is now a construction site rather than a home,” he says. At the end of Marotta’s driveway, a small ankle-deep pond of brown water covered the roadway. The previous night, Athena the nor’easter just made things worse.
On the other side of Center Place, Timothy Smith was doing his best to salvage anything from his life before Sandy. And he was failing. “They said five feet. That’s a lie,” he says, describing the flooding on the night of the hurricane. “It was 10 feet.” To illustrate his point, he pointed to the waterline on the side of his house. The brown stain was indeed five feet above the porch floor, but as I stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, the line was above my head, and I’m just over 6 ft. tall. Inside, dirty saltwater had infested nearly everything Smith owned. He pointed to his stereo, vintage bottles of whisky he used to collect and a new toaster oven still in the box. “It’s gone,” was all he could say. “Everything is gone.” Smith says he tried to file a claim with FEMA and was denied because he is a renter.
Smith’s and Marotta’s situations illustrate a heartbreaking fact about the post-Sandy state of affairs: unless they had homeowner’s insurance — and a very good policy at that — many of the people battered by the storm are pretty well screwed. For Smith, the next few days will consist of finishing bagging up and hauling away everything he used to own. He had no insurance and doesn’t know if he can replace his possessions. Marotta is more optimistic. Though he may not get any help from FEMA and wasn’t sure yet about an insurance settlement, he vowed not to abandon his home. “Even if I don’t get any money, I can rebuild,” he says.
Up and down the shattered streets of New Dorp, giant orange earthmovers from the city’s Department of Sanitation approached piles of debris, nosed the giant buckets on the front into the rubble and hauled the heap away. Only the wreckage wasn’t garbage or earth; it was made of people’s belongings. There was furniture and upholstery, appliances and flatware, action figures and children’s games, broken frames from which, one can hope, the photographs were salvaged. Load by snow-soaked load, the possessions of the people of New Dorp slowly began to disappear.
If a storm has the power to annihilate buildings and disrupt lives, it also brings out great characteristics in the people who live through them. In the days after Sandy, Camille Brennan’s neighbors in Tottenville banded together to watch over the houses of those who left town. People came to see their cousins, and neighbors checked in on neighbors. They shared tools and time and helped one another through that first exhausting week. “You can buy a house,” Brennan says, “but you can’t buy your neighbors.”
A few blocks behind Cedar Grove Avenue, Jennite D’Ambrosio lives in a basement apartment that flooded during the hurricane. Over the next couple of days, people asked for money in exchange for services. One man said he would empty her house of its putrid contents for $400. She would have taken him up on it, but she had only about $250. The next day, she said, another man asked for $1,000 to do the same job. But then a wave of volunteers descended on her neighborhood and helped her clean out her home for free. “I’ve been floored by the amount of people who’ve come by to help,” she says. Marotta felt the same as he described people appearing in his neighborhood from all over Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn who helped him haul the majority of his home to the trash heaps. In the days since, volunteers were still trickling in. “Sometimes it’s nice,” he says, “just to have someone to talk to.”
Yet the acts of kindness belie a grave situation. Many of the people we spoke with on Staten Island were staying with friends or family, but some remained in their homes because they had no place else to go. There is no power and no heat, and Con Edison has told residents that their homes must be inspected before power can be restored. Then there is the worse news: it’s early November, and winter is coming. The people of Staten Island have now weathered a nor’easter on the heels of a hurricane. The cold nights have only just begun.
D’Ambrosio is one of those who never left and is staying put. A friend said she’d like to offer her a place to stay, but D’Ambrosio has two dogs and the friend has two cats. So D’Ambrosio is getting by with a small kerosene heater and wrapping her pups up in blankets. She said there is no way of knowing when she might have heat again.