About a year or so ago, I was at the local hair salon, Strands, with my daughter. As she sat down to get her hair washed, I heard a familiar voice coming from the chair next to her. It was deep and friendly, booming yet not loud. When this fellow customer sat up in his seat, I made the connection — it had to be my high school chorus teacher Jim DiBenedetto.
How you can hold the memory of a voice you haven’t heard in more than 20 years is beyond me. But once I heard it my mind was sent back to those days in the second-floor Brooklyn Tech chorus room, the chorus teacher/football coach booming at us “What kind of shells? Egg shells!!!!” as we “ho ho ho’ed” our way through Angels We Have Heard on High. Then I did something my painfully shy 16-year-old self would never have done — I walked up to Mr. D’s chair and asked, “Did you used to teach at Brooklyn Tech?”
A huge smile came across his superhero-like jaw. “Yes,that’s me,” he said. He had only recently retired. He and his wife had just moved to Belle Harbor to a house just a few feet from the beach. I knew he wouldn’t remember me, since I likely never had the nerve to say two words to him in the three years I was in high school chorus. But we had a nice talk regardless and I was happy I’d had the guts to make the connection.
Fast forward a few months. Sandy rolls in, bringing destruction and mayhem to everyone on the Rockaway peninsula, myself and Jim (I think I can call him that now) included. Facebook is the town crier, a ticker of pleas and outrage from the devastated. Amongst the litany I see horrible news delivered from a high-school classmate. Mr. D’s house was among those that burned.
My heart sunk. We’d lost much but we did not lose everything, and I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing 60 years’ worth of memories and generations’ worth of keepsakes. At least with the floods there was something to salvage. The fires burned until there was nothing left to scorch.
When I decided to start this book project, I knew immediately why I had that chance encounter at Strands. I messaged Jim on Facebook and asked if I could interview him for this book I’m researching on climate change’s impact on urban areas. Yesterday he sat across from me at my dining room table and told me his entire story.
With every Sandy story I hear recounted, I’m taken back to the overwhelming emotions of those first few days and weeks. The details change but every story has the same backbone: They are all stories of loss. Loss of things, yes, but also loss of surety. What we thought could never happen, happened. That experience adds a depth to the look in each survivor’s eyes. We are stronger, not by choice, but we’ve embraced the power even though its root lies in our great pain and loss.
Immense tragedy also provides clarity to all our previous experiences. Why did we go through that rough patch? Why did we learn those lessons or choose that path in life? To prepare us for this one moment in time when we would need all those skills to survive.
Jim stood in his kitchen and watched as sparks of fire rained down on his back porch. I asked him, “What was your state of mind?” Were you frantic? Worried? Overwhelmed?”
I don’t have my transcript finished yet so this quotation is not exact, but I remember his face froze for a moment. His eyes were clear and focused. It was the look of someone who was about to utter absolute truth. “I felt totally confident,” he said. “I was not nervous at all. My whole life prepared me for this moment. When you’re coaching football, or conducting a chorus, you’re orchestrating chaos. A song can fall apart in a second and you have to be prepared for that.” The night of the storm, knowing his house was minutes away from being consumed, Jim grabbed his insurance documents and secured them in black trash bags. He tied together extension cords and with the help of neighbors, he and his wife surfed across 7-foot-high rushing waters to the safety of a brick house across the street. From that house he watched his home turn from a bright orange orb to black ash.
In 20 years of interviewing people about their most harrowing experiences, I never cease to be amazed by the strength of the human spirit. Push us down and it is human nature to rise back up, stronger and feistier than ever. Jim is rising back up. I’ve risen back up. As I collect these stories of survival and weave together an explanation of why our coastal communities are worth saving, it’s stories like Jim’s that provide the context. Also, these experiences make me sure that all our voices need to be heard so that we can do what’s within our power to reduce the chance of this happening again, anywhere, to anyone.
I’m collecting as many stories as I can of Sandy survival. If you’d like to participate, please contact me.