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A couple of weeks ago, I finished up a year-long blog project called 365to40. I documented my march (slow slog?) to 40, which included an unexpected detour through Superstorm Sandy.

Two weeks later, blog-less, I realized two things. One, I missed the creative outlet that blogging afforded me. No editors, no assignments, just me writing about whatever the heck was knocking around in my mind at the moment. It was a free therapy session, and the feedback and support I received helped me through some tough patches.

Second, I realized that I am incredibly goal-oriented. Part of the success of 365to40 (an attempt, in the end successful, to navigate my midlife crisis) was that I was candid about what I hoped to achieve. I had a history of keeping my dreams secret out of fear that 1) I would fail and then everyone would know, a sort of invisible Scarlet “F” I could carry around below my sagging, quivering chin or 2) People would think I was dreaming too big. Who was I to think I could rise beyond my humble beginnings? I’m this girl from Brooklyn whose family story reads like a Frank McCourt memoir. Isn’t what I have achieved enough?

Nope, nosirree. It’s not. I’m not the person who settles. I’m the one who dreams big dreams. Recently I’m developing the courage to pursue them and the ability to voice them.

And now that I’ve cleared 40, I’ve decided my next chapter will be (note: not should or maybe) a book with my name on the cover. Real narrative journalism, the type I read as an undergrad and young reporter that made me feel as if I were holding onto a piece of sorcery. It was so good it made me shake inside. I wanted to be that good. Could I be that good?

I don’t know that I’ll ever reach the stratospheres inhabited by my idols. But I do know that there is only one way to find out. And that involves taking a huge shot of gumption and faith, combining it with a bit of blind luck and 20 years of experiences, mixing them together and seeing what they’re going to be.

I want to write a book. I will write a book. Let’s just see how that story goes.


A Chance Encounter Explained

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.


Nearly Nine Months After Sandy, Still Displaced

Nearly nine months after Sandy, my house is liveable again. Aside from some non-functional light switches, missing carpet and moldings, there is little that the casual observer would notice as being still under renovation. There are many Sandy people who still cannot say the same.

This fact has been overlooked, forgotten and neglected: Nearly nine months after Sandy’s storm surge, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have yet to get their homes, and their lives, back. I spent six weeks homeless, dependent completely on the kindness of family. I spent six months living in my half-a-house with my laundry/kitchen pushing me to the limits of my sanity. I cannot fathom nine months, and even more so I cannot comprehend the torture of not being able to answer the question: When?

Yesterday I met Julie Blake of Broad Channel. Her story is so familiar, but to the exponential degree. Yes, her house flooded — 72 inches of water. But it also was caked with heating oil from tanks that burst open and made every piece of heirloom furniture, every child’s toy, her wedding video unsalvageable. “It looked like my house had been picked up like a snowglobe and shaken,” she says.

Julie will go home someday, but never to that house. Her home was built too low and now has to be lifted up, but because of the way it’s constructed there’s no way it can be done safely. So one day the wrecking crews will come for her house. Another home will be reduced to rubble. Cars will slow down, driver’s shake their heads in consolation. Neighbors will wipe wet eyes and relive every Sandy emotion. Some will feel bad because they are grateful they are not Julie. Other’s hearts will break along with hers. It will be a dark day.

Meanwhile, Julie waits in a rented apartment outside of the neighborhood she grew up in and wages a daily fight with insurance companies and the City of New York to get the funds she needs to rebuild her family’s life. She’s paying a mortgage on a house that she can’t live in and rent for an apartment she wishes she didn’t need. All the while her insurance company is offering her a settlement that would barely pay to rebuild one story of a house, let alone a whole one.

Nine months later and still, so many have no closure. I asked Julie, whose home also flooded during Hurricane Irene, “In the face of all you’ve been through, is living here the responsible thing to do?” And she gave me the answer heard again and again.”It’s where I was born,” she says. “It’s where I was raised. It’s a community I love.”

Should people like Julie, and myself, be allowed to take such risk just because we love where we live? Julie and I both say yes, we should. But we don’t shirk the extra responsibility that entails. We are willing to buy the flood insurance and secure our homes. And we are hellbent on doing what we can, in ways big and small, to make our environment safer and more resilient when the next storm comes along.

I’m suddenly crazy about not using supermarket grocery bags. I’m recycling every possible scrap of everything. I know these small acts are not going to hold back the next destructive wave but they are something. They are a step toward being more respectfully of the earth, a step I plan to build upon in ways large and small.

We as residents and taxpayers and members of a community also need to address climate change from a design and development standpoint. Homes need to be built higher. Coastal protections need to be put in place. And all of us need to be part of that discussion. People are never going to stop wanting to live by the water. What I want to find out is: How can we do that safely and responsibly?

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