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?