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  • Cynthia Ramnarace

Ten Years After Hurricane Sandy

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

In those first weeks after Hurricane Sandy, my community felt like a warzone.

National Guard officers circled the streets. There were lines everywhere: outside of churches that were providing meals and clothing, along the streets as people waited their turn at a phone charging station. Cars stood at 90-degree angles against chain link fences. Pieces of the boardwalk were found blocks away, as if a bomb had blown them across the parkway.

And it was so quiet. Those days after the storm had been abuzz with activity, with people rushing to tear apart their water-laden homes before the mold set in. Neighbors commiserated over the lost cars, lost Christmas decorations, lost photos, as the furniture and drywall and kids’ toys piled up on the curb. We lived out the phrase, “If you stop laughing, you start crying,” and cracked dark jokes as we feasted on barbecues made from the food that would otherwise spoil in our now useless refrigerators.

But over time, with heat and electricity both out of service, and nothing left to do but wait until the rebuilding could start, people who could leave the Rockaway peninsula did. And my community became eerily quiet. And cold. Cold in the physical sense, because it was now November and there was no heat, but also a chill to the soul. The very place I was supposed to feel safest in the world, my home, was now a place I feared.

I feared looters breaking in when I wasn’t there. When I was there, the house felt haunted by a life I could not live, the familiar sounds of a house brimming with life replaced by silence that made me jump at every breeze against a window screen. The fire detector would not stop beeping. Outside there was the crash and rumble of people rummaging through our trash mounds looking for anything worth salvaging.

This was the after-times of Hurricane Sandy, and it is what people who just experienced a natural disaster do not yet know. That as hard as it is to dismantle a life, waiting for it to resume is penultimately more difficult.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, my children were 5 and 8 years old. My husband and I were on firm but not solid financial ground, able to pay our bills but not save much. When Sandy hit, we had $1,000 in the bank and used that month’s mortgage payment to pay the contractor who did the demo work on our house. With no heat or electricity, we could not live in our house and so for a while we commuted three hours each way to my parents’ house in Connecticut, where the kids stayed while we tried to figure out how to move forward.

People were suddenly shoving cash in our hands, and it was unbearably awkward but desperately needed, so we said thank you with tears in our eyes. We looked for a place to rent but knew we couldn’t afford it, and so when a cousin offered to take us in, we cautiously agreed. They were a couple whose own children were grown, and here I was bringing in my parade of young, loud, rambunctious, and traumatized kids. I apologized when one child wet the bed, mortified but thankful for the grace our hosts showed us. I insisted on cooking breakfast and dinner often, snapped at the kids about leaving a mess anywhere or fighting with each other, and did all I could to fight the self-imposed worry of being a burden. As soon as the kids were asleep, usually around 8, my husband and I followed, exhausted by the stress of our new situation. We were scared and adrift, grateful but resentful, and overwhelmed by the realization that no one could save us but us.

Those were dark days, punctuated by small achievements. I started getting a lot of freelance writing assignments based on my first-hand experience as a Sandy victim. And I was glad for it. About six weeks in, power was restored and we were able to move back into what the kids called our “half a house.” The first floor had been destroyed, but the upstairs and bedrooms were as we had left them. They were so thrilled to be back in their own beds, to have their own space, their own stuff. I felt the same, even as my laundry area turned into a makeshift kitchen and we made due with a minifridge, crockpot, toaster and coffee maker. At dinnertime, I used empty cardboard boxes as makeshift tables, and we ate lots of chicken nuggets off of white paper plates. In the evenings, my husband and I drank red wine out of Styrofoam cups, which I was both grateful for and resentful of.

Two Kids Eat Dinner
Dinner time during Sandy times.

The next six months went pretty much like that. I put miniature fake Christmas trees in each kid’s room and let them decorate them however they liked, pretending that it was enough to replace the idyllic holidays I had always tried to create. The winter set in. My daughter got the flu; my son got a vomitous stomach bug. My husband threw his back out and could barely get out of bed. And then the microwave broke and I thought I’d break along with it. When I posted this latest insult on Facebook, within minutes a neighbor who had an unused microwave sitting in his garage was at my doorstep. It was one of many small graces that saved me.

Sandy’s devastation was a difficult reality to process, and it felt like a physical attack. My back ached, my shoulders hurt, I had regular headaches. The shock was followed by humility at the selfless generosity of so many. And gratitude, so much gratitude, but it was wrapped in a cold, wet newspaper of resentment and impatience. In those long months when all we could do was wait: for the insurance checks to come, for the contractor to show up, for the appliances to arrive – it was hard to feel fortunate.

How could this have happened, to me? I made a daily effort out of doing everything right: be considerate and thoughtful about others, be true to my word, do nothing that could bring bad karma to us. Isn’t that supposed to be the trick? Put good out to the universe, and you’ll get good back? Be faithful, and prayerful, and all will go well?

I felt I was living the life of Job, and just like Job, I didn’t deserve it. Was some supernatural force making bets on how I’d navigate my life being torpedoed by an impossible storm at the absolute worst time?

I felt the need to run, to move my body, to get the negative energy out. But the empty streets still felt unsafe for an early morning jog, and the gyms were months, maybe years, from reopening. I booked vacations we could not afford just because to stay in that half-a-house for any longer than needed felt like a prison sentence. Could I do one more day, another week? There were times I cried in the shower, truly unsure of the answer.

One night in my ongoing struggle to feed my family something other than hot dogs or chicken nuggets that could be cooked in a microwave, I bought a can of Spaghetti-O’s. Healthy? Absolutely not. But I could not boil pasta, which had been my kids’ primary food group in the before-times, and it seemed like the type of bland food kids might eat.

I nuked the thick pinkish-red pasta with the swirling O’s and miniature meatballs, took a look, and didn’t even taste it myself. It looked horrid, but I served it anyway. I mean, they were kids, and wasn’t this kids’ food? My children poked at it and refused to even try it. They wouldn’t even try it! And I lost it. I lost my mind. I snapped the bowls away. I yelled. One kid cried and offered to eat it if it would make me happy. The other one just cried. And I wanted to cry, but my rage had taken over.

How was this my life?

How could I be this bad a mother?

When would this end????

And that’s the hardest part of any life challenge: Having no firm grasp on when it will end, when you will emerge from the muck and get your cleansing rain, when the train that is your life will finally get back on the track you expected it to take. We think we control our stories, but then life throws a plot twist. Just to keep things interesting; just to keep us aware; just to keep us – improving?

Dare I say that my challenges have made me more resilient? Of course they have. Did they nearly destroy me at the time? Of course they did. Would I want to live through them again? Hell no. Am I who I am today because of them? Absolutely.

And who am I today? I’m someone who watches the devastation of a hurricane hit others and is catapulted back to the same time in my life, but who can see the full story now, and see what I endured, and feel the strength I gained from the experience. I’m less naïve, realizing that bad things happen to good people all the time and that the only hope we have for survival is keeping hope alive that you will survive.

I’m more generous with others now. I value my home more than ever. I’m forever bonded to the friends who lived through Sandy with us. I will never dare open another can of Spaghetti-O’s again, and fortunately I feel confident I will not have to.

There was the disaster, and there was the waiting, and there was the work of rebuilding, and then there was, not all at once like a rainbow or pot of gold but slowly over time, the homecoming. Slowly and not all at once, but eventually the home I had loved, then feared, then resented, became a place of comfort again. Ten years later, we’re still here. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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