In the belly of the beast       

(this is the first installment in a series of stories about Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath of the storm for one family in Rockaway.)

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The morning high tide, the prelude of what was to come,  came down the street to the levels of Irene last year.  It is a pretty intense sight to see your street, Beach 119th Street, a river flowing into a deeper river on Newport Ave.  However like last years’ storm the water wasn’t enough to come up my driveway to my basement door.  This morning high tide was good for taking pictures but just like every other “storm of the century” nothing for seasoned Rockawayites to worry about.  The only one who wanted to leave was Trish, and that was only because she just got off work at the hospital at eight in the morning and wanted to go visit her boyfriend Theo in Jersey.  Nobody wanted her to go for various reasons but she can be stubborn.  We convinced her to at least wait an hour for the high tide to recede before heading out.  In that time period though, a few things happened to convince her to stay.  First our neighbors BMW got stuck in the river on Newport Ave.  It got flooded from underneath and lost all power.  We couldn’t get it out of park so it was stuck in the middle of intersection.  Trish was beginning to realize that a long road trip was not wise.  So when the tide subsided  we drove around looking at the ocean at various points to see some damage and then found higher ground to leave her car.  When we got back home preparations were under way for the evening Tiki Party in my backyard.  We even inquired if the band Indaclulture could come to make the night’s Hurricane party more memorable and festive.

                In retrospect it would be fair to ask why?  Why after so many warnings from governors and mayors to mandatory evacuate would anyone stay?  Why would 90% of Rockaway residents stay?  The answer is in the saying, “the boy who cried wolf.”  Every year we are warned of the “storm of the century” and every year it turns out to be greatly exaggerated.  Especially last year, when many residents fled to upstate New York only to be sent into the wrath of Hurricane Irene.  It’s not like we totally ignored the warnings.  We made sure we had flash lights, even though spare batteries were impossible to find.  We purchased  plenty of beer and ice and threw  three cases of water into the wagon.  More beer.  Rita, Mikey and I even went down to the beach and filled over forty sand bags which we strategically placed around anywhere the water could attack.  We were way more prepared for any storm that we had ever seen in Rockaway.  We even raised some stuff up in the garage and basement a few feet, not really thinking that it was necessary.

                As the afternoon turned toward evening, Brian and Trish came down to the Tiki Bar for a pre Hurricane cordial.  I joined them as we cleaned up the bar and had a drink.  I was wondering where Mike, Liz and Kath were so I took a walk up front and saw Mikey and Liz tying a tarp over the opening that led to under the porch and the basement door.  I noticed that there was an inch of water in the street already.   Nothing to worry about, except that the next high tide wasn’t due for over four hours.  The wind started gusting and my neighbor Kenny pointed out that my aluminum siding was beginning to bubble with the wind.  I went to get the ladder, some long screws, and a screw gun in the garage.  Ryan Ford showed up to help but we realized that we had no chance as pieces of siding started to tear off threatening to knock me off the ladder or worse slice me.  If the siding didn’t throw me the winds might.  The problem with siding is that it is all interconnected so when one piece pulls out, the pieces below it and above it start to go to a lesser degree until it is there turn etc.   We decided to treat it like a wildfire and secure the siding 20ft. down the driveway by cutting it free of the siding that had no hope of surviving.  Our plan worked to save the last quarter, but the damage was already done.

                That siding distraction, which only lasted 20 minutes,  ended with a terrible realization.  Turning our attention to the street , reality hit us like a cold ocean wave.  The water had risen to heights like we have never seen in Rockaway and we were still over three hours away from high tide.  The party was over.

                I raced back to get Brian and Trish from the Tiki and into the house.  An all hands on deck was called to evacuate everything we could get from the basement.   Me, Rita, Brian, Trish, Mike, Liz and Kathleen were going to have to defend the house from whatever Sandy was going to throw our way.  We frantically picked up all of Mikey and Liz’s belongings we could carry and bring them to higher ground on the first floor living room floor, racing against the water which had begun to breach the sandbag defense and was rising on the floor under the porch toward the basement door.  The seven of us were like an assembly line carrying anything we could lift. The water was rising at an unbelievable pace, climbing the basement door, entering through the back walls and windows. We would never get everything out so whatever was of value that we couldn’t carry we put as high as we could get it. Water was getting in by the inch.  We had to kill the power in the basement but unfortunately our circuit breaker boxes are not that clearly marked.  We flicked the breakers one by one attempting to identify which ones were for the basement.  Another problem is that the way the house was originally wired some breakers controlled some sockets in the basement and some upstairs.  We shut as many as we could and got flashlights.  The water could now be seen rising above the window level of the basement door.  The assembly line was over when the lock on the door gave way by the weight and force of the ocean and a four foot wave of water crashed through and roared through the apartment.  It was now time to for us to evacuate upstairs. 

For a brief minute we were in shock at what had happened.  It all came so suddenly and we were in reactionary mode during it all that we never had time to think of what was happening.  It was beginning to dawn on us that Rockaway would not be the same for a long time.  We were more amazed at what was happening then scared, more excited than worried.  The implications for the future never crossed my mind, it was all about the present and the next two, two and a half hours.  That was the time that Cubby told us the tide would peak.  There wasn’t much we could do until then, or so we thought.  We went outside to see how things looked in the street.  We watched as a white car on the corner sunk further and further into the ocean.  Debris floated past with the ocean.  We were no longer on a peninsula; we were actually on a sand bar which was out in the ocean far from the new shoreline somewhere in Howard Beach and Flatbush.  A 20 foot piece of boardwalk, totally intact, complete with railing on both sides floated by like a raft heading from the ocean to the bayside.  Again more amazement.  We were resigned that the basement was ruined by now and felt pretty confident that the first floor would be spared.  We felt that it was just a matter of wait for the tide to turn and then theoretically the danger was over.  As we watched from the front porch the electric wires hanging over the street started popping.  Then sizzling, then smoking and sometimes flaming.  We still had power at this point amazingly.  Do you smell smoke?

Yes I smell smoke and its coming from our basement.  Just like on the wires above the street our electrical box was starting to crack snapple and pop.  Smoke was coming out of the wires.  We stood on the highest step we could without touching the ocean that was already four feet deep in our basement.  Brian, the fireman son, extended himself over the water careful not to be in the water and flipped the main breaker killing the power in the box.  In retrospect had we not stayed home and weathered the storm our house would have been added to the long list of houses burned to the ground in Rockaway and Breezy.   Speaking of which, it was apparent now that houses were burning all over Rockaway.  From the front porch you could see the orange glow in the sky somewhere uptown.  From the back deck you could see the orange glow in the sky somewhere downtown toward the boulevard.  A bunch of us went up to Kathleen and Trish’s rooms to see if we could determine where the fires were from that high vantage point.  Depth perception was difficult, the fires seemed like they were a block or two away.   In fact embers were landing in our back and front yards.  We were worried that some might be coming from Tom Ford’s house, they were coming from that direction.  Phones were still working and Facebook was flooded with rumors. “ St Frances de Sales was burnt to the ground,”  one rumor said.  (not true)  “The Harbor Light restaurant was burnt to the ground.”  (Unfortunately true)  “The Wharf was washed out to sea.”  (barely, but heavily damaged).

 I didn’t believe rumors in times like these.  Besides who could know such things unless you lived across the street from the fire.  Our street, the water was now close to six feet deep.  Any cars that remained had disappeared either under the ocean, or floated away to other blocks.  Some landed on top of other cars.

We felt relatively safe, unless the house collapsed or caught on fire we had a long way to go to the third floor of the house.  If we had to evacuate we would have to swim for it though.  One fear we had in the light of the surrounding fires was the natural gas.  With the basement now filled with over seven feet of water would any of the lines be compromised?  We never shut them down, one to the dryer, one to the oven in the basement, one to the hot water heater.  A decision was made to shut off the gas coming into the house.  The valve though was 6 inches off the ground in the corner of the basement.  Someone would have to swim under water with a wrench and shut the valve.  Once again Brian rose to the occasion and volunteered.  He stripped down naked and dove under.  On his first attempt he was able to adjust the wrench to the proper fitting before he had to come up for air.  On the second attempt he nailed it and he was off to the showers.

The threat now was coming from two directions.  On the front deck the ocean had risen to the seventh and top step.  One more foot and it would be knocking on our front door.  In the stairs leading to the basement the water had risen to within two bricks of entering our first floor hallway, and destroying our new apartment.  Kathleen and I were monitoring its progress every second.  We were almost at the high tide time that Cubby had given us but how accurate was that?  Was it exactly or give or take a half hour depending on where you are?  And what about a big wave?  We were technically no longer on land.  We were actually in the ocean.  We were in a house built on a sand bar.  And the sand bar was too deep to stand.

It was time for a precautionary evacuation to the second floor.  We rallied the troops again, moving the most precious items up to the second floor in case the water again attacked.  All the while Kath and I were monitoring the progress of the water up the basement brick wall and the front steps.   Could it be true.  It appears the water is lower in the basement.  I can see the third brick now.  We ran to check the front steps.  Yes, it was receding.  We had weathered the storm!  There was catastrophic damage all over Rockaway and the north east coast, but for our little house, we were safe.  I didn’t even begin to think about how bad things were.  Just how happy we were that it wasn’t going to get any worse.  Tomorrow and for months ahead I had no idea what was in store for us and the community but that was not on my mind at all.  We all cracked a beer, and said a prayer thanking God for keeping us safe.  Then we played a board game while the fires raged and the ocean receded outside and inside our doors. 

We drank and played for hours and one by one we went to sleep.  We decided that one person though had to stay awake at all times to make sure the flying embers of the raging neighborhood fires didn’t set our house on fire.  End of day one?   No.  About three in the morning, Liz was hearing growling sounds coming from the sink bathtub and toilet bowl.   Mikey didn’t believe her, more out of exhaustion and not having to deal with anything anymore.   Then Liz noticed that water was spurting out of the radiator.  Mikey jumped up and woke up Brian, Kath, and Trish.  They tried closing the valves on the radiators, but it wasn’t working.  Trish covered  her valve with towels and screamed at the water to stop.   To no avail.  They didn’t want to wake me up, but they realized that there was no other choice.  Especially when Liz yelled at them that, “its your father’s house you better wake him.   I had the same reaction as Mikey.  I didn’t really want to hear about it.  I had enough.  Let the house fall down was my attitude.  But I begrudgedly got up.  What could be causing this I pondered half asleep and more than half drunk.  We had this problem in the past, when we were filling the oil heater with water and forgot to shut the water.  We went downstairs to the basement to investigate with flashlight in hand.  The water was down to three feet deep.  That was good.  We stood on the stairs above the water and shined the flashlight toward the oil burner.  Sure enough the valve was open.  How could this have happened?  Brian again volunteered to walk through the water and shut the valve.  He found the answer floating on top of the water.  Mikey’s mattress had been floating near the ceiling during the flood and as the water went down the mattress was lowered onto the valve and pushed it down.  Whew.  Enough already.   When we wake up tomorrow, we will face reality.