There might never have been an East End Beacon if there hadn’t been a Superstorm Sandy.
Now, I’m not grateful for the storm by any stretch of the imagination. Last year, on October 27, I was doing what I always do with my weekends: trying to get as close to the water as possible.
I was in downtown Riverhead when I first noticed the water rising. It was still two full days before the hurricane hit, but the Peconic River was already spilling over the edge of the boardwalk behind Main Street.
The air was thick and heavy, and a bunch of parents had all parked in the parking lot and they were marching, with their kids, up to Main Street for the Gloria de Dios parade. The moms and dads and their kids were singing and dancing on Main Street, praying for the Second Coming, as the water rose and rose.
My best friend texted me a photograph of the water across the street from his house in New Suffolk. It was already higher than any high tide we’d seen, and we’ve seen a heck of a lot of high tides. I guess most of us who live out here have.
I started praying too.
I texted my editor with a plea for information on anyone in charge who may be giving out sandbags. He didn’t know of any such thing. We dropped everything and began getting ready for the worst. We turned off the electric panel. We put the piano on wood blocks. We moved everything we thought we couldn’t live without up to the second floor.
Then we did the same thing at our family’s houses and at neighbors’ houses. By Sunday night, we were furiously calculating the tide charts, trying to figure out when the worst would be over. Every neighborhood that anyone in my family lived in was at risk, and we don’t really live in what could be considered posh waterfront neighborhoods.
There was a wetland in my sister’s backyard. We’d always called it a swamp. Now it was a threat. The trailer park where I lived was just up from the edge of the Peconic River. We packed up everything and headed to my mom’s house on a hill in Mattituck.
The worst part of Sandy was the way the tide and the center of the storm conspired against us. It was bad enough to have the perfect storm make a right turn toward Long Island, but it was much worse to have it swirling over our heads at dead high tide on the night of a full moon. And it was even worse to know that the water would rise and fall at least three times before the storm passed through, the worst kind of Chinese water torture imaginable.
Somewhere in the midst of getting ready, I read that the force of the water hitting Long Island was expected to be greater than the force of the water from Hurricane Katrina. I begged my best friend to evacuate. He refused. New Suffolk is one of the many places out here that becomes an island during big storms, and once you decide to stay, you’re in it for the long haul. New Suffolkers don’t evacuate, and there’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.
Then I went in to work Monday morning, where a bunch of grouchy editors were sitting around a table, eating Doritos and complaining that they might have to sleep in the office because they don’t live anywhere near where they work. I filed my stories and hurried up the hill to my family.
I received brief dispatches from down in New Suffolk all that long horrible night: iPhone videos of water crashing against the houses on the east side of First Street. Confirmations that the water on the main roads in and out was several feet deep. Water that never went down between the high tides. A tale of wandering around in the moonlight on a flooded street, watching the electrical wires sizzle high on their poles.
And one final dispatch before his phone went dead:
“Where are you?”
“Watching the water creep up the legs of my piano.”
My family was singing in the next room. My sister was playing a guitar and all the kids were singing and I curled up on the couch and imagined the worst. I thought about Katrina and foot-pounds, wave action and house footings. Floating, battering-ram, man-killing pianos. I thought about the tsunami in Japan, where the water just quietly came in and pushed houses off their footings and down to the sea.
My mother tried to reassure me. My friend built his own house and he’d built it strong enough to withstand anything, she said. I just glared and cried and tried to fall asleep until it was all over.
Every hour or so, I’d wake up, look out at the eerie full moon peeking through the clouds, and turn on my cell phone to see if there was any news. The website of the paper I was working for had long ago gone down in the storm. There was some information on Twitter. But no one could tell me if anyone I cared about was still alive.
About 3 a.m. I made a decision. I’d wait until the tide was halfway down from its last high and venture down to New Suffolk. I’d park my car near Tim Kelly’s driveway and walk across Tom Wickham’s flooded farm fields in that creepy moonlight, swimming if I had to, to find what I could find. I fell asleep in the closest thing to peace I’d found that day. I finally had a plan. By the time I woke an hour later, my best friend was standing next to the couch.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The tide went down.”
It was time to clean up. There were trees to be chopped up and boilers to move, basements to be pumped out and floors to be mopped, carpets to be ripped up and insurance companies to call, foundations to repair and missing decks to rebuild. But first we walked around in a daze, gawking at everything, taking pictures and sending them to the newspaper.
I went in to work for a meeting. The editors had finished their Doritos and they were eating pizza. The place smelled like a teenage boy’s bedroom. I showed one editor my picture of the piano on the wood blocks. He wasn’t really interested. Maybe he was busy bragging on Twitter about how he’d slept under the conference room table. I just don’t know. No one seemed too concerned about the houses that had been full of water. No one cared, they told me, about a few soaked summer houses down by the bay.
But that’s the funny thing about coastal flooding: unless your house has been directly hit by pounding waves, once the water goes down there’s little evidence from the street of what’s happened inside. You can’t see warped floorboards, fried wiring or moldy insulation from the street.
Someone told me they wanted me to rewrite a story about some irrelevant something. I think it was about an election. I refused. I had real work to do at home, and heck, I’d already been sending them dispatches since 4 a.m. Months later, I was tipped off that my job was put on probation at that moment, but no one bothered to tell me so at the time. I took the rest of the week off and went to work cleaning up. It was time to find a new career. Life is too short to work for people who don’t understand what’s important.
We’ve been cleaning up ever since, and we’re still not done. The mold is still growing in the walls, houses need to be raised, and there are some projects that we can’t even look at because they still bring back the memory of that night and that storm. But we’re all still alive, and it would have been a lot worse if we lived just a little west of here and I’m grateful for that every morning I wake up alive. And so are a lot of other people around here. But with that gratefulness comes guilt that we are hurting when so many people are hurting more than us.
Two weeks after the storm, I ran into a reader who asked me which storm I thought had been worse: Sandy or Irene. I was blown away by the question. I don’t even remember the storm surge from Irene. I guess the two could seem comparable if you lived in a subdivision on the morainal headlands and the worst you had to deal with was losing your internet access and having to wait on line for gas for a couple days.
I told him I thought there were now two Long Islands: the Long Island of people who were barely affected by Sandy, and the Long Island of people who have lost so much that they are still in too much shock to talk about it. There’s no way those two Long Islands can understand one another, and that’s just the way it is.
The folks from the federal government’s Project Hope, which has been leading support groups in Flanders, Southampton and on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation since the storm, say that’s a pretty common thing they’ve encountered while talking to victims of Sandy.
“What we’re really finding is that people who were not severely affected are saying ‘You’re still talking about Sandy? Let it go,'” said Dr. Karen Martin, who is the coordinator for Project Hope’s crisis counseling in Suffolk County. “But the less attention the media gives to this, the less likely people are to get help.”
“Certainly, with the anniversary, people are going to be experiencing event reactions and old feelings from that day,” she said. “It’s ok to feel that way. It’s expected. We can’t take away that legitimate feeling, but we can help with developing resiliency and coping skills.”
Project Hope counselors meet one-on-one with people who’ve been affected by the storm at locations that are convenient for the victims. They also have a direct link to agencies that provide support for rebuilding homes, and they help children normalize their newfound fears of wind and rain.
“What’s been most wonderful is, you’re standing in someone’s living room with them, and you say, ‘wow, you were really devastated’ and people who need help will say ‘go two doors down. They need more help than me,'” she said. “The selflessness has been amazing.”
Project Hope’s Suffolk County office can be reached at 631.471.7242, ext. 1010. The meetings in Flanders are held at the David Crohan Community Center on Flanders Road each Wednesday at 6 p.m. The other meetings on the South Fork are in transition, but more information should be available soon at Project Hope’s office. Dr. Martin is also urging residents who still need help to dial 211, the official Suffolk County number for post-storm resources.
There are still plenty of people working out here to help us better prepare for the next storm, and there are still a lot of resources here for people who need to rebuild. There are a lot of worries too: flood insurance rates are skyrocketing, houses near the water are sitting on the market for longer than usual, and there are still plenty of houses that have not yet been rebuilt.
The governor’s office just began sending out surveyors to the houses of people who received the initial round of FEMA aid. They’ve opened an office of the new New York Rising program in Patchogue, where they’re giving out all kinds of information on how to better rebuild, and money to help you get there. They’re at 475 East Main Street, Suite 202, Patchogue, NY 11772. You can also reach them by calling 631.438.0740.
The state is also offering buy-outs to people with significantly damaged houses who live in floodplains. The New York Smart Buyout Program can give you more information. Their Riverhead office number is 631.740.9067.
The Peconic Institute at the Southampton Campus of Stony Brook University is hosting a series of free FEMA-certified natural disaster training workshops for the public beginning Nov. 7 (see separate story).
The jury isn’t out on climate change, no matter what they tell you on the news. It is here and the sea is rising and we need to build back higher, stronger and safer if we all want to continue to live on eastern Long Island. That’s not a political issue. It’s a human issue. Perhaps some day we will need to leave. It might not happen in my lifetime, but it could happen in my son’s lifetime.
I want the Beacon to be able to help us cope with the transition ahead, and to help us be there for one another if we face something like Sandy again. I’m not quite sure yet how that will happen, but it’s a commitment I’d like to make to you.
This is just the beginning. Make no mistake. Sandy still lives here, and we have only just begun to learn the lessons of that horrible October day.