My 4-year-old daughter only cried once as we tried to clean up the damage done by superstorm Sandy to our home on the New York City shore of Jamaica Bay.
She and I were going through our books, and hers, which were on the lowest shelves to make them accessible, were hard hit. When we came upon "Stick Man," one of her favorites -- the story of a father separated from his family and desperately trying to get back -- and we both saw that it was unsalvageable, I told her, "I'm going to have to throw this one out."
She had been energetic until then, enjoying the chance to help, I think, as she always does. But at that moment her little face went quiet, and the tears -- rare for her in any case -- came as they only do when it is serious: silently, her struggle against them visible in the stillness of everything but the streams running down her cheeks.
It was the moment I had dreaded, and one I had started to let myself think wouldn't happen.
To some extent we had been lucky. Yes, we had 3 feet of water in the first floor of our house, but there was no structural damage, and only minor external damage.
Yes, our fence was destroyed, the inside of our low-standing garage was totaled, but we knew just down the road in Breezy Point, in Rockaway Park, dozens of families had lost everything to the flooding and fire. Farther away, in parts of Staten Island, the story was much the same.
|And I'm thankful that, somehow, my daughter wasn't infected with the anxiety my wife and I felt.|
In those first days, we had even been naïve enough to think that we could do a thorough cleaning, and we'd be able to resume our lives once the power and gas were back, which couldn't be long.
Of course, we had evacuated before the storm hit. My wife and I had come back to the house alone first, fearful of what we would find.
I had spent the night of Oct. 29, 2012, the night the storm hit, at work editing the flood of stories about Sandy and anxiously watching the local TV coverage for any glimpse of places near our home, hoping to gauge how bad it would be.
When Hurricane Irene hit the year before, a reporter had been stationed at the ocean directly across the peninsula from our home, and seeing him there had been reassuring. We'd come through that one with barely any damage.
This time, despite no reports from our neighborhood, what I did see frightened me: streets I recognized under several feet of water, fires burning uncontrolled.
When we returned, two days later, the long slow drive down Cross Bay Boulevard through Howard Beach, then across the first long bridge to Broad Channel, was horrific. "War zone" is the cliché, but this was something different.
It was obvious that in just a few hours, nature -- in the form of the storm surge -- had reclaimed the whole area. Our human pretension to preeminence was shown up for the hubris it is.
But our neighborhood, perhaps because it was sheltered from the brunt of the storm surge's force by a large preserved wetland that juts out into the bay and is at one of the widest stretches of the Rockaway Peninsula, was not so badly hit.
And when we saw our little house still standing there, by itself surrounded on two sides by wetland and the bay on the third, we were both giddy with relief. Even seeing how high the water had been, how it had tossed our furniture around, hardly seemed a tragedy after what we'd seen driving out.
We spent two days cleaning, scrubbing, dragging junk out to the curb and, of course, comparing notes with neighbors who were doing the same.
Then we thought it was time to bring our little daughter home to the house she loves.