6 years after Sandy, stories of the storm have new chapters
By JENNIFER PELTZ and WAYNE PARRY, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — A community where residents rallied with surfboards and kayaks to rescue neighbors from flood and fire. A survival story in a suburban garage. A religious statue that stood firm while its surroundings were leveled.
Superstorm Sandy roared into the nation’s most populous metropolitan area six years ago Monday. When it was all over, the meteorological monster created by a former hurricane merging with other weather systems had left at least 182 people dead from the Caribbean to the Northeast and a trail of tens of billions of dollars in damage.
It also left stories and images of resilience, resolve and humanity.
The Associated Press revisited some of those stories and explored the new chapters added since the storm.
FAITH IN EACH OTHER
Disaster struck in the dark of night in Belle Harbor, and residents knew they couldn’t wait for aid.
Superstorm Sandy’s surge swamped the community, which sits on New York City’s narrow Rockaway peninsula, and an electrical fire broke out and spread to over a dozen homes. There was no way for firetrucks to get to the area, where many people hadn’t heeded evacuation orders.
So Belle Harbor residents set out to rescue one another.
With power out and embers flying, people donned waders and used their kayaks and surfboards to ferry neighbors to higher ground through the cold, 4-foot (1.2-meter) floodwaters. Others formed a human chain to ensure no one was swept away.
After morning came, residents would learn some lives had been lost — two Belle Harbor residents drowned in basements — and homes, too.
But the community’s cohesion survived, says Tommy Woods, who used his surfboard and a kayak to rescue his family and over 25 neighbors as his own home burned. Woods, a fire lieutenant, was awarded a medal for his off-duty actions that night.
Despite Belle Harbor’s ordeal, he didn’t hesitate to rebuild and return.
“The people are wonderful,” he explains.
Six years later, most residents have stayed. Homes have been restored, and Sandy led to a new ferry service and a rebuilt boardwalk.
“If you took a stroll down there one day,” says resident Thomas Buell, one of the kayak rescuers, “you’d see people who have faith in each other and believe in each other. Believe in their community.”
‘WE HELPED A LOT OF PEOPLE’
George Kasimos lost no time rebuilding his Sandy-flooded house on a lagoon in Toms River, New Jersey. Using skills from his decades in real estate, he started work within a week and was nearly finished in four months.
Then the Federal Emergency Management Agency unveiled new flood insurance standards that deemed many more homes at risk, spiking insurance costs unless owners made major improvements — usually including elevating their houses. Kasimos recalls his annual flood insurance bill was set to rise from $1,000 to $30,000.
Stunned, he started researching building codes and insurance regulations late into the night.
Feeling he wasn’t getting accurate information, Kasimos started a Facebook group called Stop FEMA Now to share information on rebuilding rules. Soon, several hundred people were attending meetings of the group, which now counts 50,000 members in 30 states.
It caught the ear of federal officials, and FEMA eventually scaled back the new flood insurance rules. While many analysts feel the current system is unsustainable without major changes, they have proved politically difficult to implement.
“I feel like we helped a lot of people, but there are still so many ongoing issues with rebuilding and insurance, particularly in places that just got hit with hurricanes,” Kasimos says. “That’s a big reason why this group is still around.”
Kasimos, meanwhile, did raise his home — so high that he installed an elevator to give visitors’ knees a break from the steep staircases.
A SUPERSTORM AND A MARATHON
Lance Svendsen was ready to run his first marathon, in memory of an uncle who’d been a fan.
But with about 36 hours to go, the New York City Marathon was canceled as the city contended with the aftermath of the superstorm four days earlier.
Reluctant to give up on a race they were doing for charity, Svendsen and a friend said: “Let’s just run anyway.”
On Facebook, Svendsen invited other runners to join their make-your-own marathon — 26.2 miles’ worth of loops around Central Park — and bring donations for Sandy relief.
He figured a few dozen people might show up. Thousands did.
The finish line became a starting point for Svendsen, who has now woven running into his life and work as a youth ministry director at nondenominational Stanwich Church in Greenwich, Connecticut.
He’s president of the RunAnyway Foundation, which raises money through charity runs, and draws on his running stamina to carry sick children to hospitals from remote Guatemalan mountain villages. And after his first official marathon turned into horror in Boston in 2013 — he was a block away from the finish-line bombing that killed three people — he started writing a book about running’s role in his life. He aims to publish it in December.
“It all started because Hurricane Sandy happened and a marathon got canceled,” he says. “It was almost like God was saying, ‘Well, you’re going to keep doing this.'”
‘WE’LL TAKE CARE OF IT’
“The wrong place at the wrong time,” Linda Ripke says, “is absolutely where I was.”
The place was her Long Island garage. And the time was the instant a big oak tree toppled onto it during Sandy.
Ripke dashed into the garage after trying to help her husband secure items that scattered in her yard when a shed blew over.
Then she heard a crash, and the sound of the ceiling giving way. She knew she had to get out. But the fallen tree blocked the doorway.
The roof caved in around her.
Yet some unassuming objects — a ladder, a patio table with chairs stacked on top — held up the corner of the garage where Ripke was standing. She escaped injury.
“I was very spooked at first,” she recalls, “but by the next day, I felt very fortunate.”
These days, the Ripkes — she’s a hospital lab technician, he’s a postal worker — relax in the expanded living room they built in place of the garage at their home in Selden.
She keeps close track of approaching storms, empathizes with any news reports of trees falling on homes and emphasizes that other Long Islanders endured worse ordeals during Sandy.
And she says her frightening experience left her “more confident, in the sense that no matter what happens, we’ll take of what needs to be taken care of and move on.”
‘SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP’
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told Jim Keady to “sit down and shut up” about Sandy recovery. Four years later, Keady is still standing, and still talking.
Christie was speaking on a Belmar street on Sandy’s second anniversary when he criticized Keady, who was among protesters with signs decrying the pace of storm aid. Then Keady began talking over Christie’s speech. And the famously combative Republican governor told Keady to “sit down and shut up.”
“Because I had the truth on my side, and I wasn’t going to let him bully me, he blew a gasket,” said Keady, a Democrat who owns a tavern in Waretown.
Christie remains proud of his Sandy recovery work, and spokeswoman Megan Fielder said this week that “Mr. Keady is still today what he was that day in Belmar: a know-nothing.” She added that “voters have confirmed that” in Keady’s unsuccessful bids for the Asbury Park City Council, the state Assembly and Democratic nominations for Congress during the last five years.
Keady chalks up his election losses to the difficulty of running as a Democrat in a highly Republican area. He plans to remain involved in politics, although he says it now might involve party-building and helping other candidates get elected.
THE BREEZY POINT MADONNA
The striking scene of devastation and endurance became one of the most powerful images from Sandy: A statue of the Virgin Mary standing unscathed above the burned-out landscape of Breezy Point, a community where flooding wrecked about 220 homes and sparked a major electrical fire that destroyed another 130.
Two hundred miles (320 kilometers) away in suburban Baltimore, Regina Shannon Bodnar saw Associated Press photographer Frank Franklin II’s photo online and knew at once: The house that had been in her family since 1929 was gone.
During her Bronx childhood, Bodnar cherished summers among the sandy lanes of Breezy Point. It later became a weekend haven after she inherited the house in 2006 from an aunt, who had put the statue in the yard to express her devotion to the Virgin Mary.
As prayers, flowers, candles and notes gathered around the sculpture after Sandy, Bodnar recognized the statue had taken on a new significance. And when someone moved it across the street amid the cleanup, she decided it needed a safer home.
Today, the “Breezy Point Madonna” stands outside nearby St. Edmund Catholic Church.
“She’s a reflection of Breezy Point … how faith-filled it is, how family-oriented it is,” says Bodnar, who runs a Maryland hospice service and happens to be a certified barbecue judge.
Bodnar and her husband eventually rebuilt their house, but insurance costs and other factors led to a painful decision to sell this spring.
Friends asked whether Bodnar would take the statue. She didn’t even consider it.
“Breezy Point,” Bodnar says, “is where she belongs.”
Parry reported from Toms River and Belmar, New Jersey.