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Sandy survivors sorrowful, thankful on anniversary

October 29, 2013
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A year after Superstorm Sandy deluged coastal communities with seawater, many people still can't believe they're not back in their homes. Others are thankful for small victories in the long, arduous recovery process.

Devastated residents on Tuesday recalled the help they got from strangers in the days and months after Sandy. Some have mostly recovered from the storm, while others are still homeless or living without heat. In one touching moment, mothers sang "Happy birthday" to their 1-year-old babies who were rescued from darkened hospitals at Sandy's peak.

Sandy came ashore on Oct. 29, 2012, sending floodwaters pouring across the densely populated barrier islands of Long Island and the Jersey shore. In New York City, the storm surge hit nearly 14 feet, swamping the city's subway and commuter rail tunnels and knocking out power to the southern third of Manhattan.

The storm was blamed for at least 182 deaths in the U.S. — including 68 in New York and 71 in New Jersey — and property damage estimated at $65 billion.

Here is a look at anniversary observances through a series of vignettes detailing how people are commemorating the unprecedented storm:

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Myra Camacho's home in the Rockaways still has no electricity.

She spent nearly two months after Sandy trying to survive in her frigid, powerless home with her boyfriend, Walter Negron.

"We wrapped ourselves in blankets. We ate out of the churches," Negron said.

They moved out after Camacho had a heart attack. She moved in with relatives. He's been staying elsewhere.

Workers restored the home's heating system and did some electrical work, but it wasn't enough to fix the building's ruined circuitry. Camacho had no flood insurance and can't work because of poor health. Negron lost his job at a restaurant because of the storm.

Their luck might be about to change. The couple spent Tuesday morning with an inspector from a nonprofit housing group, who told them he could help with the restoration. He estimated it would cost $15,000.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it. We're going to take care of it,'" Camacho said. "I don't know. We've heard things like this before. I'm hopeful."

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One year after Sandy, what Ellen Bednarz of Sayreville, N.J., remembered most was the kindness of the debris haulers who carted away the family's ruined possessions.

"I never saw more caring people," she said at an event to thank firefighters who used boats to rescue scores of people.

Before the storm hit, Bednarz and her family hastily moved their patio set, family room and office furniture to a storage unit and checked into a hotel. Only when they were allowed back to their split-level days later did they see the water had risen 14 feet — destroying everything, even the items the family had moved upstairs.

Bednarz is renting an apartment and waiting to close on a government home buyout.

"It's over," she said. "It's probably one of the worst years of my life, but it's behind me."

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When Sandy darkened much of the city, some New Yorkers were only hours old. Others weren't even born.

On Tuesday, babies filled a Manhattan hospital room to celebrate their first birthdays — and their survival.

Kenneth Hulett III weighed only 2 pounds when emergency medical workers rushed him out of the New York Hospital intensive care unit and down the stairs while hooked up to an oxygen tank. His mother, Emily Blatt, says her faith sustained her as she was evacuated on an orange sled.

That day, more than 40 babies were safety moved from the hospital to other facilities.

On Tuesday, their parents and hospital staff lighted candles atop cupcakes and sang, "Happy birthday, dear babies."

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Visiting a flood-damaged firehouse in Seaside Park, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday was a day to remember volunteers and first responders who risked their lives to save others. Christie, who stayed overnight at the governor's beach house in neighboring Island Beach State Park, said he woke up and was struck by "just how much different we all feel a year later."

"I want us to think of how much better things look today than they did a year ago and celebrate that," Christie said. "We also have to acknowledge that there's still thousands of people out of their homes."

New York Gov. Cuomo visited the National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan, which was temporarily shut down last year by flooding and power outages.

Cuomo recalled the "feeling of powerlessness" seeing the southern tip of Manhattan submerged in water. He also warned that extreme weather is "the new normal" but said the city and state is now better equipped to withstand it.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Staten Island, Coney Island and the Rockaways, where he thanked and chatted with workers.

"Most New Yorkers are I suspect are struggling with somber memories today, which is only natural," Bloomberg said. "A year ago we endured the worst natural disaster ever to strike our city."

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Aiman Youssef found out the other day that one of his neighbors has been living in his own Staten Island garage.

He says many people in his shorefront neighborhood are still displaced or living in partially restored homes, often without basic facilities.

"A lot of people have moved out of the area," Youssef said. "A lot of houses went into foreclosure."

Some homeowners are still reluctant to accept help, Youssef said, while others have been stymied by bureaucracy. He pointed to a bungalow across the street from his tent on Midland Avenue.

A woman is living there without heat despite a city program that was supposed to restore heat, electric and water service, he said.

"We were lower middle class," Youssef said. "Now we're poor."

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Sam Darata recalled how he and his son stayed in their house in Little Ferry, N.J., as floodwaters coursed down their block and prompted many neighbors to seek rescue by boat.

"In retrospect, I should have left," he said. "If I'd known there was going to be 3 feet of water in here, I'd have been gone."

Like many others in the town, Darata didn't carry flood insurance because it never seemed necessary. He said he received a $10,000 federal homeowners' grant about two months ago but has had to tap into his retirement savings to cover the additional costs of replacing a boiler, refrigerator and other appliances.

Like others, he expressed concern that authorities haven't announced specific plans for preventing future flooding.

"I would rather give up the money I got to help build something that's going to prevent this from happening again," he said.

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The lobby of the Wall Street Inn, a boutique hotel located in a 19th-century building in lower Manhattan, was lonely and empty. But manager Rachel Fogel said business is steady again despite initial fears that the hotel started by her grandfather might never come back.

The hotel was evacuated as the storm hit. The scene on South William Street the next day was discouraging, she said.

"It was dark. It was cold. It smelled like gasoline," Fogel said.

Weeks of work was needed on basement electrical and heating systems before the hotel reopened in December. Contractors were the first post-storm guests.

Now the regulars are back. One was a man who came back months later to retrieve dry cleaning he sent on the eve of Sandy.

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Associated Press reporters Wayne Parry in Seaside Park, N.J., David Porter in Little Ferry, N.J., Angela Delli Santi in Sayreville, N.J., Frank Eltman in Babylon, N.Y., and Verena Dobnik, Jonathan Lemire, David Caruso and Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.

 
 

 

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