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A Rockaway survivor looks at a “new normal”


As we hit the one month mark after Hurricane Sandy, Mike Byrne, the Federal Coordinating Officer here in New York and my boss, reflected on the work that has been done and the work that remains.  In his blog, he made a note that we would be sharing stories and updates, and I wanted to share this story from Rita M., a disaster survivor in Rockaway, Queens:

A lot of us in Rockaway evacuated during Hurricane Irene last year. And then nothing happened. So of course when we heard about Sandy, we stayed home.

Never again. We learned that each storm is different – with a different outcome.

At about 6 p.m., before the storm, I walked down to the beach with my three children and saw how huge the waves were – water was pouring over the boardwalk into the streets, and it wasn’t even high tide yet. We passed  a man on the street who told us that he’s lived here over 50 years and he’s never seen anything like that before.

I think I slept about 20 minutes that whole night. Our power went out about 7:30, when the water reached about three feet, it must have started getting into the electronics of the cars, because car alarms were going off and trunks and windows were opening on the street. The sky was lit up pink from fires nearby. Later, I learned that homes were burning a few blocks away. One neighbor stood outside his home with a flashlight waving people inside who were fleeing their burning houses. When they got in his house, he realized he didn’t know any of them! Some people were coming down the block with kayaks and boogie boards.

The next morning we had over five feet of water in our home. It filled up the basement, which was our son’s bedroom. All his books, clothes, furniture and our water heater and boiler were destroyed, covered in mud and sewage. When I opened our front door, there was debris and sand everywhere.

I automatically started shoveling, trying to create a path to get out.  I had to do something; my husband has pulmonary fibrosis and should not over exert himself. I could just have easily curled myself up into a ball and said, “I’m not going to deal with this.”  I chose to keep shoveling. When my kids saw me shoveling, they figured it was the thing to do, and joined in.

We really didn’t know what to do. There’s a lot of information about preparing for a storm, but not so much about what to do after.* Two days later, we started running out of food and information started trickling in – what churches and temples were open, where we could go for food. We contacted our insurance agent and we contacted FEMA.

We weren’t the only ones in our family affected three of my siblings were displaced. If just one of us got hit, we would have been able to help, but we were all going through the same thing. My husband and four children went to my sister’s house in Brooklyn where we stayed in her converted garage – all of us in one room with air mattresses.

With the exception of one family (who was going to move anyway), we all plan on returning to our homes in Rockaway. Our insurance only covers wind damage, not flooding. We received about $2,000 from FEMA for temporary housing and $7,700 to replace our water heater and boiler and other damaged property. We got our FEMA money the same day our insurance company denied us. Now we have to fax FEMA our insurance information to see if we’re eligible for other assistance.** We still have to clean out everything and replace a lot of sheetrock – and our cars.

Almost every day it seems we’re at Lowe’s or Home Depot. My husband and I are looking into ways of building back to protect ourselves if this happens again.

My kids ask when things will go back to normal. I tell them I’m not sure if it will go back. We’ll definitely have a new outlook – we’ll be taking any future storm threats a lot more seriously. And we’re no longer going to keep so much stuff in the basement. We’re not going to be able to drive the kids everywhere like we used to for a while. I think it’s going to be a long time before things are normal again. We’ll just have a new normal.


disaster survivors in front of their house

CAPTION: Coney Island, N.Y., Dec. 4, 2012 -- Rita and her family pose in front of the house they are restoring after major storm damage.

* For reference, this page on has information on how to recover after a disaster.  There is also great information there on making a family communication plan and building an emergency kit.

** FEMA encourages all survivors, both with or without insurance, to get into the assistance pipeline by registering with FEMA as soon as possible. While FEMA cannot duplicate benefits, those affected may be eligible for some types of assistance while waiting for an insurance settlement.


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12/07/2012 - 12:30

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