11/27: A New Normal?

Four weeks.  It’s been four weeks since the tides swelled, the water rushed in, and the lights went out.  Still, the lingering question is, Will we ever get back to normal?

All things considered, we are extremely blessed.  Our electricity came back after twelve days of darkness, and we have hot water.  We are still without heat but just received word that a new boiler will be installed mid-week.  The demolition and clean up in the basement continues.

I call Howard Beach, Queens home.  I have done so my entire life.  The “we” to whom I refer is my husband, John, my mother, Elaine, and my brother, Bill.  My childhood home lies on an often picturesque portion of Jamaica Bay, directly across from the main strip of retail stores.  My mother still lives there.  On the evening of Monday, October 29th, I stayed at my mom’s, expecting a small amount of basement flooding, perhaps, one to two feet, like we experienced during Hurricane Irene.  Nothing prepared us for what Sandy’s wrath would bring.

With more than two hours until high tide, the water broached our backyard.  With each passing minute, the water came higher and higher.  The sandbags we stacked next to our side doors did nothing to keep the water from coming into our basement.  Bill entered the lowest level of the home to see if anything could be done.  Realizing we would have to wait out the storm, he came upstairs and closed the basement door.  The lights went out.  We cut the circuit breakers and turned off the gas, fearing an electrical fire.  Transformers on Cross Bay Boulevard exploded.  We could not see the fences in the yard, and no one dared speak of the possibility of water entering the first floor of the house.

As the tide continued to rise, I periodically checked in with my husband.  To be close to his place of employment, John hunkered down in our apartment in the “new” side of Howard Beach.  It was a section of the neighborhood no one expected to flood.  A little after 8 p.m., he asked me the time of high tide.  With about half an hour to go, two feet of water surrounded our first floor apartment, and he expected it to invade our home shortly.  I began to panic.  We hung up, agreeing to touch base in thirty minutes.

I could not contact John at the appointed time, and my emotions escalated from panic to near hysteria.  The reality was worse than John was letting on.  Water had already come into the apartment, and he had to make a quick decision.  The apartment still had power, and he feared the water would rise to the level of the power outlets.  Within five minutes, he pulled on his rain gear and left into a sea of waist high water.  Luckily, our neighbor was home, and he found shelter on the second floor of her home.  After what felt like hours, John called me.  He was safe!

Truly, that is all that matters.  Our family survived the storm.  The aftermath has not been easy.  We have our good days and our bad days.  John and I lost our apartment but are grateful to be able to stay at my mom’s house.  The apartment has since been gutted.  We estimate about two feet of water entered our home.  Our furniture, electronics, and a good amount of our clothes were destroyed.  In total, our family lost four cars to the flood.  These can be replaced.

What is most difficult to face are the lost memories – the pictures, weddings cards, and treasured collectibles that are no longer.  My mother’s basement had more than six feet of water in it.  That basement was home to five generations of memories.  The piano on which I learned to play had floated across the room and was atop a freezer that had tipped in the chaos.  My great grandfather’s Social Security card was discovered but was too saturated to be saved.  My grandmother’s baptismal certificate and grandfather’s college books are strewn across the driveway as are my mother’s original lesson plans from when she taught.  My college notebooks and papers are, now, a watered down mess.

However, I feel guilty bemoaning our losses and inconveniences.  Many in our neighborhood are still without power.  Our pastor received electricity over the weekend, but he is still using the gas jets in the rectory to provide him with heat.  Many of our friends not just lost their basements but the first floors of their homes.  Some have lost their houses entirely.  Piles of rubble lay where homes, victims of fire, once stood.  Again, we are lucky.

Some of the stores on Cross Bay Boulevard happily display signs that they are open for business.  A welcome indication that aspects of the life we once knew may be returning.  Banners have been printed and hung with the text, “Howard Beach United.”  We are truly a community bonded by tragedy and hope.  But, as the recovery moves on, we will have to wait and see what our new definition of “normal” will be.