Hurricane Sandy: Survival is a collaborative art
by Eddie Gamarra
October 29th, 2012. The storm raged. Evacuation warnings had been issued. Like many Staten Islanders, my parents had been told to evacuate, just like when Hurricane Irene hit 10 months prior. Like many, they had not been affected by Irene. Despite the new warnings, they chose to stay.
My two younger brothers and I grew up in a tall, narrow duplex, three stories high but with five floors. It was situated two blocks away from the beach in a town called New Dorp. The house was close enough to take a quick stroll to the shore, but not so close that we felt part of the beach community of one story wooden cottages occupied by new immigrants and blue collar old-timers. Our house had never been flooded, never suffered any storm damage. So, when the government rezoned post-Irene, my parents were told they had to get flood insurance. They were the kind of people who thought that flood insurance was basically a legitimized scam. Many did.
My two brothers also live in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry. Throughout the days leading up to the 29th, we called and emailed to check in on our parents. Bless her heart, my mother’s biggest worry was whether or not kids would be able to celebrate Halloween. We told them they should consider leaving. “Where would we go,” she asked. They didn’t want to bother anyone or stay in a motel. It’ll blow over they thought. It always had.
Then contact ceased. Phone lines went dead. No Internet. 2,789 miles away, Los Angeles news reports warned of record damage and fatalities along Sandy’s warpath.
As my dad tells it, he was upstairs in their bedroom on the fourth floor watching TV with my mom. The wind had really picked up. He pulled open the curtains to look outside and was shocked to discover that our street looked like a river. The waters had risen so high that my parents’ minivan was submerged. He quickly went downstairs. When he got to the living room on the second floor, he looked down the stairs to our family room on the ground level. He saw the water ebbing dangerously close to spilling over to the living room. His office furniture underwater, a mini-fridge bobbed about as the waters crept slowly upward, step by step.
When we were finally able to get in touch two days later, we learned that our parents had been trapped in their house. Recently purchased food now rotted in the refrigerator. While water did flow, my parents avoided drinking or bathing because the sewage lines had backed up. Autumn temperatures dipped down into the mid-40s. There was no heat, no power, no transportation.
The fire department had gone through the neighborhood, in a boat, going door-to-door checking in on residents who needed rescue. My mother had problems walking in recent years and the firemen realized that it would be near impossible to get her out of the house into their vessel. Even if they could, she and my dad would still have had to walk a mile in the storm to get to the shelter in the highlands. They had no choice but to stay behind.
As soon as the waters subsided, the monumental relief efforts began. The first flight I was able to get was on November 2nd. JFK was finally reopened. Thankfully Verizon worked flawlessly when I got home. (I learned that this provider is often used by public service departments like cops and firefighters because of their portable mobile antennas. Thanks Verizon!) With phone and Internet service, I was able to coordinate an interstate relief effort through Facebook, which itself was the primary source of local news. My neighbors learned more about the damage to their neighborhood through social media than they did from other sources since much of NYC had been devastated. Locals from unscathed areas came down to the beach communities on the Island’s devastated Eastern Shore to hand out food, clothes, blankets and water.
There had been a massive controversy as to whether or not the city was going to allow the famed NY Marathon to continue. Ultimately the powers that be wisely and correctly decided to cancel the event, thus allowing police to focus on helping the city’s citizens. Marathoners from around the country and around the world suddenly appeared, like fluorescent angels; vibrant patches of colorful athletic wear amidst the dry dull brown silt that covered everything six feet high and under.
Over the course of the four days I was there, we were blessed to have the help of many family members and friends, as well as a number of my industry colleagues and clients. Writer/director Craig Macneill and his wife Ana Asensio, an actress, donned headlamps and thick gloves and dug through our crawl space, which had been packed to the ceiling with the accumulated detritus of five lives and 35 years. Ana, who speaks Spanish, charmed my weary father in his native tongue providing humor and comfort throughout this trying time. Old Vassar College friends Cory Lippiello and Cat Fitzgerald, who have also worked in the arts, quickly broke down our ground level rooms like it was the closing night of a complete stage show. My old colleague Shawn Simon and her friend Justin Manask even drove down from Massachusetts with an SUV full of bleach, towels, drinking water and a wet vac. As if straight out of the cheesiest tear jerker dramedy, we had assembled a rag tag bunch of folks who had come together with a single purpose: to help those in need.
Working in shifts we were able to clear out over 400 garbage bags of damaged books, art, records, heirlooms, tchotchkes, memorabilia, and junk. Furniture, appliances, and machinery were dumped on the sidewalk. Throughout the neighborhood, people’s lives – their pasts, presents and futures – were stacked ten feet deep, all to be whisked away by the fast acting Sanitation Department.
Fire engines and military vehicles patrolled the streets around the clock. Helicopters constantly hovered above. Down the block, FEMA had set up a massive camp in the nearby soccer fields, the fields where my dad has spent every weekend for 33 years supervising our parish’s soccer club. My hometown had become a federal disaster area. But despite the shock and horrors brought upon my home and my neighborhood by Sandy’s wrath, my blood family, my Vassar family and my Hollywood family came together to save the day.
It’s been a year, and my father has just recently been able to finish repairs to the ground level of our house. I could tell many more stories, many tragic and infuriating, some hopeful. But for this brief moment, on the anniversary of this terrible event, let me use this forum to share my thanks to everyone who helped my family deal with the trauma of this natural disaster. I am filled with gratitude that I have a boss and co-workers who knew I had to take the time off to go home and help out. They covered for me. They donated. They eased my burden. They understood. In addition to my extended family and my old friends, let me also specifically thank Craig and Ana, Cory and Cat, Shawn and Justin for being there, in the thick of the mud and heartbreak. Without you all, I honestly don’t know what we would have done. You brought warmth and sustenance. You helped us smile and laugh despite the gas masks. With you by our side, we got through it. You reminded us that together we survive.Tags: Disaster relief, Eddie Gamarra, Entertainment industry, Family, Hollywood, Hollywood making a difference, Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island, Vassar College, Verizon