Hail Atlantis: A Sandy Survivor’s Tale

On the morning of October 29, 2012, I get a phone call from Surfer Laura. She’s adamant, “Donna, Don’t leave!!” Like all my neighbors, she urges me to stick it out. The overly-hyped Hurricane Irene of the previous season had left Long Beach residents somewhat skeptical. Lots of drama and then…nothing. “Stay put, they won’t let you back in, they’ll close the parkways, there could be looting, you won’t be able to get home.” Laura’s warning is echoed across town. Civitas Ad Mare, situated between the mighty Atlantic and Reynold’s Channel, our precious City by the Sea is under siege. Who else but us, the water people of the Earth will stand strong to defend it? No sweat, I remind Laura, “I’m a Rockaway girl. We don’t back down.”

Meantime, from the higher ground of Long Island’s North Shore my beloved, Nick, begs me to leave. He’s offering shelter and sushi in a safer, drier harbor. “Please, get out of there,” he pleads. Elsewhere on TV Mayor Bloomberg of the Great Nanny State of New York City sternly cautions low-lying area residents of Staten Island, Brighton Beach and the Rockaways; Sandy will be nothing like Irene! Bleating news pundits peddle dire predictions; Sandy will be The Storm of the Century!!! Locally, our elected officials get busy too—texting, robo-calling, urging South Shore Nassau County residents to evacuate, “Everyone south of Sunrise Highway.” Shelter is available, mid-Island at the Nassau Coliseum. But we remember Katrina and the brutalized people of NOLA left stranded, starving, thirsty and sick in the Superdome. Fuck that.

Instead, we’re heading down to the beach, we’ll assemble on the boardwalk, our maritime Main Street. The heart of Long Beach—over one hundred years old— where, year round, runners, walkers, custom bikers and a multicultural hue of families come to play or promenade. Queer friendly, urban, safe for kids, down to earth, old school and deeply soothing. Young or old, everyone loves our boards. Volley ball tournaments, Polar Bear swims, crafts fairs, and endless fundraising events happen here. Sit for a while on a bench, each one dedicated with memorial plaques honoring ones we’ve lost. Watch surfers, paddlers and kayakers, and the big boats coming into New York Harbor across the horizon. Ride out a little over two miles west towards the Rockaways and you’ll see everyone you know.

But on this day, we’re here to witness, dressed against the damp chill in regional pride sweatshirts, windbreakers, checking the waves, snapping photos, socializing. We marvel as a few brave surf warriors hit the water. The erupting, blue-gray and white-water chaos is breathtaking. The word across our barrier island, from Atlantic Beach all the way to Point Lookout: Nobody is leaving.

Like my neighbors, I’m a water woman, a life-long coastal dweller. My body feels more at home in the water than on the land. If I were condemned to wander the inland regions, places like Woodstock, Iowa or even Santa Fe, I would feel displaced, empty and incomplete. I hate lakes. The longing for home would wither my soul. I’d be forever reaching for the coastline, like a lost limb. Searching for the salty smell, seaweed, the misty wind and the waves, I’d keep feeling for the sand. Lord Neptune, Mother Ocean, where all life begins and civilization ends. For a true child of the coastline, the ocean is Zion. Anyplace else feels alien and hostile, like some parched Babylonian captivity where the spirit dies, longing for the saline solution that keeps it alive, afloat, just above the abyss.

Aquaholic to the core, I have no fear of the sea. Our relationship is very clear—I know the ocean can kill me. I was born knowing this, conceived only a few feet away from the fierce waters of Rockaway Beach. As surfy teenagers, we stood our ground as hurricanes battered our fragile Queens Peninsula. Even as our parents evacuated, scrambling west for the safety of Brooklyn’s bowling alleys we’d already slipped out the door, down to the beach with our flashlights and rain gear, crawling up the lifeguard chair, enchanted, watching the storm, watching God.

Antediluvian Era. Preparations are in effect by 3pm; Clear the refrigerator, cook up anything that spoils—eggs, frozen foods, tofu. Toss the condiments, stuff the soymilk and yogurt into the cooler, make-shift menus for the days ahead. Love thy neighbor, throughout the day, people patrol the block, making sure everyone is okay—the elderly, the loners, people with kids and pets. Sharing resources and strategies, we’re hooting storm clichés across the boulevard. “Batten down the hatch”; “Hunker down”; and then a prayer, “Stay safe.” Only the families with babies are leaving, along with a few older couples and those who might need medical care. We promise to look out for them, watch their property, keep them posted.

Final Inventory, 5pm: Flashlights, tarps, radios, antiseptic wipes, and don’t forget your medications. Fill the sinks and bathtubs with water, every pot and pan. Drinking, flushing, washing, save some for the plants. Bottled water, club soda and juice packs. Locate first aid kits, set up lanterns and flashlights, make a final run for batteries—local supplies are dwindling. Implement strategies to block off a sloping driveway. By now the local sandbag supply is tapped, so bags of potting soil, tarps, mulch and wooden planks will have to do. Scurry to move the car up to the highest ground. At twelve feet above sea level, even four inches could prove crucial. Check again, chunky peanut butter, ammo, paper plates, towels, plastic utensils, canned food, and crackers. Halloween candy, steel baseball bats, knives and loaded shotgun standing ready at the door. Kids welcome, looters beware.

By 9pm I’m bored. Nothing is happening. Mandatory Evacuation has been in effect for hours, and I’m still waiting. Nick keeps calling. But now it’s too late to leave, the parkways are shut, I know I’m in it for keeps. Denial is not a river in Egypt, it’s a false reading of reality calculated to help us avoid facing a devastating truth. For years, ecologists and mystics have been warning that if we don’t take action, coastal regions are doomed, destined to be swallowed by the sea. And now, even the UN agrees, with 95% certainty—yes, we did this to ourselves. Maybe it’s too late, and this is the one that buries us for good. Full moon, high tide, the perfect storm? Nah, just the politicians covering their butts, media fear merchants filling empty airtime, business as usual.

Eleven PM, a random, restless glance out the window to see the bay rushing down the Boulevard, the invading Armies of Neptune, marching south towards the ocean, rolling, smashing barricades, snatching up flower pots, bicycles, trash cans, and eventually cars. The Stormtroopers of Death have taken out bulkheads, releasing dark, dirty waters—“category three” toxic sludge, oil, sewage, filthy water, noxious spill off from the Bayport Sewage Treatment Plant, we told you so, assholes. Sludge Stoppers Task Force: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sludge-Stoppers-Task-Force/194168340609881

Armagideon Time. Awed, frozen by the power and the glory, I watch as black waters of biblical proportion wash away the arrogance of human civilization. Nature is a power greater than me, greater than you. A holy and sacred gift entrusted to our care. In time, it will prove greater than the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Corporate Capitalism. Colonialism and Patriarchy. Cause and effect, bad karma, Wrath of God, probability theory, the Way of the Tao, it won’t matter if we destroy it, or it destroys us. Either way, the party’s over.

Apocalypsis; the Unveiling. To the critical imagination, Apocalypse is not a biblical myth but the economic, social and ecological collapse of advanced capitalism. The rapture is the rupture of a dead-end social order, as a toxic civilization slowly chokes on its own poison and crumbles into history. Bearing witness to this in real time is as thrilling as it is bone chilling. And we thought we had it all figured out. The Unveiling: the ripping away of warped ideologies—bad religion, false consciousness, empty promises and lies. Mysticism, ecology and radical politics flood my neurotransmitters as I watch my beloved 2000 Toyota Corolla disappear into the black. As noxious waters bury the headlights, the steadfast “Mystic Monte” takes a last death gasp, honking farewell as the battery dies, a mighty surf-mobile gives up the ghost.

I run to the cellar to shut down the electrical panel before the water gets any higher—fire hazard. Open the cellar door and water has now broken through to the garage, past my puny plywood barricade, rising up the steps, rushing over tumbling unfinished art projects, lawn furniture, tax returns, and gardening tools. The debris is bobbing in the water, floating high above the utility sink, four feet high and rising. The washer and dryer are trashed, less than a year old. I grab my purple rubber boots and snatch the broom—stretching my body as far as I can, avoiding contact with the electrified water I snap the circuits shut with the handle. Body-slamming through a lifetime of mid-Atlantic waves pays off, I’m flexible.

Frantic messages texted between neighbors—and the waters keep coming. Suddenly, the electricity goes out across the City, now there’s only blackness. Minutes later, the cell towers are out. Now we’re officially cut off, isolated, stranded and alone. Five feet of water means you can’t leave; the water is so high, the doors won’t open. The State owes you nothing now; you blew off Mandatory Evacuation. But the first responder Samaritans can’t help you anyway, nothing but a water vessel—canoe, kayak, raft, or surfboard can carry you through the poison water, past the downed electrical wires, the River Styx. You’ve got no place to go.

I grab every towel I own, then bed sheets, sweatshirts, t-shirts, blankets, curtains as the water gushes into the lower level of my tidy suburban split. It’s four steps up to the highest part of the house. That could buy time. Climb the steel ladder up to the attic? I can’t get the ladder down, jammed by the humidity. Just as well, remember Katrina? Attics became coffins. Scrambling against the water, I slip hard on my operated knee, a bionic solution to a genetic flaw. Skin against titanium, bleeding and throbbing, but I can still walk, that’s good. Water is seeping in past the doors, up through the floors, through the baseboards and I surrender.

Defeated, I locate a defrosting ice pack and crawl upstairs, holed up in the bedroom, with the radio on. It’s cold, I’m shivering and the temperature is dropping. I know I can die tonight. Swallowed up in a federal disaster people will blame on “God.” But God is not responsible for climate change that will irreversibly fuck up the coastal region—no, that’s on us. The inner voice starts barking orders, “Don’t be a baby! You can do this!” Ok, yes, it sucks but you’re not on a fifth rotation in some endless oil war or washing the blood off your kids in some war-torn, droned out city. People live through man-made hell every day. You’re here, in America, on Lawn Guyland, get a grip!

I’ve done everything possible. This is God’s problem now, not mine. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll die in the water. The wind and the water make waves, surf it deep, back to the spawning ground. God’s got my back. Dead or alive, I’m not alone or afraid. Wrapped up in faith, two sweatshirts, blankets and double paired socks, I elevate and ice my bleeding knee, swab it down with alcohol, administer a Reiki treatment, and fall into a sweet trance. Morning light, I wake up with a feeling of exquisite love, a euphoric calm like never before. I read the 23rd Psalm and go outside. The waters have receded, the moon has waned, the storm has passed, I see my neighbors, everyone’s fine. But life in my City by the Sea, will never be the same. Hail Atlantis, Way down below the ocean where I wanna be, she may be…

 

II

After the storm, we won’t be able to drink our water or use it to wash. To protect the water supply from further contamination, we’ll be advised not to flush our toilets. The power will be out indefinitely. I’ll be limping and my ribs will be bruised from the fall. A neighbor will call for help and at some point, I’ll be taken out on a stretcher, transported to the field hospital tent now set up in the soccer field. I’ll be wheezing too, I’m asthmatic and the air will be bad for along time. I’ve lost my car and half my house, I’m floating through a netherworld, my gardens are gone, everything is brown. Holding fast to an attitude of gratitude, I will thank my God I’m not stuck some place where life is like this all the time. I have a place to go with food and showers and clean sheets and good air.

In five days, Nick will finally get through the roadblocks on the Meadowbrook Parkway and airlift me up to the North Shore. I will live there for over six months. I will keep dropping things, and my mood swings will make Nick so nervous he’ll make me see a doctor. Like so many Sandy survivors, I will be evaluated for neurological damage, treated for upper respiratory disease and post-traumatic stress. Across the coastline, we will watch ourselves on TV. We will become the latest in disaster porn, survivors of a federal disaster, wiped out, grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Two weeks after the storm, the power in Long Beach will still be out, making clean up impossible. Mold will fester as winter sets in. The demand will be so great that local contractors will stop taking calls. With no heat or electricity I worry my pipes will burst. Friends will flock to my aid from the far corners of my life. My Godparents will drive in from the East End of Long Island with a contractor, a plumber, an electrician and a floor plan. Because I was baptized as an adult, they’re younger than I am, and very proactive. In the end I will be the only person in the history of humble Long Beach to import contractors from tony East Hampton. The Godparents will organize my rebuild and take me to the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden.

Folks I haven’t seen for decades will show up spontaneously bearing food, cartons, packing tape, tools and muscles. My college roommate from the goat farm will drive out from Manhattan to lend me his car. My former statistics professor from the Department of Sociology at SUNY Stony Brook will offer me use of her house and office. Wiccan pals from the deep woods will invite me to stay indefinitely, as will childhood buds from Florida, California, and Canada. Colleagues at a part time teaching job at Nassau Community College will pitch in to co-teach my class; the wonderful school will award small grants to its faculty hammered by Sandy. But across Long Island, student enrollment will drop off as families are displaced. Everyone will slowly go broke.

As we begin digging out of the mess, bonds between neighbors will blossom from a broken landscape. Up the street, Alan—surfer, skate punk, fisherman, art teacher and dad will run a generator on his front porch. Sandy will mark the fourth time he’s flooded out but he won’t be leaving. He’ll plan, instead, to build a half pipe skate ramp in his front yard for his sons. In the early days after Sandy, Alan’s place will be established as a community center, a lifeline of generosity. At night, after recharging our cell phones, neighbors will gather around Alan’s living room eating fresh caught tuna from a good catch he made ninety miles out. Playing music, harmonizing in the glow of scented candles, we’ll slip out after curfew for additional party provisions, in defiance of Martial Law. Alan’s home-spun sushi platter will offer a blessed respite from the MRE’s, military rations that will be brought in by the National Guard. Two looters will learn the meaning of neighborhood watch when they dare to target an empty house near the bay. Three shotguns will spontaneously assemble, as a white collar militia—an accountant, a music teacher and a travel agent—will run the culprits off the block.

As the horror of clean-up and rebuild drags on, eight members of the Long Beach Surfer’s Association will show up to help me carry out the heavy stuff, all the while working on their own homes. Cousins from Jersey, former students, rock & roll pals, sober buddies and nephews from Brooklyn will come to do the packing, lifting, and sorting. They’ll bring cartons, tape and a feast of bagels, tuna and white fish salad we’ll eat outside amidst the debris and muddy scenery. Mountains of suburban trash will build up, and everywhere, abandoned cars.

My house will be gutted down to the joists and rafters. When I look down, I won’t see any floor, just sand in an open crawl space. The electrical and heating systems will be replaced, all the floors, subfloors, doors, walls, appliances, and the furniture on the main level too. The insulation will be soaked, saturated with mold, oil, fecal matter and black water. My blood cell count will go off, I will feel dizzy whenever I’m inside the house. My “Sandy cough” will get worse and the FEMA doctor will ban me from the property until full mold remediation and mitigation are completed. Now allergic to my own house, I’ll exhaust my savings paying that out, waiting for the insurance money, like everyone else.

I will diligently file my claims within five days of the storm. A month later, the insurance adjuster will still be MIA—he won’t even return my calls. By the end of November, he’ll breeze in and out, clueless, dismissive and arrogant. I will be too weak to argue as cartons of bureaucratic paperwork and drama pile up. Sandy recovery will become a full time job. Sick, clinically depressed, malnourished and stressed out, some people will give up, eat their losses and crawl into a hole. Everything will look like shit for a long time. Across the region, we will still be fighting, paying off debts long after you’ve read this story.

From Staten Island to New Jersey, Sandy will have cost New York State upwards of thirty-three billion dollars. It will never be Katrina but poor people without insurance will remain undomiciled, fighting for a room in some crappy hotel room hundreds of miles from home. According to reports, some two hundred forty seven coastal communities across three states will be battered by the storm, in Long Beach, an estimated nine thousand five hundred homes will be damaged, eight hundred and sixty five so badly that the cost to repair them will exceed their appraised value. Only a handful of Long Beach’s working families will have the resources to comply with the mitigation requirements—raising their houses above the flood plain. The strings attached to offers of government grants and loans will choke us. Some residents will pledge undying loyalty to Long Beach; they swear they’ll never move. Others figure they’ve got one more storm in them. After that, they’re gone. A year later, one quarter of Long Beach’s permanent residents will not have returned.

“Tonite We Fight Again!” Every day, this becomes my battle cry, lyrics lifted from a Bullys’ song. The Bullys originated in Rockaway Beach, a punk band founded by guitarist Johnny Bully, aka FF John Heffernan, an American hero who went down with the second tower on 9-11. His brother, a former Marine, lives up the street here in Long Beach. Thoughts of Johnny and Rockaway will empower me in the face of daily bureaucratic stonewalling. There’s not enough money to pay out on all the claims. We do the math—they want us to go away. All their bullshit seems calculated to grind us down, burn us out and shut us up. It makes us kick back that much harder. Just another recipe for the pauperization of the American middle class and still, people will cry, convinced that God has abandoned them: What did we do to deserve this? Again, it will have nothing to do with God.

LBNY Surf City. We will lose our precious boardwalk, our beautiful public library, the movie theater and our crummy hospital. Schools will close, and churches too; congregations will fray and the recovery community will be dispersed across the region. For months to come, every time it rains, little kids will be terrified, Sandy is coming back to get me! Project Hope will offer therapy. We will still be cleaning up the mess when the daffodils begin to bloom—and miraculously, they will.

Occupy Sandy! Soon the carpetbaggers and real estate vulture capitalists will try to convince us our property is worthless. What will happen to our communities, as the rich gobble up the coastline, and the ocean becomes a class privilege because nobody else can afford skyrocketing insurance or the cost of mitigation? The “normal people” will be driven inland again, pushed out of their communities like the locals in Montauk and East Hampton. Or maybe climate change will trash the coastline till the government turns it into a national park—evacuated, unfit for permanent human habitation. Meantime, arty urban hipsters in skinny jeans will be spotted trawling Atlantis for edgy photos ops among the ruins.

Huddling together in our dirty jeans, bleach stained sweatshirts and muddy shoes we’ll continue to swap worst-case scenarios and remnants of hope. We’ll meet in parking lots, atMax’s Bialystok, the bagel store or at Gentle Brew, the anti-Starbucks coffee house that will become a hub of activism and community organizing. In cars and parking lots we’ll strategize, organize and support each other, sharing information and resources, we’ll consult pro bono lawyers provided by the Nassau County Bar Association and New York Legal Assistance Group. We’ll contact the media, hire public adjusters and petition politicians to fight the inevitable jacking of our flood insurance premiums, thank you, Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 usstormsmart.org/2013/01/07/what-flood-insurance-reform-means/. Fighting every day, it starts to resemble rape—first the perp (Sandy), then the system.

But then, angels will appear. As the year unfolds, citizens will emerge as heroes, advocates and community activists. We will experience a level of social integration and altruism that will remind us who we really are. In addition to everything else, The Long Beach Surfer’s Association (LBSA) will launch a “Pay it Forward Project” program of fundraisers, a series of community actions to help restore ailing local businesses, including the VFW Hall on the West End. The LBSA was co-founded by local son Danny Bobis in 2011, just before he died surfing the great waters of Indo. A straight-edged high school math teacher, martial artist, acclaimed hardcore drummer, son of a Yogini, married to a social worker, Danny was instrumental in organizing a surf team and club for the kids at Long Beach High School. His motto “One Life, Not Wasted” is posted on my refrigerator. In the year after Sandy, the LBSA will emerge as a DIY model of grassroots community action and service.

Locally and regionally, the surfing community will energize its ranks for the greater good. LBSA will work closely with NY/NJ Surf, (http://www.nynjsurf.com/), Patgonia, Sundown Surf, the Surfrider Foundation’s Central Long Island Chapter (www.centrali.surfrider.org) and Operation Splash (www.operationsplash.org). The water people will organize and coordinate massive cleanups for the beach, bay and canals. Upwards of ninety-five volunteers at a time will be assembled for cleanup, cleanout, and “gutting” missions in the City. Teams will be dispatched that will comb the neighborhoods door to door; they will assess damages and then appear with masks, shovels, brooms and any other tools required for each job.

The Long Beach Christmas Angel (www.longbeachchristmasangel.com) will offer financial assistance to local families paying for plumbing and contracting. A Barrier Island Alliance will also emerge as a unified organization of civic and social groups committed to restoration of Long Beach and surrounding communities. Heated public hearings will fill the great ballroom of the Allegria Hotel, as outraged citizens rail against predatory corporate and government machines.

The Red Cross will offer hot meals and water, and the Sikh community will save my day with edible (vegan) food, served out of a food truck in the Ice Arena parking lot. The Ice Arena will become the central command post for FEMA and several other government agencies, including HUD and the DMV. Because of the magnitude of need, donations will pour in, generating a giant flea market of used clothing, blankets, toiletries, cleaning supplies and trash bags. Every day will be spent getting supplies, then meeting with FEMA representatives, reviewing claims, submitting more paperwork, deciphering contradictory directives. Everyone will gain weight, Sandy belly, carbo-loading from the stress.

In what will begin as a healing project for her own sense of deep loss, my neighbor, Hofstra Professor Mary Anne Trasciatti, will conduct the “Sandy Oral History Project” at the Gentle Brew. Survivors will testify to what it was like, what they were doing the night the ocean met the bay and everything went dark. The Project interviews will be housed by Hofstra University, part of Long Island’s local history—like the storm of 1938. Facebook will become a de facto online advocacy clearinghouse, creating networks and grassroots coalitions. YouTube will host myriad videos, people will post photos, make documentaries and write songs—Joan Jett’s heartfelt “Make it Back.”

On a somber day, the whole town will come out to see the original boardwalk come down, saving chunks of wood they will cherish and transform into art. They’ll come out again on a better day to launch the rebuild of the boardwalk, bringing their kids, crying with joy and pride as the flags are raised and the ribbons cut. LBNY’s most famous native son, Billy Crystal, together with his friends Muhammad Ali, Steve Martin, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams will raise over a million dollars for our City. Crystal will also appear on TV, in ads inviting tourists to return. Joan Jett, rock star-surfer turned longtime Long Beach resident will be there too, inspiring and uplifting us in every way. The outpouring of goodness and generosity will be as relentless as the waters that almost washed us away. Someone will paint a welcoming sign for the returnees, “Strong Beach.” And I imagine it’s the same all over the coastline.

By April I will return home, my car will be replaced, and my health will be restored. My gardens too, will be replenished. Everything will come back except for the boxwoods. In July, I’ll accept the full time academic position of my dreams at the uniquely innovative Empire State College of the State University of New York. I’ll get to teach Community and Human Services and begin to develop courses in coastal community studies—an emerging concentration for a changing social landscape.

At dusk, on the one year anniversary of Sandy, the people of Long Beach will gather together at Kennedy Plaza. There will be a moment of silence and a lighting of floating lanterns. We’ll stand strong for all the ones who haven’t made it back and give thanks for the ones who have. With the last board installed and inscribed, our boardwalk will be rebuilt and I’ll be ready to roll on my 1947 JC Higgins vintage cruiser. We’ll keep fighting, dreaming of the day we’re made whole again, watching, waiting for our City by the Sea to return. Our Atlantis, rising up from the ocean, as pretty as she ever was.

 

Dedicated to the beloved memory of Rev. James Jeffrey.

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