It has been two years since Hurricane Sandy. I wrote this during and after the storm to remember the details of those horrible hours. Just editing it now has made me relive the moments. I hope it never happens again.
HURRICANE SANDY AND FIFTEEN PEOPLE, Keyport NJ
Sunday October 28, 2012 Keyport, NJ
We live on First Street at Keyport, New Jersey. We have a beautiful water view. Having a house right by the water is like living in vacation mode year around, but has its drawbacks. Especially today. We are preparing our house for Hurricane Sandy.
The local channels and the weather channels on TV are already out. We are catching the weather report from New York broadcasts. It is sounding scarier as the hours come closer to the landfall. The governors of New York and Connecticut keep giving news conferences. This did not happen in any storm we had before, even with Irene. Some people I talk to are taking this storm lightly. They might not be taking it so likely when they require the services of a Roofing Company in Grand Rapids Michigan to repair your home after the storms. They are considering Sandy as another fluff story that the news media exaggerates just to get people excited. They are tired of hearing the “cry wolf.” We took our precautions during Irene and it was for nothing, but that time we felt that it gave us a piece of mind. So, we decide to do the same again. Little did we know that we were going to have to invest in some serious water damage restoration so thank goodness we made this decision to move our belongings so we didn’t have to pay for their replacement too.
We move everything below seven-feet height in the garage to the second floor of the house. We raise the refrigerator with cinder blocks we carried from the firehouse next door. We lower our kayak to the garage floor and tie it to the workbench in case the flood waters would come gushing in and take our kayak away. We are thinking that we may use the kayak to escape the house if it starts to get flooded. This is probably over-thinking, but you never know. It is good to be over cautious. McDonagh’s Pub manager, Kenny, was kind enough to offer us the use of their parking lot during the hurricane. Their parking lot is on higher ground with no trees around. We move our cars there before noon. They will be safe there. We fill bags with sand from the beach across our house. The storm is going to displace all the sand on the beach and dump them on our yard anyway. So, we do not feel guilty of getting sand from the beach. We place the sand bags in front of our garage door. The garage door is lower in height compared to the front door and it faces a large parking lot at the back. There is an underground creek passing underneath the parking lot. Any serious storm causes water to rise at the back and fill half the parking lot. We are expecting the parking lot to be full of water with the next tide. Now we are ready! It will be a long wait until the real danger comes. We all need how much damage can be caused by flooding but it is good to know that there are professional services that will be able to help in the aftermath of events like this. An example of a water damage restoration service can be found at https://www.servicemasteroflakeshore.com. The work they carry out is of massive importance to people who suffer in the event of flooding.
The firehouse next door is busy as volunteer first responders are at work round the clock. Already, there are places flooded during the evening tide, the night before the hurricane hit. Fire alarms keep blaring next door. All the firefighters are on the move. They are getting soaked from the floods and the rain.
Monday October 29, 2012
Early tide shows what the real danger could be. The water reaches our lawn, we are on a higher ground. We have fifteen steps from the lawn to our main house door. First there are seven steps, a landing, and another eight steps before the water can reach to our front door. The wind is picking up. There is not much flooding at the back. We still have electricity and gas. So, I bake Turkish borek with feta cheese, spinach and parsley. I bake potato samosas. I bake sweet potato muffins with walnuts. This is the best way to keep myself calm. Al is rearranging furniture. He is moving everything in from outside.
It is now afternoon. Long before the expected monstrous tide, the water is already at our sixth step. The waves are crushing everywhere. The water is steadily rising. The sliding door opening to our porch is groaning with the wind. Al had to put a metal bar to stop the bulging of our porch sliding door, only the other day we were talking about having a new sliding door fitted as I’d seen one on www.discoverair.co.uk that I’d liked, I’m so glad we didn’t have it done yet.
I gave firefighters all the muffins and the borek I baked. They say they have only spaghetti, cooked by one of the spouses of the firefighters. We are watching them constantly going to rescue people or put out fire.
We wait a while and the wind picks up more speed. Soon, the high tide comes with the landfall of Sandy. It comes in high waves and wind. The water is churning. The waves are crushing on our 12th step. At the back, two boats and a sailboat are floating in the parking lot. The neighbors, Linda and Bob, across from us have a 1957 blue Chevy in their garage. Their garage is right next to the water. We watch the garage collapse and Chevy takes off to float back and forth in front of our house for the rest of the evening. They announced early in the day that the electricity will be shut down at 8 pm. We have a power outage around 6 pm. We cannot see much. It is dark. I prepare dinner and we eat with candle light. I look up to see the lights are on at the fire house. We laugh for thinking that the early power outage was it! We turn the lights on just to enjoy it for another hour. The rain and the mist spread with the wind are making it impossible to figure out what is going on. It is 8:15 pm and lights go out everywhere. The only lights we see are the fire trucks’ lights. We watch the firefighters rescue Linda and Bob by boat. Two firefighters are in the water. The waves are hitting their faces. The driveway of the firehouse between my garden and the firehouse becomes a wild river. The water is pouring towards the street behind us and is flooding everything – including Drew’s Bayshore Bistro. The parking lot behind us is totally under water. The water now reaches our garage door. The garage door is moaning as the waves hit it. The sand bags are not high enough. We start to take water in from the sides of the garage door pouring over the sandbags.
The firehouse starts to get flooded. The firefighters all jump in their cars and drive away. They evacuate the firehouse. Our stomachs sink as they leave. Now, there are no more lights. Everything is dark. It looks eerie. We lose the confidence we have by having the firefighters just next door. We can only make up the light-colored objects floating in the water – all rushing into the parking lot behind us.
About thirty minutes later, water starts to recede. We see that the objects are not rushing into the parking lot behind us anymore. A few minutes later, we see the objects are floating back. The blue Chevy keeps going back and forth in front of our house and finally perfectly parks itself right in front of our house as if it just drove there.
I cannot sleep until three in the morning.
Tuesday October 30, 2012
I sleep much longer than I normally do. It is almost eight in the morning. Daylight is here. Sun is trying to break through the clouds. No rain. No wind. The water is calm. All the birds are out. We had seen them two days before the storm, burrowing themselves into the soil on the high ground behind us. We put on our boots and walk outside. The people of Keyport are walking around like sleep walkers. We are like little ants sticking our heads out to see what has happened while the world is watching us from a looking glass, – actually from the camera of a news’ helicopter flying above our heads. Some of us wave. No one totally comprehends what has happened. The damage is intense. The magnitude of this nature’s force is visible through the debris, through the collapsed buildings, and through the mementos still floating in the pools of water.
The scenery is unbelievable. The blue Chevy is beaten up pretty badly – no windows left. All the twelve townhouses we are part of are intact with minor damages. Some of them have railings damaged; some of them have no soil left around their front foundation. Some of them have missing siding. The basements of the houses across us were full of filthy water. The big trailer for the Keyport boat launch has been lifted off by the waves and now is halfway up Broad Street landed across the Uptown Bar. The cement docks are piled up next to it. The mosaic panels that the Art Society of Keyport had created with the Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar are destroyed. Keyport Steam Dock Museum is standing on a couple of pillars with everything inside washed away. The first floor of the Bayside Grill restaurant is just gobbled up by the water and the debris. The second floor sits above it and acts as if nothing happened.
The firefighters and the police are cordoning-off the area to keep people out. There is a gas leak! You can hear the hissing sound. The nightmare may not be over yet. That is the first thing comes to my mind. I start imagining a big explosion and our houses will be blown up as if we did not get enough from the hurricane. That is probably how the Breezy Point people thought when their houses were burned down during the hurricane.
They evacuate the first eight townhouses. I invite them all to our house. Some of them are not home anyway. They left before or during the hurricane.
After we walk around downtown Keyport, we go back to our house. The parking lot is covered with debris from everywhere. There is an old workbench with a vice still attached. There are blankets, throws, pictures, household items. We see a pile of sex videos. I am sure no one will come and claim those with an open face. They are destroyed anyway. There is a sailboat lying on its side in the middle of the parking lot. I am glad it did not hit our house. There are two small boats by our garages. I see all my garden boxes floated up to the higher area of the parking lot. We carry the pieces home. I am not sure I can use them again. How bad was the flood water? Did it have sewage? I am sure the water was full of chemicals. I need to get the soil tested at Rutgers University. My mind is churning. How about our compost bin? I am sure all the flood water seeped into the bin. I check around to see how high the water was at the back of the house. You could see the water line with the debris it left behind on the fence. It is pretty high. There is also a watermark on the garage door. It might have been the waves. If there is any next time, we will be piling our sand bags much higher.
The gas leakage is fixed. I am watching people coming around to take pictures of the Chevy. It becomes an instant celebrity. All broken but perfectly parked to enjoy the scenery. I see people hugging each other. People who used to pass by with a little “hello” are talking to one another. People are offering help. There is not a single face that is smiling. All you can read on the faces is shock and disbelief. There are people trying to salvage the museum items that are totally destroyed. I still feel that we are not much different than ants. We are trying to build back our nests. We all hid during the storm. Now, we are out checking what happened. Everybody is sharing their story.
People are driving from the other towns to see the water damage. I cannot even think about going to Union Beach to see the damage. We keep hearing it was the worst hit in our area.
The day passes quickly and it is getting dark again. Another night of no electricity is on the way. We are ready with head-mounted lights, candles, and flash lights.
Then, my son calls. He says his friend’s family’s house in Union Beach has a bad hit from the hurricane. They had to be rescued to a shelter. Now, they have no place to stay. My son is asking if it is okay if they stay at our house. We say “yes, of course.” In about half-an-hour, they all walk in. This is the first time we are meeting the entire family. Father, mother, father’s sister, mother’s sister, four girls (ages 19, 18, 15, and 9), a cat and a dog. They look exhausted. I cannot imagine how they feel. They said they went to the house to see if it was livable. Their first floor was completely soaked. Apparently, the foundation is not safe. I feel for them. I try to imagine how it feels like to lose your own home. The father actually built the house. He is a constructor. He did an amazing job. And because of his great work, his house has the least damage in his neighborhood. But, it was still unlivable.
Now, we are twelve people in the house. We start running our little emergency shelter. Three of my son’s friends join us for many meals. I cook up a storm, three meals a day. Sometimes, we have fifteen people in the house sleeping everywhere. I use every single pillow, every single sheet, blanket, comforter in the house. We are all sharing rooms. Every flat area was turned into a bed. We never know who we are going to find in each room. Sometimes I wake up with a cat sitting on my head. Unfortunately the dog bites, so he is in the garage covered with blankets. He is freezing, but we cannot let him run around the house and bite people.
Considering running a small emergency shelter: we opt for using paper plates and plastic utensils. The only things we hand wash are coffee mugs, pots, and pans. I go fast through our refrigerator cooking everything I find in the freezer. My delicious frozen New Jersey corn and green beans get into the pans right away before they melt. I feel bad that I spent all those hours blanching them for winter. I make a big batch of corn soup with nothing but chicken stock and salt. I am a bit afraid to use a lot of seasoning since I am not sure what kind of food our guests like. So, I stick to typical American food which I do not usually cook. I cook the green beans the Turkish way, sautéed with onions and tomato sauce. In the mornings, I make pancakes with apples, scrambled eggs with cheese and ham, and bread with butter. I try to include soup most of the time. For the first few days, it was great to cook for 12 to 14 people. However, I realize, many times not everyone is around and the food starts to get wasted. So, I end up making large batches and let everyone dig in whenever they are hungry. We start to use the porch as a refrigerator since it is cold enough to protect the food from spoiling. Some nights, somehow, we get pizzas from a restaurant which has a generator.
Every night we ration our flash lights and lanterns so the dwellers on every floor have enough lights to walk around and use the bathroom. The mother and the sisters clean the house every morning using the brooms and the mops. I really like them. They are wonderful people. They are doing everything to help.
Wednesday October 31, 2012
I invite my friend, Lois, for breakfast. We are about thirteen people at the table. After breakfast, she offers her help to drive them to Union Beach. We pile up in two cars. The family had already seen the damage the day before. But, as we are driving, I see that what happened has started to hit them. There are road blocks set up by the police and the National Guard. They check everyone’s identification to prevent looting. Only the residents are allowed. So, we get the clearance on both cars. We take a side road. Our guests see their cars all damaged. The water line is almost close to the top of the car. Everything in the car is soaked with dirty flood waters. The family shared three cars. One was in the repair shop, the other two are flooded. The mother starts crying. I am holding my tears. We hardly find our way to come close to their house. The debris is everywhere. Their friend’s house is sitting in the middle of the swampy creek. I guess wind lifted it off its foundation and the flood waters dragged it down the stream. There are boats piled up everywhere. Houses are totally destroyed. Some of them look like a giant shark bit off the half of the house. The railings by the water are ripped off by the waves. It is a war zone. Now, I see how a person feels in a disaster zone. You feel totally sad and helpless. We watch people walk and drive around with sad faces. No one is smiling. There is wet heavy stench in the air.
We stay for an hour at their house. We see one neighbor putting a bistro table and two chairs in the middle of a pile as if we are at an open air French café. He sits there with a cup of coffee. He is joking around. He is trying to get some humor out of this. We drive back home. Some of the family members stay behind to see what they can salvage. They can get in the house and walk around. But, it looks like it may be knocked down since the foundation is damaged.
Al picks up the family from Union Beach before dark, before the night curfew. Everybody gathers around the dinner table. Candles are flickering. My son and his friend are driving around to look for a store that is open for cigarettes and water. Almost all stores and gas stations are closed. Still, they come back with three cases of water. That is all they could find. And somehow, somewhere at a store they find a case of Halloween cupcakes. Bora snatches the cupcakes given that it would be great treat to a nine-year-old who is confused about what is happening. She needs to feel Halloween. We all sit around the table and celebrate Halloween. Al and I listen to the chatter of the family. They are talking about how the nine-year-old got her head stuck in a doll house when she was only two years old. The nine-year-old says “I wanted to be part of the doll house.” They are a happy family. Just watching the father’s smile while the girls are talking is delightful.
Then, Al plays guitar with his soft, beautiful voice. He continues to play guitar every night. It soothes everyone. We all drift into a peaceful dark night. No television, no texting, no phone calls. We are back to the old times where we used to interact without any electronic device.
The Next Several Days
The next several days are blurry. We are still in the fight and flight mode. Many of us are suffering from the trauma. I cannot sleep. I jump out of the bed thinking we are under water. I clean mud in my dream. I see giant waves in my dream.
During the day, Al is driving them around to the places they need to go. They are talking to FEMA and their insurance agency to figure out what will happen. Since they don’t have a car, Al drops one of the girls at the restaurant she is working at. There is a 7 PM curfew. So, everyone runs back home around that time. It is already dark anyway. They all eat what I cook. I am not sure my food is fitting to their tastes even I change my entire cooking style to match theirs. We also have a large supply of Halloween candy that did not go to the hands of the little kids. There is no trick or treat this year. We have only a couple of kids show up at our house.
We start to run out of supplies and food. Some neighbors bring us some supplies that help a lot. At this time, you can go to a couple of grocery stores dimly lit with generators. I use my head-mounted light to find what I need. The entire produce section is getting emptied by workers since all produce were destroyed and I find one romaine lettuce still usable. There is nothing in the dairy section. The next day, Costco opens its doors and we get whatever we could find in paper goods supplies and food. Costco is not even checking the membership cards. There are hundreds of people waiting in line to buy generators. There is not much anything that is fresh or frozen at Costco. But, we find milk and eggs. I realize it will be very costly to feed 12 to 14 people every day. My friend suggests we go to the Keyport Central School – which has been turned into an emergency shelter – and get supplies there. I take one of the sisters with me so she can help. I talk to my friend, Tom Gallo, the head of emergency shelter, and explain that I am running a small version at home and I need supplies. So, he assigns two wonderful ladies to help us. They fill up my car. Now, I feel better that I have my own little emergency supply for everybody.
We get the electricity on Friday, five days after the storm. My fight and flight mode takes a different turn. The minute I feel the luxury of electricity – now that we will have hot water and heat, I become relaxed. That day I get terrible bronchitis. I must have been holding onto the illness until the electricity is turned on. The weather is changing every day. One day is sunny and warm and the next day is cold with freezing rain. It even snowed one day.
I am doing my best to comfort my adopted family. I do not want to make them feel they are not wanted at our house. I cannot even imagine how they feel staying at a strangers’ house with no home to go to.
Saturday Nov 10, 2012/Sunday Nov 11, 2012
Now we have electricity for a couple of days. We all take nice long, hot showers. Al and I go grocery shopping. Coming back, we stop at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro to see if we can help. He has already many volunteers (his devoted customers) and workers to strip the dry wall down from seven feet height. We see the chairs and table bottoms are covered in muck. We offer to power wash them. I ask my extended family to help carry the chairs. We all carry them across the street, through the parking lot to our garage. Al sets up the power wash. It is a beautiful sunny day. Our neighbors join us.
While washing the chairs, we see that there is some activity at the firehouse next door. Many cars are pulled into the parking lot of the firehouse. Parents and kids are carrying boxes, containers, and supplies. One of the parents comes over. He tells us that they are from Hazlet and Freehold and are here to give Keyport hurricane victims free food and a hot-cooked lunch. Well, it is now almost two weeks since the hurricane hit. But, we welcome the food and the sentiment. It is less cooking duty for me. At lunch time, we walk to the firehouse and eat and talk to other volunteers helping Drew. As we are walking back to finish washing the chairs, we see a semi-truck driving down Broad street. The truck hits the low hanging wires. It is like fireworks. Three transformers blow up and heavy smoke shoots up in the air. Two electric poles fall. One totally destroys a car. We are watching in disbelief and are screaming to stop the driver. This cannot be happening again. We will again be eating in candle light. How romantic! Apparently, the truck is carrying supplies arranged by the group who are feeding us at the fire house. Their intentions are great. We appreciate it. But, we do not appreciate our lights go off again.
We have been hearing that there are utility workers from all around the country working with the New Jersey teams to restore power to more than 1.5 million customers. And we see the fruits of it. In less than thirty minutes, several trucks with New Hampshire plates pull up. The utility workers are from Chicago. It is amazing that they restore the power before Sunday noon in less than twenty-four hours. We continue our power wash. We finish all of Drew’s chairs and table bottoms. One of our neighbors offer to store Drew’s chairs and tables in their garage. Al power washes their garage before moving the chairs. They have some flood water in the garage like us.
Monday November 12, 2012
Our guests are leaving today. Even we tell them not to clean the house, they clean all floors. They feel that is at least they can do for us. We say goodbyes to each other.
After everyone is gone, all gets quiet. I am lost. I don’t know what to do. My emergency shelter is closed. Al is at work. I am all alone. That is when my sleepless nights and nightmares start. I don’t know how long they will last. I feel down. I feel lost. I feel I lost a battle and I cannot recover from it.
It has been more than two weeks, and there is not a single day passes that I do not think about the night of the hurricane, about possibility of losing everything. There are reminders everywhere I go in New Jersey. It is enough to just look outside and see the rubble everywhere. And the wet smell is still lingering in the air.
Max, the Keyport resident swan, glides on the gray blue waters. There is not a ripple at the sea. It is quiet everywhere. No more storm at least for a while.
Now, I need to recover.