My guy Pat Fenton from 17th street with an outstanding essay on Hurricane Sandy.
I live right next to a wide canal in Massapequa, Long Island. Just a few feet from it.
On maps it’s called the Massapequa River. It makes a short turn around a wide bend and flows into the Great South Bay, which is just around the corner from me. It’s south of Merrick road along with a string of beach towns that run for miles down the Old Montauk Highway.
The storm grabbed me by the neck and totally destroyed the first floor of the high ranch I own. Massive destruction everywhere. My daughter and my grand son live there. Five feet of water in the streets, cars floating everywhere with lights flashing, boats thrown around on lawns like kid’s toys. Everything is gone, and now the first floor has been stripped down to the bare studs by a contractor. Every stove, washer refrigerator, beds, boiler, furniture gone.
Over three feet of water came rushing in from both sides of the house, front and back and turned over the refrigerator and every piece of furniture. If we hadn’t evacuated hastily the night before we could have died there. After a midnight check of the bulk head outside my door I saw the water starting to slowly pour over it. It gave me an awful feeling and I knew right away that we were in trouble. I walked up the block to the corner and I watched the water coming up from the sewers and starting to come more and more down our block, Neptune Place. It was like an eerie scene from a movie. I got my wife and daughter, who were in their pajamas moving, and told them we have to leave tonight.
I called the Best Western. They had two rooms left for the night and they would hold them for us.
The neighborhood looks like a war zone at night now, convoys of Army helicopters flying low over the canal, darkness everywhere, a Military Police truck moving through the street. For 18 nights we were without gas, electricity, heat. We tried staying on the second floor for three nights, reading by candle light, but it got so cold even with four blankets, we had to leave again.
And in the day time, FEMA workers would come to our doors offering blankets, water, and boxes of some sort of instant hot meal as we try to figure out the next move. And I’m moved by them, but of course I don’t except any of the offerings. I tell them that I am very lucky that I can reach in my pocket and cash and credit cards are there for food and needs, and to give it to someone really hurting.
One of the neighbors who rode it out, and regretted it, says he saw a 40 foot boat come out of the Great South Bay and float down our street, and then when the tide finally started to release Sandy’s grip on us, it simply spun around and sailed back out to God knows where. As the water rose higher and higher in the street and started to flow in through his front door, he retreated to the highest floor in the house and watched as he saw a scene he had to hope he would never ever witness again in his life time. He watched from his window as two huge trees on the side of my house got felled like tooth picks and took up huge slabs of my concrete, leaving behind two 16 foot root balls and craters and crushed boats. .
At the same time boats were being tipped over and dumped off of the bulk head in front of my house, whole entire docks, two of them with tied up ski jets were ripped away and pulled across the canal, boats and all.
For days after the hurricane huge docks would come floating down our canal.
I have been living in three different places since it hit. We made it out the first night to a Best Western on Sunrise highway at about midnight the night before it struck. I had booked it a week in advance for two nights, Monday and Tuesday. First night a huge utility pole fell on the hotel and we were without lights, heat, hot water again. They didn’t have a generator. There was an odd collection of people staying there, all of us living in the dark by candle light. Some of them looked like trouble to me. After two nights of this, we moved again.
I’m living in a basement in North Massapequa right now,and have been spending my days calling insurance adjusters, contractors, FEMA. I have flood insurance so after a long while I should be okay. I told my daughter that I will rebuild better than ever, and we will. But it’s going to take time.
I’m going to wait a year, two years, and then I am going to see about selling, and move to higher ground. The house has a wonderful view, breath-taking sunsets, and a valuable first floor rental place with a wall to wall fire-place. I never rented it, but it’s valuable. We’ll see. If I had my way, I just might come home to Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, which has always been my real home in my heart.
I used to walk out my front door and fish off of the bulk head with my eight year old grandson, check our blue claw trap. We are all okay, Kelly my daughter doing such great work getting us signed up for assistance, my wife the same, but we have seen a lot of things, disaster scenes, nobody should have to see or live through. But my creative strength is coming back, and that’s a good thing. So is my sense of humor. Every now and then when Kelly accomplishes something new for us and we are settled down for the night with a glass of wine, I turn to her and say, “you’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” I say the same thing to my wife Patricia as we all smile.
I walked down the block the other day in late evening, and I took a few pictures. Maybe for a story when I get my feet back on the ground, I thought. And then I thought, it’s coming back, the need and urge to write, to be creative. And it made me feel good inside. In the beginning, Kelly said to me, “I know you will write about this, dad. I know it.” Not now I won’t, I told her. I just can’t think about writing now. It hurts too much. Maybe it’s because of my years in the Military Police in Europe in the early 60’s when I was 20, working the G. I. bars of a large city, Mannheim Germany, my survival mode kicked in for me. Later, my writer’s mode, my journalist’s mode would. I knew that.
At first strange, scary stories of destruction were coming in, rumors then. But most of them turned out to be true or very close to it. One night I walked out in the darkness to stand on the balcony of the hotel and drink a can of Budweiser, and a tall, blond woman in her 50’s was standing there smoking a cigarette and staring out at the pitch black night. She lived in the next shore town over from mine she said, Seaford, a mostly working-class hamlet where Irish families have lived in the same small capes next to the canals for generations.
What do you here? I asked her. She had a cell phone that was actually working. Ours wasn’t, and the hotel phones were all dead. “I heard that the height of the water in the streets is now over five feet, and it’s rising. It’s going to go over six feet. It is. There are no more boats in Seaford,” she said. “They’re all gone now and nobody knows where they went, probably out to the Great South Bay”. True or partly true, her last statement sounding so sure, put a cold chill in me, a profound sadness .
I can’t ever bare to listen to the stories or see the pictures of what happened to the Rockaways, to Long Beach, to Staten Island. And the total destruction of Breezy Point, left to look like Dresden now after the war. And all that beauty gone now, the beauty of the two-mile boardwalk of Jones Beach, or Long Beach, ripped up and looking like a roller coaster now. And memories come rushing back of drinking summer beers on the Rockaway Boardwalk when I was young and slow dancing with Irish nurses in Fitzgerald’s bar on 108th Street to Tommy Edward’s “It’s All in the Game”, so safe then in their arms. And the White House bar drinking with Jacky Malone from Windsor Terrace, and the Irish Circle.
Rockaway in the 50’s was a beach town that had so many Irish bars that they all used the same pint glasses so when the crowds of the young wandered from bar to bar with the glasses, it really didn’t matter. The glasses always came back home. It seemed like we were always laughing then, so young, so hopeful of our futures. And why wouldn’t we be? We were educated in Windsor Terrace’s Holy Name parochial school, and we were educated on the streets of 17th Street and 9th Avenue.
And we were first generation Irish stock whose roots started in places like the city of Galway where my father was born in an attached house on the Long Walk, a fishing village, and my grandmother was a fisher woman. Tough Irish who lived off the sea. Some, like my grandfather,died from it. They even had their own “Fisher King” who watched the markets each morning where the woman sold fish. Some even went door to door selling them. And my mother lived in a thatched cottage with a house full of kids in nearby Williamstown, a small farming village that didn’t get electricity until the mid 1950’s.
Stories coming in from as far away as Spring Lake, New Jersey now, another “Irish Riviera.” They’re from my first cousin Jo Ann, the board walk is all gone now she says. It’s a huge pile, a mountain of summer memories and loss, pushed together next to the Jersey Shore by pay loaders. Yesterday as I was driving alone down Merrick Road the Billy Joel song came on with the lyrics, “Seen the lights go out on Broadway, I saw the Empire State laid low..”, and I had to bite hard on my lip not to cry. I still do.
One of my first thoughts after it all happened was, I want to be in a safe place again, I thought how great it would be to stand in Farrell’s Bar on 16th Street in the old neighborhood, beer in hand, talking to Jacky Malone, a retired cop that I grew up with on 17th Street. He never left. And as soon as I get my feet back on the ground, I’m going to rush right back there and do that. It’s always home there for me, always home.
This is the first thing I have written since it all happened, and it’s good to write again. I think of the words to a Willie Nelson song I always liked, “Me & Paul.” “It’s been rough and rocky traveling, but I’m finally standing upright on the ground. And after taking several readings, I’m surprised to find my minds still fairly sound…”
When I am asked by friends what I need most right now. What can we do Pat.? I tell them, send over a blond, six feet tall, preferably Irish. A friend of mine, Anthony, told me, I will, Pat, and she will have a beer in both pockets.