Carl is a big bear of a guy who lives in our neighborhood, and one thing we could always count on was seeing him return from his daily morning swim — even in the middle of winter. Carl loved the beach so much he would regularly shovel wind-blown sand from the walkway that led over the dunes, leaving it clear and clean, clearly delineating where the wood path ended and paradise began. He would lean over his shovel, or pause after emerging towel clad and grinning from the water, to engage anybody in a conversation characterized by his easy demeanor and his joie de vivre. But the day after the decimation of our coastal community by Hurricane Sandy when people emerged from their homes to inspect the damage, a close friend gently teased Carl about whether he would take his morning ablution. He looked at her, and hollow-eyed replied, “I hate the ocean.”
We live on a barrier island on the coastline of Long Island, in a town called Lido Beach that we thought relatively well protected from ocean storms by a colossal, pink, Moorish architectural structure called the Lido Towers. An upscale, six-story condominium, the towers began as a hotel in 1928 and survived the unnamed 1938 hurricane. But it could very well have come to the end of its useful life in 2012 and wrecked by the storm surge of a category-one hurricane during a full-moon high tide. Ultimately, of course, it couldn’t shield us, and the ocean came down our streets, roaring like chest-high river rapids, delivering sea grass and salt water into the heart of our lives.
The day before the hurricane was due to hit land — anywhere, the experts said, between Delaware and Connecticut — my husband and I decided to evacuate 10 miles north, outside the projected flood zone of Long Island’s south shore. We were welcomed into my sister-in-law’s home and joined her husband and three children, not knowing of course, that this would be a haven for our family during the next five weeks. Three of my kids were in northeast colleges far enough away from the coast to be deemed safe; our high-school senior came with us unwillingly, convinced his parents were overreacting. The dog, more obedient, came with no protest.
In fact, it turned out that the dog was the most sensible animal in the house the night the storm hit. As eight of us crowded onto the tiny front porch to observe the jaw-dropping results of 90 mph gusts in the blacked-out, tree-lined neighborhood, he remained in the basement. Secure in his comfortable bed, his canine, instinctive wisdom trumped the thrill-seeking risks of his human companions.
It turned out that while we were standing on that front porch, our neighbors and friends back at the beach were beginning to experience abject terror. The first inking of what was to come came in the form of a friend’s text to my son: two doors south of us, the ocean was in the house, rising to the level of the first step of the living-room staircase, which led to the second floor. Another text relayed the fact that the water was rising fast. Shortly after the level rose to the third step, communication stopped abruptly.
Increasingly spotty cell-phone service informed us that in addition to the tidal surge, part of our beach community was in flames, sparked as the flood water came into contact with car batteries and residential electrical panels. (Our nephew, a volunteer firefighter, was actively fighting to contain the blaze; a fact his mother was grateful to learn only after the fire was extinguished.) As we absorbed this news from the relative safety of our refuge, eerie flickering lit up the eastern and western sky. An oak came crashing down across the street, and in a shower of noisy sparks it destroyed a transformer. The sound of sirens permeated the wind and the rain, and the night became otherworldly, frighteningly primal.
We slept uneasily and awoke to a greatly abated storm, a greatly transformed landscape. Frantic to inspect our house, our community, our friends, our neighbors, we headed to Lido and encountered the remnants of an increasingly apocalyptic world the further south we traveled. No operating traffic lights. Trees down everywhere — across roads, embedded in the roofs of houses, straddling yards, with root ball diameters often eight feet across.