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.
Unmoored pleasure boats, far from collapsed docks and seasonal storage towers, were scattered throughout streets, one in the driveway of a car wash. Automobiles, grotesquely abandoned by the storm surge were scattered at odd angles in roads and on lawns, filled with seaweed, sand, and condensation. Streets were like small lakes, sidewalks like ponds. And where the water wasn’t, you could see where it had been. Lines demarked the heights to which it had rose — on houses, on fences, on street signs, on telephone poles.
Our reconnaissance mission revealed a two and a half foot water line around our home. Flooded throughout the first floor to a height of nine inches, the hardwood floors were already beginning to buckle. Most of the water had receded, leaving behind a muck of silt and mud that saturated everything it touched and ruined every appliance we had. Swollen door frames necessitated the removal of doors to get to other rooms.
In our backyard, we found a huge remnant of the Long Beach boardwalk, which is situated a half-mile from our house. On the sidewalk we found the detritus of people’s lives: a bar mitzvah boy and his parents dressed in 1950s finery smiled up at us from a photograph, as did a white-gowned, third-grade communion celebrant standing before a religious statue. A beautifully embroidered Hanukah tablecloth lay soaked beyond repair by the curb. Roof shingles, wood beams, dune grass, and sand were everywhere. A seven-foot sand dune blocked the street. We found a truck floating in a neighbor’s in-ground pool.
Despite the roar of the ocean, the thing I remember now is the silence. Sand must be like snow in the way it muffles sound, and the quiet was spooky, incongruous to the devastation we surveyed.
In the days to come, when everybody on the Northeast Coast was becoming familiar with the vagaries of government institutions and familiarizing themselves with insurance adjusters, FEMA registration forms, and debating the necessity of wearing an N97 mask, the noise became more intense. State Troopers and the National Guard in humvees rolled down the streets. Rescue helicopters patrolled the wreckage from the sky. Ambulances and fire trucks screamed continuously.
But I remember the silence in those early days of recovery most of all. And in the stillness of Halloween, while my family was transporting the ruins of our lives from the house to the curb, a little girl in a fairy costume walked carefully with her parents over the shifting sand and garbage on our block. Silently holding out her festive orange bag to me I could only tell her through gritted teeth that I had no candy to give her. “No, no,” her mother fervently replied. “We are reverse trick-or-treating. We want to give a treat to people in need. You look like you could use a candy bar.” At her prompting, the child handed over a piece of chocolate. And I cried.
The sea air blows salty and clean over us all now, calm and soothing, like a benediction. Most of the community is slowly recovering, although there are pockets of decimation still that I fear will never revive. My family is crammed into the upstairs of our two-story house for the duration of the first-floor renovation. We have a hotplate for a kitchen, and the two bedrooms are like dormitories. As I count my blessings, I pray that I see Carl again soon, rising from the northern Atlantic like a resurrected Neptune.