Home Is Where the Rubble Is

In a Staten Island neighborhood consumed by the floodwaters, long-time residents wait, and wait, to rebuild their shattered houses.

Home Is Where the Rubble Is

Balancing on wooden planks snaking across the skeletal beams that provide a makeshift platform for his floorless home, Earl Moody relies on a generator to power an array of electric tools as he guts and rebuilds the slate-blue cottage his wife owns on Moreland Street.

“Saltwater’s nasty, it’s corrosive. Even after the water’s gone, the salt eats away at the house,” says Moody, a sixty-year-old mechanic with wispy yellow-gray hair and a sage’s beard. “These sidings will have to go, the salt’s eating away under it.”

The ocean tried to swallow Midland Beach one hundred days ago. The water receded from the marshy residential stretch on northeast Staten Island within hours of the storm. But, like the salt that has inundated itself within the structures, slowly corroding metal and wood, the uncertainty left behind on the ravaged blocks of Cape Cod style family homes silently wreaks havoc on displaced residents’ morale.

Wearing a Duke-blue driving jacket, Moody received an initial check from FEMA after Sandy, but is continually discouraged when he visits the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. He has been living at his daughter’s place a few blocks away, and says he can’t get a clear answer on what happens from here.

Earl Moody in front of his home on Moreland Avenue
Earl Moody in front of his home on Moreland Avenue

“Just drop the lumber in the street and I’ll rebuild the house. I don’t want to wait around for this Rapid Repair,” says Moody, referring to a New York City program to help residential owners make post-Sandy repairs. “I’ll do it myself.”

That pledge echoes the ethos of a borough built on the public service of firemen, police, teachers and construction workers. The people are used to work, Moody says. But while displaced residents try to return to their multi-generational communities, many wrestle with the uncertainty of federal and city aid and the risk of rebuilding in a flood zone.

Moody’s house is seven blocks from the water and two blocks from Miller Field, the airfield where President Obama touched down on November 15 to see the devastation of the least-populated borough for himself.

On the night of the storm, the home where Moody raised his son and daughter also saved his family’s lives. Michael McKay, thirty-one, and his longtime girlfriend, Kelly Lotz, waded from their one-story home two houses down to Moody’s front door.

Lotz says the water was at her waist by the time they realized they needed to head to higher ground. As they sloshed through the gushing Atlantic Ocean, it was soon at her shoulders. The forty-two-year-old with cornflake-blond hair struggled to maintain her grasp on her pit-bull’s collar while Michael held their pet Chihuahua. The couple’s most precious cargo—their tiny four-year-old daughter Carly—perched on her father’s shoulders.

The Moody-McKay family, in front of Kelly Lotz and Michael McKay’s home
The Moody-McKay family, in front of Kelly Lotz and Michael McKay’s home

“We’re seven blocks from the ocean,” said Kelly. “I didn’t think the water would get that high.”

A rogue surge from the sea threatened to topple Michael, a firefighter, as he reached his father’s door.

“Thank God Carly was wearing rain boots,” Kelly said, motioning to the door just over two months later. “Her foot went right through the glass door.”

From the relative safety of Moody’s second floor, the family watched with a kind of awe-struck horror as water rose from step to step, finally ceasing at the top of the stairs.

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Less than a mile away, Mary Laurie watched a strikingly similar scene from the second floor of her home on Quincy Avenue. A sharp seventy-eight-year-old with a soft voice and diminutive frame, Laurie has spent her entire life on the block, surrounded by family. With an ancestry that traces back to the Mayflower, the Lauries first moved to the area in the early twentieth century, initially occupying land that was bought by the city to build Seaview Avenue, then moving to the two properties Laurie now owns on Quincy Avenue.

On the night of the storm, she was completely disconnected from family for one of the first times in her life. The phones were down, the electricity out, and roads were blocked by rising water. All Laurie and her increasingly worried family could do was wait. She watched the water rise, then went to sleep.

Laurie’s grandson, Dennis Laurie, who lived with his fourteen-year-old son Christopher in the house next door, was a borough away, working as an EMT in the rising floodwaters of South Brooklyn.

“I had never seen the water rise above the floorboards,” Mary Laurie said with an incredulous shrug days after the storm, when I asked her why she hadn’t fled her house.

Like Laurie, many other residents of the flood plains, especially the elderly, chose not to heed the evacuation warning. With no point of reference to compare the destructive capabilities of Sandy, many stayed home thinking they’d ride out this storm like they had ridden out countless others. Sandy took eight lives in Staten Island.

James Philip Rossi, Sr., an eighty-five-year-old World War II veteran, lived across the street from Laurie. When the waters receded, his body was found among the debris of his one-story home on Quincy Avenue.

“My father was a man of God,” Rossi’s son said two days after the storm, his voice cracking. “Nothing ever scared him. He said he’d sit [the storm] out with the bravery that he lived every day with.”

When the water did completely recede, Laurie’s block had the look of a savage Salvador Dali dreamscape: cars balanced on front stoops and foundations crumbled, in one case displaying  a basement full of baby clothes, a baby grand piano and warped furniture. Down the street, a hot tub sat on top of a half-fallen tree, a portion of a nearby house was carried into the birch thicket twenty yards away. A hundred days later, many of those houses have since been demolished. Others sit empty.

The displaced Lauries moved into Dennis’ mother’s house—a warm two-story just minutes away—which hadn’t lost power during the storm. Dennis and his son moved into his mother’s basement, where Dennis’ kid sister also lives. The father and son both keep a three-by-three-foot cardboard box of belongings, all that they could salvage after the storm, Dennis said.

“I had worked a double shift up in South Brooklyn during the storm; it was impossible to get some places with the ambulances,” Dennis remembered a day after the storm, the sky still an iridescent blue-gray. “The emergency responders needed emergencies responders…I didn’t know what I would be coming home to.”

Mary Laurie has slept on her daughter’s couch for the last one hundred days, amid the clutter of her salvageable life.

Much of the debris on the street has been cleared. Many of the condemned houses, a majority of the neighborhood, which sat only a block from the ocean, have been demolished. But the Lauries still have no date set to return home.

Because Dennis Laurie rented the house from his grandmother, he only received a pittance of aid—$2,900—from FEMA. Mary was ineligible for a complete aid package for her primary residence—a sea-green two-story bungalow where she liked to garden and compost—because she hadn’t purchased federal flood insurance after Hurricane Irene.

“We’re pretty much relying on Rapid Repair,” Dennis said. “But it’s been a waiting game.”

Dennis Laurie (Photo by Joseph Stepansky)
Dennis Laurie (Photo by Joseph Stepansky)

He said the program, started by the city on November 9 to offer free emergency repair to displaced individuals, has been increasingly unreliable.

One contractor visited Dennis’ home only to leave a half-wired electrical mess behind them. After a continued delay, Dennis was told the contractor had been fired. The wires they left behind were unintelligible to inspectors from the next contractor.

“I feel worse off now than I did right after the storm,” he says. “It’s disheartening. You work all your life and try to do the right thing and then when it comes down to it, it feels like the government doesn’t care.”

A stout forty-two year old who speaks with a lilting Staten Island staccato, Dennis explained his dilemma, one likely shared by the 1,453 other people the city estimates are still displaced in the borough. He and his grandmother, Mary, are thoroughly connected to the neighborhood that has ingratiated itself in their family. But returning to the flood plain could mean repeat tragedy.

“They’ve demolished a lot of the houses in the neighborhood. If my neighbors do rebuild, they’re going to make everything a lot higher. We could knock our houses down and build higher, but the bill would be insane,” he says. “My grandmother doesn’t want to sell. What are you going to get for the houses now anyway?

“She’s lived here a long time. She raised her children there, they raised their children, I was doing the same thing. It’s a long time there. It’s hard to up and walk away.”

After sleeping on her stepmother’s floor for over a month, Kelly Lotz and Michael McKay are renting a modest house on Moreland Street, kitty-corner from their derelict former residence. It’s warm and a red firefighter family emblem on the white walls gives it a feeling of home. Lotz says a family friend owns the house and had fast-tracked the repairs with help from neighbors.

“The only people that made a difference were the volunteers and community members,” she says. “The government did nothing.”

“The ones who helped had my daughter in a home for Christmas,” she adds with a sad beam.

Lotz, wearing black tights, a gray puffy jacket, and fawn boots, says her family is only one of two that have been able to move back onto the block. The street lights still don’t come on at night, and cops remain posted at intersections.

“It’s like a ghost town, everybody’s still emptying their houses,” says Lotz. “There’s all sorts of rubble. It’s weird and creepy. All the houses are empty.”

“The whole block was just like a family,” she remembers. “We’d sit outside in front of the house in the summer and barbeque. Everyone looks out for each other. Most of them are coming back. Almost everyone wants to come back.”

Neighbors who can afford to rebuild on their own are optimistic that they’ll be back in their homes by St. Patrick’s Day, but those who can’t are stuck in a Rapid Repair limbo. With the housing stock depleted, renters face price gauging by landlords, with some rents having increased by one hundred percent.

Even the few displaced residents who have been lucky enough to find a home in the neighborhood are still unable to completely rebuild their lives.

McKay’s car was washed away in the storm, but the former Marine sniper needs to buy a new one to report to Bedford-Stuyvesant every day where he’s a city firefighter. For now, he’s been borrowing a friend’s. After receiving only the renter’s relief from FEMA he and Lotz don’t have the money to make such a big purchase. They had initially considered help from the Small Business Administration, which provides loans for “physical and economic damage caused by a declared disaster,” but were told they couldn’t purchase a car with the money. They’d also have to pay an extra $1,000 in renters and flood insurance to be eligible for the loan, which the couple couldn’t afford. Instead, McKay is looking into taking out a loan against his pension.

“Now Michael has to dip into his own pension, after serving his country as a Marine and a firefighter,” laments Lotz.

They walk out onto the empty block, which is still covered in splinters of wood from constant demolition, orange sand from the ocean that gets kicked up in the breeze, and tiny pieces of shattered glass. The door of the house next to theirs is open. The accouterments of the previous life of their elderly neighbor, who was whisked away by friends before the storm, currently rots inside, emitting a vague smell of mold noticeable from Lotz and McKay’s property. The woman hasn’t come home since the storm. The house and its contents remain untouched.

“My daughter has to breathe this in,” Lotz says, scrunching her face.

Lotz brings me to their old apartment. The door is locked so I shimmy through a jarred window into what was once Carly’s bedroom. Inside, the walls are skeletons; the guts of insulation and drywall litter the floor. Sand from the storm still sits on top of the rusting stove. Two witches’ faces, decorations from the Halloween that was never celebrated, are still stuck to the window. Above the back door, a picture of Tinkerbelle remains on the otherwise stripped walls. Besides that, the place is bare.

“Look, love—this used to be your room,” Lotz says to Carly, who is almost swallowed by an oversized sweatshirt as she silently follows her mother through their old home.

Carly and Kelly McKay walk through the kitchen of their house on Moreland Avenue
Carly and Kelly McKay walk through the kitchen of their house on Moreland Avenue

In the face of the destruction, Lotz contends that the neighborhood remains the same in one way—the neighbors still look out for each other. She sets up her house as a rest station for neighbors working on their properties, offering coffee, a bathroom and a warm place to rest. The neighborhood will rebound, she predicts.

“We’re planning a block party for the summer,” she tells me. “When everybody’s back.”

Two houses down, I hear the steady drone of power tools from Moody’s house. He says he looks forward to finishing so he can go back to work—where his employers are holding a spot for him.

“I can rant and rave, but for what?” Moody goes on, adjusting his baseball cap and rubbing his head. “I might as well yell at the moon. I’d rather just do what I’ve done my whole life: work—and get it done.”