Picking Up The Pieces

Sorting through rot and waiting for FEMA, a Manhattan Beach native returns home for the long, slow road to recovery.

Picking Up The Pieces

“We are out of sliced ham,” my mother said over the phone. “That is our chief concern at the moment.”

It was ten a.m. on October 29, 2012, and my parents and brother were making breakfast in Zone A. Hurricane Sandy was on her way and the residents of Manhattan Beach, a Brooklyn community located on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Sheepshead Bay, had been told to evacuate. My family decided to stay, as did most of their friends and neighbors.

“If a tree falls in the house,” my mother said, “we want to be here to hear it. You get it Gabrielle? It’s a joke.”

I got it. But it didn’t make me any more comfortable with them staying there, particularly as I sat in my Williamsburg apartment watching NY1 newscasters practically pee themselves with fear over the coming storm.

The Sierra Family
The Sierra Family

I always describe growing up in Manhattan Beach as growing up in a suburb of Brooklyn. It is tiny, pretty and safe. A wooden footbridge connects the residential community to stores and the subway on the other side. My parents still live in my childhood home, a two-family house on Mackenzie Street. They live on the second floor, which is seventeen steps above street level. My grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, lives on the first floor with her aide. My mother grew up in the house with her sisters, and most of our family members have lived or stayed there at one time or another.

The best part about the house is its proximity to the water. From the front porch you can see the masts of boats as they pass through the bay. In the summer you can hear shouts and laughter from the beach a block the other way.

I couldn’t blame my family for their nonchalance. Manhattan Beach had been declared a Mandatory Evacuation Zone before, during Hurricane Irene in 2011, and my parents remained in the house that time too. It rained and the water rose, but not far enough to damage the house or even flood the streets. Everyone drank excessive amounts of bottled water so they would feel less silly for buying so much bottled water.

However, my grandmother’s aide Avis was far less calm. She had not been at the house during Irene, and the newscaster’s warnings had her in a tizzy. Eventually my parents drove her and my grandmother to stay with Avis’ son in a safe zone. They didn’t pack much, just an overnight bag. Everything else stayed behind.

The evening arrived. At 6:46 p.m. my mother called. The water was up over the grass and into the driveway.

“I think we might be in trouble,” she said. She sounded pissed off, like the weather had betrayed an unspoken understanding.

At 7:29 p.m. she called again. My dad’s car was lifted by the choppy floodwaters that washed up the driveway. The car, which we call Blue-y, has been in the family for twenty-three years; my parents bought it the same year my brother was born. The wind slammed Blue-y into the garage door, breaking right through it. Water poured in through the hole and there was no way to stop it.

The family car, Blue-y, under water on October 29, 2012
The family car, Blue-y, under water on October 29, 2012

My family was safe on the second floor, but all of our childhood drawings, toys, diplomas, awards and books were in boxes in the garage.

“I didn’t even think to pick anything up. I feel sick,” my mother said. Then she hung up.

At eight p.m. my father called. The water had risen fast, faster than anyone would have anticipated. My brother, who was hanging out in my grandmother’s living room, was forced to crawl out the window, having been surprised by a sudden flood into the house. He had no time to pick anything up, but somehow rescued three stray kittens on his way back upstairs. A fourth remained out of sight and out of reach, mewing somewhere in the yard. He told me he saw some sparks and then the power went out.

Throughout the rest of the night the calls came and went. The water continued to rise quickly, covering fences, hydrants and mailboxes. At one point everyone smelled smoke and saw bright lights in the sky. They figured it was generators exploding, when in reality it was the light from a huge fire that was ripping through homes in Breezy Point.

Neighbors from the ground-floor apartment of the two-family house next-door were forced to evacuate, and they waded over to my parents’ house for some wine and dry clothes. A teen attempted to check on his car down the block and fell in the high, fast water; my father waded out and helped him inside. The boy was carrying a small dog and a computer in his backpack; the dog made it, the computer did not.

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My mother distracted everyone by suggesting they play cards and other games, a family tradition usually reserved for holiday dinners. After another hour or so the water receded, leaving debris scattered in the dark.

In the morning my father called. “Everything looks worse,” he said. He had just walked to the bay.

“Cars are flipped over everywhere like toys. Trees are all over the roads. Everything is wet and dirty. But we are safe and dry upstairs.”

One Day Later

The next day I packed a few things and begged a ride from a friend. On the drive over we couldn’t help but point excitedly at every fallen tree, every broken-down car; we had never seen anything like this before.

We had no idea what we were in for as we approached Manhattan Beach.

At the entrance to Emmons Avenue, a block that runs parallel to the bay, we stopped the car and got out.

“It looks like the opening credits to The Walking Dead,” my friend murmured, “but without the zombies.”

Cars were littered all over the road. Most of the windshields were fogged up, indicating moisture trapped inside the vehicles. To our right, several men were siphoning gas from a tank, their eyes darting shadily around the road. Water pumped into the street from driveways on either side and shattered glass glittered on the sidewalk.

Our attempts to get hot pizza and cold soda for the troops failed miserably; there was a car sticking out through the glass windows of the pizzeria and every other store and restaurant was flooded or dark. As we crossed into Manhattan Beach it was evident that the damage was just as severe. The sailboats were all loose in the bay, many of their sails and masts torn to shreds. The footbridge connecting our neighborhood to greater Brooklyn had been partially swept away, halting any and all passage.

“We just never expected it would get this bad,” my father said when we arrived.

After just an hour the sun went down, and without any heat, hot water or power, we were forced to stop cleaning. That night and for several nights to come my mother, my brother, and I retreated to a friend’s apartment in Marine Park for showers, hot food, and warm beds. My father, however, remained behind each night, determined to guard the house, and keep the three dogs warm and safe.

We finally found the last stray kitten in the yard. It had drowned while stuck between the chains in a fence. But the other three kittens were happy and healthy, stealing food out of the bowls my mother now left for them each morning on the back porch.

One Week Later

Although the pumping was complete, not much else had changed. At some moments it all looked even worse than it had on day one, since all of the destroyed interiors were now being dragged to the curb.

The most dangerous aspect was the cold. The temperatures were steadily dropping each day, and that did not bode well for anyone. At night the whole neighborhood sat dark and cold.

Garbage men were heroes to the residents, working tirelessly to lift massive amounts of heavy wet wood, stone, carpets, machinery and clothes. Residents continued slipping water bottles and beers into the seats of the garbage trucks, attempting to express gratitude through whatever meager means they could.

During the day the block was alive with activity. Everyone was outside on the sidewalk, working to get their homes into some livable shape. My parents’ door remained wide open to a constant stream of neighbors; a few people had heard back from FEMA about emergency assistance money, while many still had not. That meant they would be shelling out the money to restore their homes upfront, and then hoping FEMA would reimburse the costs. Our next-door neighbor cooked massive meals, packed them into Tupperware, and handed them out around the block in an effort to help, while also getting rid of any food that would soon rot.

The water in our boiler room had hit the twelve-foot mark, reaching shelves and boxes that were thought to be out of harm’s way. With the space pumped out, we could now reach the salt water-filled trunks full of childhood poetry, pictures and heirlooms. My mother and I spent hours sitting on the stoop, drinking red wine and carefully peeling papers apart, salvaging what we thought might dry out.

Every item inside my grandmother’s apartment was destroyed. Without hot water we couldn’t wash any of the flooded clothing, so they sat in a heap in the yard. My brother and father used a hammer to break down couches and chairs, pulling the pieces out and tossing them onto the destroyed front lawn.

Occasionally someone would cry.

My brother was supposed to be moving into a new apartment in Bed-Stuy, but there was a gas shortage and no trucks available. His move was delayed for another two weeks, leaving him nothing to do with his bags of wet clothes and home goods that had been stored in the garage.

It would be another two and a half weeks until the power returned, and three weeks until the heat was back on in the house. Most of the block would still be without heat for an additional week; my parents happened to luck out with their boiler being in stock.

One Month Later

By Thanksgiving my parent’s house was nowhere near ready to play host to our usual barrage of family and friends. For the first time I can recall, my parents didn’t host the holiday.

FEMA representatives had stopped in and assessed the damage, leaving my parents with assurances that all would be covered. No money had yet been awarded. Construction workers began gutting my grandmother’s house, knocking down the walls and any other spot the water had touched. My grandmother was staying in an assisted living facility across the bay, another cost that was coming out of my parents’ pockets. My mother discovered that her diamond ring was missing, breaking the bubble of good will that had encompassed the house and allowed them to let everyone hang around inside. When she told me about it she didn’t even seem angry, just sort of disappointed and betrayed.

Fights had begun to break out on the block; many neighbors were bickering over property lines and money. Two of our neighbors ended a screaming match in tears after an argument concerning construction on their shared driveway. The cold was bitter and it ate away any patience they had left. Mold experts had begun appearing in the neighborhood, and many people discussed their fear of lasting health issues from the cleaning and flooding process. My father had a severe chest cold and had broken out into several rashes where the water had touched his ankles.

The neighborhood was still in disarray. With the beach walls temporarily patched, giant mounds of sand still stood in the streets. Dumpsters could be seen heaped with debris on nearly every corner, and huge trees were still down in the park. Cars were pushed to the sides of the road but many people had taken their license plates off and abandoned them.

“For Sale” signs had begun to crop up around the neighborhood.

Two Months Later

My parents decided they would host Christmas dinner. FEMA money had still not come in, but they were banking on it arriving soon. Even with tight funds they craved a return to normality; cleaning up the house and having everyone over just felt like a natural move.

Work had stalled on my grandmother’s house, leaving only a shell of walls and a raw floor. Before dinner I needed some air. I took my cousin down into my grandmother’s apartment and we walked around, sharing a beer, the winter air penetrating the cracks between the stripped windows.

The Sierras' house one month after Sandy
The Sierras’ house one month after Sandy

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s like no one ever lived in here.”

That night my mother and I drove some guests to the train station. As we were driving back into Manhattan Beach, a line of multicolored Christmas lights stood out against the dark water of the bay.

“Someone strung those across the footbridge, maybe a construction worker,” she said.

We pulled over and got out to examine the bridge. It was blocked off with yellow tape and orange cones, as well as a wooden wall to stop people from crossing. The bridge itself was still just as bad as I remembered, half swept away without any railings. The boats had been taken somewhere, which seemed like the only difference. The lights were strung between a few remaining poles, swinging in the wind, making the scene oddly festive.

Three Months Later

The New Year came and went without much change. While construction had begun hastily it remained in a lull through the holidays. Between days off and multiple jobs the workers couldn’t put enough time in to show any real forward momentum. Only in mid-January did the contractors begin returning to negotiate wood choices and finish the walls. The house began to resemble the space it once was.

My mother began to express half-joking envy for the new downstairs space, commenting on all of the improvements. Upstairs the floors were showing damage from all the wet feet trekking in and out, and the window in the bathroom was stuck slightly open, ever since the Sandy winds.

My grandmother remained at the assisted living home with her aide, and the place seemed to agree with her. All of the hustle and bustle gave her the visual and verbal interaction that she lacked in her own space. But the hope was that she would be able to return home within the next few months; the cost of keeping her there was far too high. FEMA, which had yet to award any money for her stay, had begun demanding extensive paperwork to prove that my grandmother was actually in an assisted living facility.

The task of replacing all of the ruined furniture, appliances, and doors still lay ahead, but that seemed to be a distant undertaking.

Most of the cars had been towed out of the street but dumpsters remained parked outside numerous homes. Several of the local stores and restaurants began reopening but most were still shuttered. Flooding forced many to gut renovate their entire space, leaving months of work ahead. Others deemed the damage too great and the federal aid too small so they hung “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs on the front door.

One Hundred Days Later

Looking at the block now, at first glance most seems back to normal. The sidewalks are clean and neat, although there are still heaps of trash sitting in dumpsters. Most fences and garage doors have been replaced or removed. But the neighborhood as a whole is still frozen in various levels of disrepair. The seawalls and bridge remain unfinished; the park and beach taped off and closed. Inside, most houses are far from rebuilt. My parents’ house, like most, is a work in progress.

Over coffee I ask my parents what they think about the overall FEMA response, and both agree that the representatives have been extremely helpful of late, coming around door-to-door, making sure everyone has heat and hot water in the cold weather. But there was a vital period of twelve days after the storm that went unchecked by federal assistance. My father expresses frustration for the fact that free boilers were offered, but only two weeks after Sandy had hit. By that point everyone had already pumped and replaced their systems, hoping for some heat.

“What were we supposed to do?” he asks, “Not begin work? Not get heat?”

Their frustrations are far from through, as the FEMA money has yet to be awarded in full, and the total damage costs have yet to be added up.

We haven’t spoken about a contingency plan if a flood was to occur again, and I hesitate to even bring it up. It seems like an impossible notion, even though we all know it isn’t far-fetched at all.

“It sounds bad, and it is,” my mother says. “But it is what it is. And we have a place to be during these cold days, so we are lucky. ”

Then she gets up and makes me a ham sandwich.