By Debbie Cohen
No one thought New York would ever get hit on Oct. 29, 2012 with a major hurricane like Superstorm Sandy, especially residents in Howard Beach and Lindenwood. We were not told to prepare, evacuate or that we were even considered to be a flood zone as other neighborhoods in the tri-state area were. So we sat back and waited very calmly until the inevitable showed up on our doorsteps. At around 6:30 p.m. I heard the winds howling, rain pouring down and screams with the sound of breaking glass coming from the back of my Lindenwood condominium building on 79th Street, so I ran onto my terrace, which is on the third floor to see what all the commotion was about.
The backyard of the building was flooded with more than 5 feet of water and some male neighbors were yelling for everyone to get out of the basement apartments, as they proceeded to smash windows and doors to rescue residents and their pets. Floodwaters came crashing into their apartments at an enormous speed yet no one was hurt.
But in my amazement, along with other neighbors who were standing out on their terraces, we watched cars submerge under water in the back parking lot and on the street and then everything went black – no electricity. Cars were floating down the street and we all knew our cars were a total loss.
The smell of gasoline permeated the air as the cars were going under, taking their last breath. I, along with several neighbors started to call 911 and the Fire Department anticipating a gas explosion and that fire might erupt at any moment, but no one would come because of the floodwaters. They said they needed a boat to come and they were inundated with panicked calls. Finally hours later, one fire truck arrived in the area and luckily there were no fires.
Ralph Lanoue, my neighbor who previously lived over in the next building, said that we might have to climb up to the roof if the waters keep rising.
“I have a couple of flashlights and a ladder if we do have to go to the roof,” Lanoue said later in the evening. “I am shocked we were not told to evacuate in Howard Beach – this is crazy!”
Other neighbors were screaming and frightened as we all watched the horrors and devastation from Sandy, but it was only the beginning. We didn’t have to go to the roof, but our hallways were flooded and mold was setting in with its rotten stench.
I finally went in to fall asleep with my two dogs; a Pomeranian and Chihuahua in a cold, dark apartment. In the early morning, the floods had receded and everyone ran to see if their cars were working or if they had been washed away. My Chevy Impala was on the sidewalk flooded with water. Most cars were dead, a few cars started. Mine started, but lasted about one week and then died from water and rust damage and I had to junk it.
I then raced to a friend’s house in Brooklyn, not realizing there would be gas shortages and how badly damaged my car really was. My car kept stalling on my way to Bay Ridge and it finally died near my friend’s house due to an empty gas tank and broken odometer. My friend ran to get me gas, waited on a gas line and realized she did not have a gas container and then ran back to tell me that the gas attendant thought she was crazy.
The AAA towing I have would not come to help nor would anyone else, so I was stranded at a bus stop two blocks from my friend’s house and the nightmare was starting because I needed to get home to save my dogs.
For five days I could not get gas nor transportation back to Lindenwood due to shortages from electrical outages at the gas stations and I did not have a gas container, which was a valuable commodity at that time, and I have since learned to always have a couple on hand.
I was ready to walk over the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, more than 14 miles, to get home because I thought my dogs were dying. Finally, my friend and I found a Shell gas station on Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn and we waited over four hours to fill up a five-gallon metal canister, which someone gave me after hours of searching.
What I did not realize is how dangerous a gas station can become when gas is being rationed during a crisis and people need it for their generators and their cars. Fights were commonplace on the gas line. One woman thought another woman was cutting the line and she wanted to cut her and gouge her eyes out and other people were trying to break into the line with their cars. The police had to break up the melee.
News reports said people were bringing guns and knives to the gas stations; I wondered if I was living in a civilized society. Things were beginning to become surreal. One report said a man stabbed another man to death for cutting in front of him on the gas line in Brooklyn. I wondered if things would ever return to normal.
When I finally did get gas, we had to find someone to drive me to my car because there was no public transportation and the police officer would not let anyone without a car walk in the street with gas-filled containers. But did make it home and my dogs were fine.
The gas, electric and heat were turned off, however, so I went to a friend’s home in Fresh Meadows with my dogs to stay for over three months until my building was fixed and the utilities were back on. And we both continued to wait on gas lines, where we met some strange people.
As I was running to wait on the gas line, one man said, “I like your metal gas container and you look good as well.”
I just wanted to sink to the ground. Was this now the place to meet people at the gas station? Is this what people are doing to get their minds off Sandy? A ridiculous analogy I thought to myself.
FEMA did help me and a bunch of my neighbors with rental assistance and car grants, but many in Howard Beach and other areas are still waiting for reimbursement from their insurance companies, FEMA and the NYC Build It Back program. FEMA has given to date $13.6 billion to New Yorkers since Sandy hit.
Many of my Lindenwood neighbors lost thousands of dollars of their valuables; homeowners and renters alike. I say it could have been worse in Lindenwood. Some people in Queens and other boroughs lost their lives due to Sandy.
Superstorm Sandy was the largest recorded Atlantic Hurricane, which resulted in approximately $70 billion of damage in the United States. It approached the New York area as a Category 1 hurricane, then it weakened to a tropical cyclone with wind gusts of 80-100 miles per hour and then was strengthened by a full moon and rising tides, according to reports.
Lindenwood and Howard Beach are now listed in the flood zone areas, according to FEMA. State Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said Howard Beach will be better prepared if another storm hits us in the future.
“Some homes are being built on higher ground and we will now evacuate if another storm heads our way,” Addabbo said. “Build It Back had some flaws in the beginning, mainly with the loss of paperwork, but now things are getting on track and people are getting help and that’s what I want to see.”