NEW YORK — I was the first to cry.
Not my wife. Not our three kids.
I was standing in our pitch-black basement as water streamed through the broken windows like a waterfall. A bathtub drain gurgled, the slimy sewage quickly pooling in an ominous mess. Just eight weeks after we’d bought our dream house – three bedrooms, big kitchen, pool, white fence and a finished basement – Superstorm Sandy was ripping it apart with a fury that was hard to comprehend, along with the rest of our Staten Island neighborhood.
At 9 p.m. Monday, I sent my sister Christina a text message saying our basement was still dry.
Minutes later that all changed. The man cave I couldn’t wait to show off to my buddies, the one I’d spent hours working on, was fast being covered in rancid brown muck, beginning with what was once a white carpet. Watching it methodically swallow up the mementos that took us a lifetime to gather, I lost it.
Family photos, clothes, thousands of CDs, furniture. Thirty years of Topps baseball cards my dad gave me each and every Christmas. A copy of nearly every story I’d ever written – as a budding sports reporter at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, from the Super Bowl and World Series, during 16-plus years with The Associated Press – all gone.
My wife, Daria, urged me to stop, if only for the sake of our kids. I ran up the stairs toward the living room, struggling to compose myself. Behind me, all the while, the sludge kept rising. At 9:16 p.m., I texted my sister again: “The basement is completely covered in raw sewage. It’s destroyed.”
Some 10 hours earlier, I was on a conference call with New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, hearing him describe the challenges his disappointing team still faced. Now I was swept up in the biggest natural disaster to hit the New York area in decades, wondering how to protect my family.
It’s funny the places your mind wanders sometimes, even in moments of crisis. So the fact that my mother’s name is Sandy was at least good for a rueful smile. Even she can’t believe now how much death and destruction will be attached to it for, well, forever.
Our neighborhood in the Eltingville section of Staten Island was designated a Zone C area, at very low risk for evacuation during a storm. That’s why so few of us were alarmed earlier in the day, when the water from a creek that was part of a planned park poured out onto Arthur Kill Road and up our street at high tide. We thought that would be the worst of it.
Then the wind began whipping up, right around 4 p.m., and that picture-postcard white fence was blown to pieces. Soon after, with everything else we could tie down, board up or cover already secured, and roof tiles flying around like the occasional Frisbee, my neighbors and I headed inside to ride the storm out.
The power was on for two more hours, gone just as Daria was cooking dinner for the kids. They thought it was fun to eat and play by candlelight. But I looked out the window, saw the water from the creek halfway up the street, and it struck me that Sandy hadn’t even really hit yet. Then came a frantic knock at the door.
“Dennis!” yelled a neighbor. “Your house is leaking gas!”
The hissing outside was louder than the shrill howl of the wind. A man I’d never seen before was walking around in the storm, heard the leak and smelled the gas. Out of nowhere, a neighbor showed up with a wrench and shut off the main valve. Someone else called National Grid and three minutes later, two workers from the power company turned up to make sure everything was locked down.
I’m still not sure who the first of those guardian angels was, but I promised myself to find out soon. When I do, I’m going to hug him. But there were still more pressing concerns first.
Around 7 p.m., our next-door neighbor, a sweet Italian grandmother named Grace, ran outside crying that the water in her basement was already a few feet high. Ours was still dry. But the water rushing faster and faster up the street now licked at the door of Daria’s car in the driveway. I grabbed the keys and drove five blocks, parking it up on a hill. Then I jogged back home, with rain pelting my face, my arms over my head to protect myself from the tree branches swirling around, and moved my car. When I returned the second time, the water was even with the first step of our house. And it kept coming.
Another step, then another. Two more and the water would be level with the first floor. What then?
That reverie was broken the second the alarm system tripped in response to the water bursting through the basement windows. Soon enough, the electrical outlets were submerged and there was no chance to reach the fuse box in the corner and switch off the circuits. We were running out of options, and fast. In a panic, I started reviewing one nightmare scenario after another.
What if water fills the first floor? Do we huddle upstairs? Punch a hole through to the attic and climb up there? Do we even try to stay in the house, and if so, for how long? Could we swim to safety out the front door?
Incredibly, the longest few hours of my life ended almost as suddenly as they began. Almost too subtle to notice at first, the water lost its surging power and began to subside. Our kids, oblivious to all that was going on, were already fast asleep. Daria and I sat in the living room for hours in the dark, save for the glimmer of a few candles, listening to the splash, like clockwork every few minutes, as our possessions fell into the water. Just when we started making a list of what was lost beneath the two feet of sewage in the basement came the biggest splash of all – our huge refrigerator.
I took a few steps downstairs and stopped. A sea of sewage was sloshing side to side and the stench – I can still smell it. I doubt it will leave me anytime soon.
Somehow, I slept about three hours that night. When I stepped back outside, I could see the same wear and tear on the faces of my neighbors. But we quickly took stock of one another and our families and began comparing notes. The damage on every side was heartbreaking. Grace and husband, Nicky, had nearly six feet of water in their basement and lost everything, including her father’s ashes. But we were all alive.
We had no power, gas, heat, even cellphones with a charge – and no way to communicate with anyone outside our tiny corner of the world. The bakery and the deli across the street were flooded. Three 20-foot-long heavy metal box containers that sat in front of the Walgreen’s were scattered down the block, one finally settling in front of a restaurant more than 100 yards away.
Finally, we turned our attention to cleaning up. A neighbor named Ben, who is Grace’s son-in-law and works as a construction contractor, came over and began pulling up the carpeting in our basement, then the flooring, before turning his attention to the walls. In the “dream” kitchen we felt so fortunate to have just a few nights earlier, a FEMA inspector sat, compiling a list of the damage.
You learn a lot about people in bad times and what we learned is how neighbors opened their arms to each other, offering food, water, clothes – anything that might help someone else. We were the new family in town, but we’ve forged bonds and relationships that will make exchanging “Hello” or “Have a good day” feel genuine in a way they didn’t always before.
A long, tiring road lies ahead, but the doubts that crop up will be easier to deal with knowing we’re going through it together. Just a few miles away, people died and homes were completely destroyed. Seeing the scale of destruction in TV reports from my parents’ home in Brooklyn broke my heart all over again.
I spent three days digging through those things I’d cherished all my life. I put nearly all of them on the side of the house, saying a sort of goodbye to so many material things.
And yet, once the sun managed to peek through the clouds, it hit me: We were blessed. We turned out to be among the truly lucky ones.