Sand in Their Shoes
Belle Harbor Families Struggle to Return Home
The power went out around dinnertime. Their homes and street were pitch black. Ocean water flooded their basements and lapped against the front steps. The families of Belle Harbor’s Beach 130th Street between Newport and Cronston Avenues waited out Hurricane Sandy as they did Hurricane Irene, but as an empty oil tank bobbed down the street and the ferocious 80-mile-an-hour winds did not abate, their surprise at the storm’s strength mixed with fear and worry. This time, they would not sleep through the night.
Donald Olsen, of 436 Beach, his next door neighbor Joe Napoli, and Tommy Woods, across the street at 427 Beach, are all firefighters—Olsen and Napoli are retired; Woods is active. Their years of emergency response and snap judgment brought the three to their porches, where they shouted to each over the gusting wind. They wondered if it was time to leave their homes.
Around one in the morning, Donald saw a fire that looked as if it was directly behind Woods’s house. “Tommy!” he shouted. “Is that on our block? Go to your back windows.” Woods ran up to the third floor of his 109-year old wooden home and saw the fire two houses away, on 131st. He shot a short video on his iPhone, then went to tell Olsen and Napoli.
Donald kept updating his wife, Mary Ellen Olsen, who waited in the living room in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. We live in a brick house, Mary Ellen told herself between prayers. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.
Then the Harbor Light Pub, on the corner of Beach 130th Street and Newport Avenue, caught fire when a nearby transformer exploded.
Donald knew if the house directly behind the three-story wooden pub caught fire, it would quickly spread down the street. The houses were only a driveway apart. Minutes later, it did. The wind, constantly whipping and heating the flames, turned the fire into a blow torch. Donald went back inside. “We’ve got to go,” he told his wife.
Mary Ellen drove her power chair to the porch’s edge. A neighbor helped Donald lift her off the chair, down the steps and onto a surfboard. As she straddled the board, both men held onto her and the surfboard’s sides. The three, with the Olsens’s two sons and their dog, made their way to the house on the corner. Flaming purple and orange embers flew by at eye level; at one point, Donald saw Mike and Marie Rudolph’s house, on 435 Beach, catch fire. He wore shorts and a short-sleeved t-shirt, but cannot recall if the water was cold.
The fire kept moving, and the group needed to flee again. Tommy and his eldest son, Brendan, arrived in full wetsuits. They had a kayak, which they decided was better to transport Mary Ellen in. They carried it in the house, transferred Mary Ellen into it, shoved it outside, and pushed it through the chest high water for five blocks until they came to the home of Buddy Woods, Tommy’s brother, on 135th.
They were the last to arrive at the house. The Woods, Rudolphs, Napolis, Martens, McDades, and other Beach 130th neighbors were already gathered on the first floor. There were 25 people, four dogs, and one bird in the house. Mary Ellen was helped into a wooden chair; Woods’s sister, Eileen, took off a fleece jacket and put it around Mary Ellen’s shoulders. “I just sat there in shock,” Mary Ellen says.
As the night wore on, some tried to make small talk. Others tried to sleep. Mary Ellen could not, because a bulldog sleeping at her feet “snored like a man.”
Around five that morning, Mary Ellen’s nephew arrived, looking for the Olsens. Someone asked what had happened to the homes along Beach 130th. They’re all gone, he said. He listed the address numbers on one side of the street, then the other. 15 homes had burned.
The children were the first to cry. Soon, everyone in the room began crying and screaming. Mary Ellen was horrified.
They had lost everything.
The families who lost their homes on October 29, 2012, had already experienced tragedy and heartache. It had been 12 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the six firefighters living on Beach 130th responded (none died) and everyone else watched from their windows as the towers fell across the bay; two months later, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed onto Beach 129th Street, killing Mary Ellen’s sister and nephew; three years ago, Mary Ellen began losing the ability to walk, and hardly a year had passed since Michele Woods began an aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer.
Through it all, a tight-knit community developed. They had block parties every year, their kids were growing up together, and if a neighbor or friend was sick, a meal wheel was started without question. The day after Irene, the firefighters on the block hooked hoses up to the street, washed the debris and sea foam away, and then had an impromptu party after a store run and some of their wives made food. It’s a party—and a day—that they look back on wistfully. That community is something the Beach 130th families have not abandoned, and it is sustaining them through the dislocated lives they’re living until their homes are rebuilt.
“We’ve got sand in our shoes,” Mary Ellen says. “We can’t leave.”
The day after the storm, numbed by their sudden homelessness, the families started to make plans for where to go. “There was no phone service anywhere. It was just desperate,” Mary Ellen says of the first weeks after Sandy. Firemen from Woods’s station arrived and took Mary Ellen in a fire truck to her sister’s house nearby. A few weeks later, the Olsens moved to Bay Ridge. The Woods stayed with Tommy’s sister, Eileen, on 129th, for three weeks until their insurance company provided a four-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills. The Rudolphs likewise moved to Forest Hills, while the Napolis followed the Olsens to Bay Ridge. The Martens moved to Marine Park.
As weeks passed, the families worked to graft their lives onto a new, temporary home and a new neighborhood—learning the right subway and bus lines to take to work, how to get their kids to school, accepting clothes and household goods donated by friends or relief organizations, pondering whether to begin replacing the possessions they’d lost, knowing it would all need to be packed and moved eventually. They met insurance adjustors on the sidewalk where their houses once stood, and began taking in the dizzying array of paperwork and process required to be reimbursed for their losses.
Tommy Woods, 50, regularly returned to the pile of charred wood, twisted metal, and broken brick where his home had been in search of anything that might have survived the fire and flood. He found his mother’s nativity set, and a few other odds and ends from her home, on the house’s first floor. “I told him, quit telling me stuff that you find, because it’s too depressing. You’re not going to find anything of ours,” Michele, his wife, says. “And you could recognize stuff. China shattered to bits. The stove and bed springs. Bikes. Skis.”
In January, the Woods hired a private contractor to remove the rubble. “I was glad when they finally took it all away, so he would stop looking,” Michele says.
While Tommy searched the burnt remains of his home for possessions, Michele searched in a different way. She works as the M.T.A.’s assistant auditor general, and is methodical, left-brained, and not scared by numbers. She took on the task of dealing with their insurance agency, Allstate. To receive reimbursement for their possessions, a “contents list” of everything lost had to be cataloged. Michele mentally walked through each room, visualizing what hung in closets, the socks they wore (for her and their youngest son, Thomas, short Nike socks), furniture, Christmas ornaments—everything down to the specific types of ketchup and mustard. They were still at Eileen’s, without power or hot water. Michele would often wake in the middle of the night, remembering another item. She would go downstairs in the dark, turn on her computer and type it down. She cataloged nearly 7,000 items, with a total worth of $481,000, into an Excel spreadsheet completed between Christmas and New Year’s, just before Allstate’s 60-day deadline.
“It was torture,” she says. “I hated it. The stuff that you didn’t care about, it was such torture trying to remember it. And the stuff that you did care about, it made you sit there and think, I lost my engagement ring, and I’m never going to have it back.”
Mary Ellen’s multiple sclerosis—a progressive illness that worsens due to stress—had dramatically worsened. Before Sandy, Mary Ellen could transfer herself from her wheelchair to use the bathroom, shower, and sit on another chair. Now, she cannot walk at all. She still does a lot of volunteer work, something she began doing after she could no longer work, including at the school where her sister teaches and for a local organization called the Graybeards. But to use the bathroom, Donald and one of her sons has to lift her off the chair and onto a portable commode. “It’s horrible,” she says. “I used to be very independent.”
But she has become the glue holding the Beach 130th families together. Soon after Sandy, she collected phone numbers and e-mail addresses, created e-mail chains for people to talk about rebuilding, and helped the Martens find a rental home in Belle Harbor in November. She knows if the families stay united, they can support each other, share knowledge, and rebuild faster.
Mary Ellen organized the group’s first formal get together, held on March 9 at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. Its bay windows overlook Jamaica Bay; on the horizon, one can see the eyelash-thin sticks that are the cranes adding floors to the Freedom Tower. Men and women cluster around a U-shaped bar, ordering glasses of red wine or beer. Money lies scattered about.
Sitting to the side, she is greeted—“Hey, Mary Ellen!” “How ya doin’?” “Thanks for putting this on!”—with kisses on the cheek and hugs from almost everyone. The men stand toward the back, holding a Budweiser or Coors, with straight postures, neat crew cuts, and trim appearances. It’s not surprising they’re firemen. The men and women quickly separate—the men trading jokes and stories, laughing gregariously, the women talking quietly and seriously in a tight circle. Thick Rockaway accents fill the room.
Mary Ellen quiets the room. Oscar Gubernati, a local philanthropist experienced in disaster relief, and Nancy Carbone, executive director of Friends of Firefighters, speak about the help their organizations are offering. Carbone mentions a trailer, located where the Harbor Light Pub used to be, where short-term therapy will be provided. “You’ve all been through hell,” she says. The words cause everyone’s facial expressions to become distant. Jaws clench; tears are fought back.
Afterwards, people go back to catching up and trading information about their insurance companies, architects, and their progress moving back to Belle Harbor.” If anyone knows of a house for rent in Rockaway, let me know,” Amy McDade says at one point.
She, like her neighbors, is desperate to return to the small neighborhood, where everyone knows everyone, it’s safe for their children to freely wander and hang out with their friends, grocery shopping and other errands can be run with just a short walk down the street, and the beach is blocks away.
“We’ve all gone like this,” Michele Woods says, spreading her hands past shoulder width, indicating their community’s diaspora. “Now we’re going like this.” She brings her hands close together.
The efforts of folks in Belle Harbor and other storm-ravaged areas to speedily rebuild their homes are confounded by new housing regulations and flood maps brought about by Sandy. FEMA’s draft flood maps, expected to be finalized sometime this summer, recommend homeowners elevate their homes 12 feet above ground to avoid future flooding.
Even more irksome is that they can no longer have basements, something their old homes had. Instead, the executive order, which spells out numerous conditions for rebuilding, stipulates that the lower-level have a lattice-type structure which would allow floodwater to pass under the houses. The style is common in hurricane-prone coastal areas like Florida and the Caribbean. But the Beach 130th homeowners puzzle over how to make space for their home’s boiler, laundry room, electrical panel, and other things they stored in the basement. They also worry about break-ins and insulation. “I had a workshop down there. I had loads of tools…and storage, and my bikes.” With it open, Tommy says, none of that is possible.
The homeowners can follow the city’s current housing code, but if they do, they would have to pay thousands of dollars in increased federal flood insurance premiums.
The Woods and Olsens are following Bloomberg’s new guidelines that call for increased elevation. They’re being practical, and feel they have little choice—they wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, Belle Harbor floods again. But although they won’t have to pay flood insurance, the process of elevating their home, having a concrete foundation with pilings, and the open lattice means their construction costs will be tens of thousands of dollars higher.
The changes have also hampered how quickly their architect can work. “We were left in the dark for a certain amount of time…we didn’t have any clarification of what, exactly, the ramifications of those guidelines would be,” says Jeff Geary, the Woods and Olsens’s architect. “Six months before the storm, there’s a fair chance the building would have been built already.”
The Woods moved back to Belle Harbor on March 28, into a one-story, two-bedroom rental two blocks from their old home. A friend, who’s rented the first floor in the past, owns the home. Sandy damaged the basement and first floor; construction workers were still repairing the basement. The home was recently furnished with a matching plush maroon couch and chair, coffee table, a small entertainment center, flat screen TV, dining room table and chairs, and kitchenware.
Michele, Brendan and Thomas sat on the couch, waiting for the housekeeper to finish mopping fine-grained, pale sawdust off the kitchen floor.
“What will you do today?” Michele asked.
“Hang out,” Brendan said.
“What will you do?” Michele asked Thomas.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Once the housekeeper finished, the Woods started moving their belongings. They have not bought much since Sandy (“I had way too much stuff,” Tommy said at one point)—mostly clothes, laptops, bikes, surfing gear, and other necessities. It all fit into a dozen large, black leaf garbage bags tied in thick knots. Without opening the bags, it was hard to tell which bag belongs to whom, so they were taken to the living room. Michele immediately started unpacking the bags, hung her and Tommy’s clothes in their closet, made their bed, and stacked extra sheets and towels in a hall cupboard. Brendan and Thomas picked out their beds in the room they’re sharing, and Thomas left with a quick “bye” to hang out with friends.
“Thomas is in the room, so I’m sure it’ll be a trial,” Brendan, 14, says, when asked what he thinks of the new house. “We’ll make it work, I’m sure.”
Once unpacking is mostly done, Tommy and Michele decide to get lunch in Belle Harbor’s strip of businesses along 129th. “Where should we park?” Tommy asks.
“Let’s park on our block,” Michele says. “Why not?”
It’s too easy to find a space along the street. The middle of Beach 130th is flat and empty: cement foundations mark where the houses once stood, as do address numbers that are spray painted on the sidewalk. Beach sand fills the space where the basements once were, level with the yards. A barbecue grill, table, and chairs still sit in the Woods’s backyard, and a partially burnt surfboard is propped up against the back fence. Cinder and beach sand are still mixed in with the lawns. The trees that once lined the street with dark, verdant foliage are charred, hardly alive. There are still signs of life—some yards have a few random, blooming crocuses and tulips.
Tommy and Michele eat at Plum Tomatoes Pizzeria, the local pizza shop. Then Tommy gets ready to leave for the fire house, and Michele leaves for the Forest Hills apartment for a mandatory meeting with Allstate, to make sure the furniture—which Tommy and Michele both describe as non-descript “hotel furnituradicare”—provided by the agency is accounted for and undamaged.
I visit the Woods one week after they’ve moved. They’ve filled into the house. A basket of Easter chocolate sits on the coffee table, and a PlayStation is hooked up to the TV. On the kitchen table, in a small flowerpot with one hard golf-ball sized dark green bud, is a small lemon tree Michele’s father sent from Kansas. “I’ve always wanted one,” she says.
The Saturday after moving back, Michele goes to Strands Salon, where she’s had her hair cut for years. After Sandy, her hair was buzz cut and salt and pepper. Since completing her cancer treatment two weeks prior, her hair quickly grew—a side effect of radiation. And whereas previously her hair was straight, it’s now curly, another side effect.
When Michele mentions the salon, Tommy cuts in with a tease. “Oh look, she’s giving Sal some props,” he says.
“Tommy makes fun of me,” Michele says to me. “He says, ‘go to the city, go to the city.’ And I said, no, I wanted to go back to the person who cuts my hair, so I waited. When I got back to Rockaway, last week, I went in and made an appointment.”
Simply living in Belle Harbor makes Michele say she’s “80 percent of the way” toward life being normal. Tommy agrees, but reluctantly—he misses the home he lived in his entire life, and won’t be happy until the new one is built. Instead of spending the days he’s not at the firehouse painting or tinkering at different projects in his home, he spends hours perusing houzz.com looking for design ideas he can talk to Geary about, then meticulously look over the latest designs.
The Olsens’ experience is similar. After Donald first drew their new home’s design on graph paper, meeting with Geary at one point for three hours, and almost weekly, frustrating back and forth e-mails and phone calls, their drawing is near completion. “They want their homes and their lives back in order,” Geary says. “There was a high level of frustration.”
Their situation is more complex: they want an elevator so Mary Ellen can access the whole house, and all the bathrooms have to be handicap-accessible.
“Jeff called,” Mary Ellen said in early April.
“Uh-oh,” Donald replied.
Geary had just e-mailed the latest drawings, which he recently took to a meeting with a Department of Buildings inspector for initial approval.
“He didn’t go into great detail,” Mary Ellen said. “So far our plans look okay, with the exception of a full bathroom on the first floor. I call it ‘basement.’ He said, ‘stop calling it that.’ We’re using some leeway with my handicap. I can write a letter to say there’s a necessity to have a full shower for when I come off the beach.”
“Well, give it a shot,” Donald says.
“Okay,” Mary Ellen says.
“We’re getting close,” Donald says. “The fact that they are okay with everything except the shower, Mary, that’s pretty good.”
Geary submitted the final plans for the Woods’s and Olsens’s future homes to the Department of Buildings on May 3—almost six months to the day since Hurricane Sandy. Another month, at least, will pass before the department gives approval and allows the families to hire a builder. They all had hoped to break ground in April; now the families will be lucky if their homes are completed by Sandy’s one-year anniversary, also the time when their insurance companies cease paying rent for their temporary homes. But with one of the last major obstacles to rebuilding almost out of the way, they feel hope that their travails are close to ending and that life will be better than before.
A mix of hope and optimism is the stance they’re almost forced to adopt. “What are your choices?” Donald Olsen, who is normally quick to laugh, says. “The whole thing, it’s been a lot. But it’s a step up every time we make a turn.”
“Just think how smooth sailing the next decade is going to be,” Tommy Woods says. “What else could happen? We’ve already experienced everything.”
AMANDA WALDROUPE is an award-winning journalist and writer. She is a recent transplant to New York City from her native Portland, Oregon, where she wrote for the Oregonian and a variety of other weeklies and monthlies.