My 4-year-old daughter only cried once as we tried to clean up the damage done by superstorm Sandy to our home on the New York City shore of Jamaica Bay.
She and I were going through our books, and hers, which were on the lowest shelves to make them accessible, were hard hit. When we came upon "Stick Man," one of her favorites -- the story of a father separated from his family and desperately trying to get back -- and we both saw that it was unsalvageable, I told her, "I'm going to have to throw this one out."
She had been energetic until then, enjoying the chance to help, I think, as she always does. But at that moment her little face went quiet, and the tears -- rare for her in any case -- came as they only do when it is serious: silently, her struggle against them visible in the stillness of everything but the streams running down her cheeks.
It was the moment I had dreaded, and one I had started to let myself think wouldn't happen.
To some extent we had been lucky. Yes, we had 3 feet of water in the first floor of our house, but there was no structural damage, and only minor external damage.
Yes, our fence was destroyed, the inside of our low-standing garage was totaled, but we knew just down the road in Breezy Point, in Rockaway Park, dozens of families had lost everything to the flooding and fire. Farther away, in parts of Staten Island, the story was much the same.
|And I'm thankful that, somehow, my daughter wasn't infected with the anxiety my wife and I felt.|
In those first days, we had even been naïve enough to think that we could do a thorough cleaning, and we'd be able to resume our lives once the power and gas were back, which couldn't be long.
Of course, we had evacuated before the storm hit. My wife and I had come back to the house alone first, fearful of what we would find.
I had spent the night of Oct. 29, 2012, the night the storm hit, at work editing the flood of stories about Sandy and anxiously watching the local TV coverage for any glimpse of places near our home, hoping to gauge how bad it would be.
When Hurricane Irene hit the year before, a reporter had been stationed at the ocean directly across the peninsula from our home, and seeing him there had been reassuring. We'd come through that one with barely any damage.
This time, despite no reports from our neighborhood, what I did see frightened me: streets I recognized under several feet of water, fires burning uncontrolled.
When we returned, two days later, the long slow drive down Cross Bay Boulevard through Howard Beach, then across the first long bridge to Broad Channel, was horrific. "War zone" is the cliché, but this was something different.
It was obvious that in just a few hours, nature -- in the form of the storm surge -- had reclaimed the whole area. Our human pretension to preeminence was shown up for the hubris it is.
But our neighborhood, perhaps because it was sheltered from the brunt of the storm surge's force by a large preserved wetland that juts out into the bay and is at one of the widest stretches of the Rockaway Peninsula, was not so badly hit.
And when we saw our little house still standing there, by itself surrounded on two sides by wetland and the bay on the third, we were both giddy with relief. Even seeing how high the water had been, how it had tossed our furniture around, hardly seemed a tragedy after what we'd seen driving out.
We spent two days cleaning, scrubbing, dragging junk out to the curb and, of course, comparing notes with neighbors who were doing the same.
Then we thought it was time to bring our little daughter home to the house she loves.
What does a 4-year-old understand? Certainly a lot, but it often seems that what she does understand fits together differently than it does for an adult.
We told her about what had happened -- that the water we marvel at out our windows, that brings us egrets, herons, swans, ducks and geese as neighbors, had risen up and come into our house. Things were damaged. We reassured her that her room on the second floor was untouched, her bed, her toys up there were OK.
When she saw the boats that had been lifted and dumped in the streets of Broad Channel, the cars covered with sea grass, the piles of sand that were being plowed off the road, she was quiet, but once we got home she just wanted to get going on putting things back together, returning order to our lives.
And then we found "Stick Man" and the tears came. In that instant, I felt something letting go inside myself, too. Not the distress any parent feels seeing their child in pain. No. It was the same feeling of loss, irrevocable loss that my little girl was feeling holding that book turned slab of cardboard.
But before my own tears could come, I saw her pull herself up. I said, "We'll get a new one. Here, let me throw it out."
"No," she said. "I'll throw it out myself."
And she took it out the open door and dropped it in the garbage on the growing pile of what had been our former life.
She threw out a lot more of her books and toys, too, critically assessing the condition of each thing before deciding what to do with it. But she didn't cry again.
I said in many ways we were lucky, and I think we were.
Even though it eventually took seven months before we could move back into our home, FEMA kept money coming to help us pay rent on the series of little apartments where we stayed, we had no horror stories about low-ball insurance assessments, and the bank holding our mortgage released the settlement money to us quickly enough to pay contractors once we found ones we felt we could trust. My bosses and coworkers were more than understanding and deeply generous with their support.
But as I guess anybody knows who's had their life changed by a storm like Sandy, like Katrina, like the swarms of tornadoes that rip through the Great Plains and Midwest year after year, lucky is a relative term.
I'm thankful that we are back in our home, but more than that, I am thankful that seven months of uncertainty, of navigating completely unfamiliar waters, of over and over making mistakes and trying to correct them, and of near constant stress did not tear our family apart.
And I'm thankful that, somehow, my daughter wasn't infected with the anxiety my wife and I felt. She seemed to look at each move to a new apartment as an adventure, though she never lost sight of the fact that we had "our real house" that at some point we were going back to. Her pre-school teachers said they saw no signs in her of what we were going through and, if anything, she seemed more at ease than she had before.
Despite all that, Sandy has left scars on me. We are home again, our house repaired, but a year after the storm, the old feeling of security is gone. There is a doubt inside me that mostly lies hidden, but keeps surfacing, like the mold that did not appear on my walls until weeks after the floodwaters were gone.
There was something gained, though, too.
Hardly a day has gone by that I have not thought about how my 4-year-old daughter fought through that moment when what had happened was about to overwhelm her, how she overcame it by taking charge of it, by taking it into her own hands: "I'll throw it out myself."