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How One Person’s Family “Weathered” The Storm

(Photos: Gabrielle Sierra)

“We are out of sliced ham,” my mother says over the phone. “That is our chief concern at the moment.” It is October 29, 2012 at 10 a.m. and my parents Samantha and Joe and my brother Joshua are making breakfast in Zone A. Hurricane Sandy is on her way and the residents of Manhattan Beach, a Brooklyn community located on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Sheepshead Bay, have been told to evacuate. My parents have decided to stay, as have most of their friends and neighbors. “If a tree falls in the house,” my mother jokes, “we want to be here to hear it. And to clean up after it.”

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. It takes an hour riding the subway to reach the city. On our side of the bridge, cops get around in tiny one-man cars. It’s a boring place to be a kid, but you grow to love it as an adult.

My parents still live in my childhood home, a two family house on Mackenzie Street. They live on the second floor, which is 17 steps up from street level. My grandmother lives on the first floor. 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 of the house is its proximity to the water. From the front porch you can see the masts of boats as they pass by on the bay. In the summer you can hear shouts and laughter from the beach a block away. 

 

Manhattan Beach was declared a Mandatory Evacuation Zone last year during Hurricane Irene. My parents remained in the house that time too. They ate dinner and watched some television. They went to bed early. It rained and the water rose, but not far enough to damage the house. Those who stayed drank bottled water so they would feel less silly for buying so many bottles.

“But this hurricane warning feels a little different,” I tell my brother Joshua, who is living there for a few months while looking for a new apartment. It is late afternoon and many Manhattan Beach blocks are already seeing flood-level waters. Two neighbors scramble to evacuate at the last minute, leaving sandbags at their doors and prayers in the wet air. My grandmother, who lives with her aide, Avis, has also been evacuated. Avis took her safely to Zone C, where she has her own apartment.

Safe but isolated in my Williamsburg studio, I browse through Manhattan Beach photos posted on local websites. The water is already up over the bay walls. I describe the photos to my brother. “I ain’t afraid of nothing, fool,” he says. “Its just a little drizzle.” He threatens to call the “whambulance” if I don’t stop whining.

I phone a few of my friends. My house has always been a hang-out spot for them; there is always an open door, food in the fridge, and at least three dogs to play with. My entire high school soccer team used to meet in the kitchen to eat my mother’s organic snacks while waiting for rides home. My elementary and junior high school friends recall sleepovers when I still lived downstairs, sleeping on our lumpy fold out couch all smushed together. They express their concern and it makes me feel both better and worse.

So I hang up and listen to the wind make ghost noises against my windows.

At 6:46 p.m. my mother calls. The water is up over the grass and into the driveway. “I think we might be in trouble,” she says. She sounds pissed off, like the weather has betrayed an unspoken understanding.

At 7:29 p.m. she calls again. My dad’s car has been lifted by the choppy floodwaters that have washed up the driveway. The car, which we call Blue-y, has been in the family for 23 years. My parents bought it the same year my brother was born. The wind has slammed the car into the garage door, breaking through to the inside. Water pours in through the holes and there is no way to stop it. “The water has somehow made all of the car lights turn on, all of the cars on the block,” my mother says. “They are just floating, lit up in the dark.” She pauses before telling me that all of our childhood drawings, toys and books are in boxes on the garage floor. “I feel sick,” she says. Then she hangs up.

At 7:40 p.m. I call the house. No one answers.

At 8 p.m. my father calls me back. The ground floor of our house has flooded, filling my grandmother’s apartment. The gushing water pushes the air conditioner out of her back window. When we lived down here this was the room where my brother and I used to sleep, our childhood walls painted by my father. Garbage and branches swirl around her living room. This is where we had our first Christmas tree. He assures me that the rest of the family is safe and dry up on the second floor, but helpless to stop what is going on below. He sees a few sparks jumping to the roof from a nearby power line, and then the lights go out.

Throughout the rest of the night the calls come and go. The water continues to rise quickly, covering fences, hydrants and mailboxes. My brother rescues two stray kittens that float by him in the yard. At one point everyone smells smoke and sees bright lights reflected in the sky. They later learn about the catastrophic fire in Breezy Point, a beach neighborhood just across the water from ours. The fire would destroy 111 homes before it could be stopped.

Neighbors from the ground floor apartment of the two-family house next-door are forced to evacuate, and they wade over to my parents’ house for some wine and dry clothes. A teen attempts to check on his car down the block and falls in the high fast water before my brother wades out and helps him come inside. Everyone plays cards and other games, which is a family tradition after holiday dinners. Nearly every celebration is held at Mackenzie Street. I recently put together a photo book for my mother’s 60th birthday and it documented over 50 years of family photos taken on the same front steps. Many of these same photos were in books on a bottom shelf in my grandmother’s living room. After another hour or so the water starts to recede, leaving debris scattered in the dark.

Finally it is morning. My father calls. “Everything looks worse,” he says.
He has 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.”

He goes on to tell me that the sailboats are all loose in the bay. The large footbridge connecting our neighborhood to greater Brooklyn has been partially swept away. Cars have been thrown into local shops, breaking through glass windows, shattering storefronts.

“We just never expected it would get that bad,” my father says. “We are so lucky that we are safe.”

After we hang up I check in with others who grew up in Manhattan Beach. “My parents’ house had 13 feet of water in it last night,” says a childhood friend. I remembered all the pool parties and dress-up contests in that house.

“We lost everything,” says another neighbor, who evacuated at the last minute with her husband and baby. She had recently hosted a house warming party.

We all tell stories. We joke about the past. We tag one another on Facebook. We share links and photos.

The damage is unbelievable, and our lives are altered in ways we have yet to realize. I grew up in the house on Mackenzie Street, and my mother as well. The same goes for many around us. We all attended elementary school in the neighborhood and have crossed the footbridge thousands of times. We wonder if the small stores across the water will have the money to clean up and reopen. We wonder about the damage to the beach and park. We guess about our favorite spots.

At 4 p.m. on October 30, 2012, I call home and speak to my father. This morning they smelled gas, but have yet to hear back from Con Edison. The garage door is still stuck, and the car is filled with garbage. But he sounds optimistic, telling me that a few neighbors are going to sleep over, and that he is ordering a pizza for everyone. Yes, Domino’s is delivering.

Before we hang up he asks how I am.

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