By Madeline Armstrong
Only hours before Superstorm Sandy struck New York with its full force on the evening of Oct. 29, 2012, Ron Rabinovich, a dental technician who lived in Long Beach at the time, invited friends and neighbors who had not evacuated to the second story of his home, where they ate and drank, paying no mind to the rising water outside the house.
Finally noticing the five-foot-deep wave of saltwater rushing down the street and through the alleys surrounding his home, Rabinovich suited up in fishing waders and trekked chest deep in sewage-tainted saltwater to check on an older couple across the street.
“It was so surreal,” he said. “It was night, and the cars were underwater. The lights of the cars turned on and the horns started” to blare.
The couple were OK, so Rabinvoich returned to his house and sheltered there until the storm ended, the water retreating back to the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the bays to the north.
Superstorm Sandy was one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history. It began Oct. 11 as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa and marched across the Atlantic, slamming into Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane on Oct. 25. It then moved northward toward New York. When it struck Long Island, it was no longer technically a hurricane, as wind speeds had dropped and its eye had largely dissipated. But the storm brought with it a monster storm surge that was exacerbated by the high tide and a full moon, causing massive coastal flooding that reached heights of five and six feet in places like Long Beach. On Long Island, about 100,000 homes were destroyed and 13 people were killed.
“Hurricane Sandy was something that nobody expected to be the trifecta that it was,” said Paula Curci, a Long Beach resident whose home was damaged by Sandy.
A joint project
This reporting package was produced with WABC’s “Eyewitness News,” which featured Long Island Advocate Editors Madeline Armstrong and Yaw Bonsu in its more than hour-long Town Hall on Wednesday at 5 p.m., “Superstorm Sandy: 10 years Later.” To watch the full broadcast, click here.
For our full story on the WABC site, click here.
Surveying the damage
Following the hurricane, MaryAnne Trasciatti, director of Labor Studies at Hofstra University and a Long Beach resident whose home was seriously damaged by the storm, interviewed people in the area to document the storm and its aftermath.
Elizabeth Katz, an interviewee, recounted her experience during the storm. She lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building and decided not to evacuate. In preparation, she filled a bathtub with water, and once the power went out, she read books for 10 hours, waiting out the storm.
“It was like watching an HBO movie about an apocalypse,” said Jill Tadizion, one of the interviewees, describing the damage that Sandy caused. “There wasn’t a single person out. There were boats in parking lots. The wires were hanging like strings. There were no streetlights. All the houses were gutted. It was very spooky and surreal.”
“There were possessions everywhere on every curb,” said Ellen Wiewel, another interviewee. “It was very clear that we were going into a war zone.”
Trasciatti then teamed up with Hofstra professors Christa Farmer and Elisabeth Ploran to conduct a study on what influenced people to evacuate or not.
“We mined those interviews to find themes of what kinds of news sources those people were listening to, what kinds of news sources did people receive information from but ignore,” Ploran said. “They listened to their friends, neighbors, families, social media. They listened to their own communities more than they listened to an official news source.”
According to Trasciatti, many people did not evacuate because they expected the storm to be like Tropical Storm Irene, which had struck only a little more than a year earlier and had caused widespread damage but not major flooding. Most said they had evacuated during Irene, but the storm turned out to be less fierce than predicted.
Additionally, some people were unable to evacuate because they had nowhere to go — no family or friends nearby — and they could not afford to stay at a hotel. Although shelters were offered, Trasciatti said many people found them to be “very scary, depersonalized places.”
The study was published in 2016 and drew attention to the fact that although Long Beach residents were effectively warned about Sandy’s impending arrival and were told repeatedly to evacuate, less than a third did so. The professors conducted interviews and surveys on what messaging would influence people to evacuate.
“Notable is the apparent importance of actions taken by authority figures, such as firefighters going door to door or police officers evacuating their own families,” according to the study. “In addition to the messages from authorities and the information about the magnitude of the storm, there was some receptiveness to messaging about the potential loss of utilities, sewer systems and other critical household supplies.”
Trasciatti emphasized the importance of community networks and community leaders responsible for informing people to evacuate. Farmer noted, however, that some interviewees said that if a similar storm were to occur again, they still would not evacuate.
“There’s nothing you can say that will convince them to go,” Farmer said.
This Saturday, Oct. 29, will mark the 10th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, and to this day, a deep sadness fills the air when survivors recount their experiences, eyes glazed over.
“If you drove through Long Beach,” Rabinovich said, “there were big piles of furniture and garbage on the streets. It was like a barricade — five, six feet” tall.
Rabinovich’s Island Park business was destroyed by the storm, and he had to apply for unemployment. He also had no cars because they were ruined by the flooding.
“We started to go to the car dealers to find cars, and over there we found all our neighbors because everyone was looking for cars,” he said.
Curci and her husband evacuated before the storm hit but were devastated by the state of the city when they returned to assess the damage to their home.
“We had to drive around boats that were on Long Beach Boulevard and mangled bicycles that were kind of just thrown by the wind and landed right there in the middle of the road,” she said.
Curci wrote four poems about Sandy, one of which she was awarded the honor of Nassau County Poet Laureate for. The poem, titled “Mr. Georgia,” was written about an experience she had while waiting in line at 4 a.m. to get gasoline. The car in front of hers had run out of gas, so she gently pushed it around the corner with her car. She never caught the name of the car’s owner, but he had driven 13 hours from Georgia to come help his girlfriend who lived in Long Beach.
By Paula Curci
It took him thirteen hours
past dead fish
and boats racing
in a cross tour
Far from home
around pre-dawn corners
It took him thirteen hours
past mangled bicycles
misplaced boat motors
and bruised 8X10’s
In his Honda
to get to her.
up three flights
running from waves.
She hadn’t slept
In thirteen hours.
Curci also wrote a poem thanking her neighbors for the help that they provided her after the storm. “Everybody was each other’s mother back then. Everyone stepped in and gave each other a helping hand,” she said.
Rabinovich echoed the sentiment. “Neighbors that we knew and didn’t know were getting together and helping each other,” he said. “It’s very sad that it takes something like a hurricane or another natural disaster for people to come together because this is something that we miss today.”
In her interview with Trasciatti, Katz spoke about how the community banded together. “That was the most profound experience I think I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she said.
Katz was one of the few people who still had a functioning car, so she used it to drive people around and jumpstart cars. According to Katz, people were making soup and sandwiches for the community and others were offering to do laundry for those who did not have functioning washers and dryers.
“Nobody motivated us, nobody told us what to do,” she said. “It was the resolve within our own hearts.”
Other Sandy survivors said the storm helped to understand what is important in life. “There are more important things than stuff that got wasted, that got thrown to the garbage because you realize it was garbage before that,” Rabinovich said. “You could live without it.”
Many people dramatically changed their lives because of their experiences with Sandy. Rabinovich said he now thinks generations ahead and has nearly entirely transitioned to clean energy, with solar panels on the roof of his now Merrick home and electric vehicles, including an electric pickup truck and motorcycles, in his driveway and garage.
“We’re more conscientious about the environment and how we can prevent the next hurricane by making our climate better,” he said.
According to Farmer, increased energy in the atmosphere and sea level rise caused by climate change will strengthen future storms. Trasciatti emphasized that for anyone who lives in a coastal community, this is their reality.
“The hurricanes are getting bigger, they are getting more unpredictable,” Ploran said. “It’s become more of a flood damage than a wind damage issue.”
In addition to better public messaging and increased climate consciousness, Curci emphasized people must trust news outlets when they report government officials’ calls for evacuations.
Many people said they would evacuate if another storm were to hit because of the devastation and shock caused by Sandy. However, Trasciatti emphasized that according to the study, messaging needs to change around hurricanes so more people are adequately informed of the dangers. She also said people need to be aware of how climate change affects storms, because for those who live in areas affected by Sandy, another hurricane of the same magnitude, or worse, is possible.
“We have a lot of really difficult decisions to make as a society,” Trasciatti said.
By Paula Curci
We are now all vagabond.
With Sandy now gone
The trees are bruised and barren.
Our world is gray around us.
No sounds and no bus —
Belongings coated in dust
Alone with one another.
We are all mother,
Looking out for each other.
A family brigade,
With some Gatorade
Comes to your doorway in aid
All helping everybody
After the flurry
Thank you, my huckleberry!