The day before Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, Carolyn Alexander, who is 38 and who has lived in Coney Island for 20 years, saw a hurricane evacuation notice on the news. Although many of her neighbors decided to stay, Carolyn didn’t want to take any risks. She packed her clothes, sealed the windows, locked the door, and drove to her friend’s apartment in Queens Village, Queens.
The following night, as Sandy slammed walls of water into Coney Island, Carolyn sat in her friend’s apartment, her heart sinking. She called her mother, Merlyn Alexander, 60, who owns the house and who lives in Boston. Carolyn told her about the potential damages Sandy might cause. Four days later, Merlyn flew to New York City with her husband, Euastus Alexander.
On Saturday, Carolyn took her parents to check the house for the first time since the hurricane. The neighborhood felt as if it were shrouded in mud, dust and garbage. When a car driving by, swirls of dust and leaves rose up. Piles of garbage bags buried the pavement with damaged furniture and unrooted trees.
The Alexander home is a white two-story town house near Neptune Avenue. Carolyn said the basement and the first floor were flooded. She pointed out the mark on the doorframe to her mother to indicate where the water has risen during the storm.
“Hmm, it almost as tall as me,” said Merlyn.
People had started to return to Coney Island. Many houses had their front doors open to let the air flow inside; hopefully the breeze could help dry the carpet faster. Because there was no electricity, damp clothes were hung on the fence in the gardens. Some had even moved their whole living rooms out to their gardens.
As soon as Carolyn opened the front door, the stench of mold rushed out.
“Oh my Lord,” said Merlyn, and covered her nose.
“It’s already better now,” said Carolyn. She had removed all the carpet on the first floor to protect the wooden floor and also to get rid of the stench.
The house was rheumy and dark. The sofa was damp. The refrigerator had toppled onto the sink. The deep freezer in the dining room tilted onto a cabinet, leaving two deep scratches on the wall. Nothing was where it once was.
“How on earth did this happen? Look at the fridge, and the freezer,” Carolyn said to her mother. “They are so heavy. What happened? I just don’t understand.”
Merlyn followed her daughter through the living room, the laundry room, the kitchen, the dining room, and then to the back yard. She checked the chairs, tables – every piece of furniture she could see. The washing machine and dryer were broken. Items in the storage were soaked.
“This is like an earthquake, not a hurricane,” said Carolyn. “I just don’t want to touch anything. I am so out of it.”
The Alexanders bought flood insurance decades ago, but say still haven’t heard anything from their insurance company. They decided to seek help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).
FEMA set up a Disaster Assistance Service Center on Surf Avenue two days ago, in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium with the coordination of the New York City Mayor’s Office and NYPD. In a roughly 700 square feet tent, FEMA was providing various disaster assistance services, including disaster loans, food stamps, legal help, and personal property damage declarations, according to John R. Veach, the agency’s Disaster Recovery Center manager.
After waiting for 30 minutes in line, Carolyn and her mother got a chance to talk to a representative. They had planed to claim $15,000 to $20,000 damage, but were told that they should have gone online or called to register first. Nothing could be done until then.
“Really we have received nothing so far. I have no idea what’s next,” said Carolyn.
“It could take weeks to process the claim,” said Veach. “We have a huge number of inspections to do.”
But the Alexansders still considered themselves lucky compared with others whose homes were completely destroyed. Carolyn’s car still drives, although finding gasoline has become a problem.
On Wednesday, she was driving on the Belt Parkway heading to her sister’s apartment in Crown Heights when she heard over the radio that many gas stations in the city were closed down because there was no gas. At the same time, her low-fuel light started to flash.
“I was crying,” she said. “It was so stressful, that nerves, that anxiety, oh my God.”
She began to panic. “How am I gonna get gas? Where am I gonna get gas? Where am I? Where should I go?”
Then she saw a long line of cars. “That must mean a gas station is open,” she told herself. She drove to the gas station. “I am not leaving that gas station until I have gas,” she told herself.
But after waiting for over an hour, a policeman announced there was no more gas, and all the cars had to leave. Carolyn didn’t listen. When the policeman approached to her, she told him, “look sir, the lights are on, I can’t move.”
Minutes later, the policeman pointed at her and other two cars, saying, “You, you, and you, come here, others, go! No more gas here.”
“I was so overwhelmed with joy,” said Carolyn. “I got gas. A full tank! I was crying. I hugged the gas station manager. I thanked him. I even told him I love him. It was my miracle, so small, but so big.”