When the post-hurricane cyclone hit Long Island, its monstrous arm spun across our fragile landscape like a scythe slicing grass. It decimated whole neighborhoods and towns, while sparing isolated homesteads with illogical precision. I have heard this same story, same ending, different towns, with intermittent regularity. The fickle fury of natural disaster marks its gruesome path with random accuracy.
I recently met one survivor of such a random sparing, sheepishly harboring survivor’s guilt for being untouched in a neighborhood where most homes were devastated by the flood waters. She felt, “like there was an umbrella over my house.” I asked her if her house was built up high. She lifted her hand and indicated with her fingers, just a few inches. She didn’t understand why her home was spared. I am not sure that we are meant to know the reasons why. It happened! I venture to think that it is what we do with what happened to us, that matters.
She spoke of a house in south Merrick, on the Bay, located on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides. I have been there a thousand times, being the daughter of a man who built most of the bulkheads, pilings, finger floats and marinas in Nassau County: creating the docks that took on water like sinking ships in the neighborhoods that flooded. I, being the progeny of generations of bay-men, decoy carvers, clam diggers, tasted oysters clinging to the seagrass on her boggy plot before her house was built. Alas, all of the land below Merrick Road was originally mudflats, marshland, ditches, cattails, swamp grass: man claimed it for his home. How can we then be angry at the land that reverted to its natural habitat when a meteorologic aberration stressed it?
I respect the land the bore my ancestor’s names, as I respect the unpredictable, raging sea, that swallowed so many of my ancestors, their sons and fathers, following in their chosen occupation. The salt water of Long Island is in my history and in my veins: I can read the bays and ditches of Long Island like a blind man reading information from a page of braille. Mudflats were my childhood playground, jumping ditches, picking buttercups amongst sea grass, digging clams with naked feet in cotton bloomers. And all the while the bay breezes fluttered fragrant through my long blond frolicking curls. But on one stormy night in October the golden south shore turned terrifying and torrential, blasted and bleak.
The woman and her husband had evacuated for previous hurricanes, but decided to remain in their home for Hurricane Sandy. After all we were all confident: the weather reports as the hurricane traveled up the East coast, were quite benign.
Actually, the National Weather Service made a decision not to issue hurricane watches or warnings north of North Carolina. Weathermen reported 74 mph winds, barely a Category One Hurricane, downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone before it landed in Atlantic City; no significant damage along the coast. Until Jersey! Suddenly, there were state and local officials on television warning the public of a curve to the west at about the level of North Jersey, the hurricane joining with a middle-state storm, a cold front, a northeaster, The reports were ominous, frightening! It was too late for many of us to act. Many didn’t believe the eleventh-hour hysterics, given the rantings last year about the “Storm of the Century” that fizzled across Long Island. Most of us lost our electric: before the storm hit. After that, you knew what was happening only right here, in the dark.
I left the sweet solace of my hospital bed, because my sons wouldn’t stop calling, urging me to get out. I went to a converted garage surrounded by tall trees a few miles away, where the wind was so quiet, that I felt silly lying on the floor waiting for the storm to pass. But, on the Merrick waterfront, boats were bashed against splintering docks and finger floats jumped onto bulkheads. rain pelted black waters, sifting sand through whitecaps, slopping onto patios, swelling, pounding the shore.
And a man and a woman sat in their home, prepared to wait out the hurricane, with candles and flashlights. As the storm progressed, the rain was relentless: and the wind slashed mighty trees and tore their roots from saturated soil, chewing chunks of structures into tinder. The homeowners questioned their decision to stay as the winds grew more fierce, too late, wandering from window to window, seeking relevant information. But all was black and cold, as the storm spit out mighty power lines. There was no comfort. There was no communication. There was only anticipation.
A flashlight darted toward the bay at the peak of the peninsula, the location of the most imminent approaching danger. The man strained to see the bay beyond the murky downpour, seeking information too late to make a difference. The bay was a mass of skating whitecaps, crashing against docks, washing over lawns, battering boats. “It’s o.k. Hon.” He believed what he saw.
“The other way! Look the other way!” There was urgency in her voice.
He turned his head toward the east and peered into his neighborhood. “OMG, I don’t believe it”. He exclaimed.
A river roared toward the house, a wall of sea water advancing. She hurried to the window, and was horrified, to see through the darkness, raging, frenzied water rushing toward them, strewn with debris: patio furniture, tree limbs, household items, lumber, chunks of siding, life preservers, and motor boats. There were no streets, no yards, only water, as far as she could see, rushing water, churning rubble. She was terrified. The comfort of her home had suddenly become a terrifying trap. There was no obvious means of escape. No vehicle could provide transportation. No structure could offer shelter from natures’s mighty wrath. Raging waters were the master of the moment: in control, eclipsing choice, smothering security. There was no place to go but where they were.
The fury of the storm increased, the deluge swallowed up their yard. They peered from windows at the swirling floodwaters, realizing that there was no higher, safer place to go. They thought of the children they could not call from this heatless, lightless room, and they regretted having no choice, and staying behind. There would be no rescue until the storm was done with its awful rampage and it was safe for rescue workers to approach. There would be no help in time to save lives. They were on their own, surrounded by an angry sea.
And in those final moments of uncertainty they looked at each other and were comforted by the history they created together in this space. As they watched from inside, aware of options closing quickly, and longing for daylight, the whirling tempest approached the concrete steps to their house, lashed them, spit-up foamy wreckage upon them. and seemed to stop. It sat there turbulent, for hours, threatening, teasing, slowly receding, as the homeowners respectfully waited: barring alternate choice. In the end, not a drop of water entered their lovely home. The homeowners were grateful, confused, humbled, traumatized, harboring survivor’s guilt: marked with an indelible imprint.
So it happened, that on the night of October 29, 2012, wind and rain swept across Long Island with insidious precision: the tide rose and sea water engulfed homes, reclaimed virgin marshland. Two homes stood on a primal bog that night: one was spared and one was swallowed up, at the inclination of the tide. And that made all the difference!
And we all understood that it is wonderful to live on the shoreline of Long Island. But, we must respect the genesis of this land, and the authority of the sea. And when the sea enforces its original right of ownership, to borrow or reclaim the land we love, we must acquiesce to its will or relinquish our claim altogether. The sea is a powerful and unpredictable force: with dominance over man and land alike. We can only borrow paradise, not own it.