It is eight months since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the seashore town of Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, New York. She took the town’s sheltered innocence, their floorboards and sometimes their livelihoods; she stole baby pictures, marriage certificates, cars and precious little somethings—and she sent kitchen parts, like limbs of the homes to which they belonged, soaring down rushing rivers of debris where once there were streets.
Eight months is a long time to be living and reliving the night you are trapped in your home with no phone or lights or cell service, as the waters rage outside and begin to fill your first floor. Eight months is a long time to remember the fear as you make your way upstairs, worrying about your grown children and their children, and the neighbors, and you and your husband; worrying because you never learned to swim, and water was filling your home, higher and higher, destroying 40 years of possessions, both precious and not.
Finally, after watching out the little window upstairs as the neighbor’s home seems swallowed up by the rising water, you lay your weary body on the bed, wondering if you will be engulfed in your sleep.
Sometimes now—and not because you are older and having senior moments—no, this is something very different from that—sometimes you can’t remember your son’s birthday or how old he is, and you know—you even say it right out loud—you just can’t think right yet. The first floor of your house is a jumble of salvaged possessions, a new couch, raw floorboards and barren walls. The home you kept so nice for all these years is reduced to unfinished wood; a flimsy barrier against the elements. Your son worries there might be critters scurrying beneath you, and there was that mold at first that made you all sick. At least the bathroom finally works okay, and you went out and got a range and new sink so you can cook up a hot meal, but certainly nothing fancy. Maybe someday if you ever have a kitchen back, maybe then you’ll bake up a batch of your ginger-molasses cookies. When was the last time you even had a taste of your beloved molasses? Well, no point thinking about that.
For now, you, with your one blind eye, and your husband, who can no longer climb up on ladders and stools to fix things…well, you are doing what you can, bit by bit. But it’s been eight months, and it seems like it may not ever get much better than this.
Liz, a young mother, is standing in the center of the first floor, talking about what Sandy did to them. From October to Christmas, she says, she, her husband, her daughter and their dog each stayed with separate family and friends as they tried to figure out what to do. When they could finally live together again, only the tiny second floor of their home was inhabitable. So they got a little fridge and a single induction burner, and patched together a make-shift kitchen upstairs. Her husband got pretty sick right after they moved back in, as did so many people right afterwards. No matter how much everyone cleaned, there was mold.
But they are doing okay, says Liz. Her throat catches, her big eyes dampen, and she says, “We’re okay, you know? I lost my daughter seven years ago, and after living through that, well…” As her voice trails off, I understand her silence: no torment or pain can equal that of losing a child. But living like this is hard—hard in a different way, like camping out without decent gear or the means to get any for eight long months, not even allowing yourself to think about if and when it will get better. It isn’t as bad now as when they all lived apart, but they are huddled in a tiny space, cobbling together a life as best they can.
When I ask Liz what she will cook when she has a kitchen again, she gestures for me to follow her. She shows me what is left of the kitchen she built a few years ago—just some upper cabinets that were above the flood line. She tells me that re-doing the house was the project that occupied her, helped her get through the time right after her daughter died, but that this time she doesn’t feel the same about it. “Its just that I did it, and I was really into it, and now, well you see,” she says, sweeping her hand around the dust-filled ground floor with its walls of studs and unfinished sheetrock and torn up floors, “I just don’t really know if it’s ever going to happen.”
A few minutes later I ask her what she likes to cook, and she half smiles and looks off, remembering times when her house was full of extended family and her table was laden with food. “Nothing fancy, just a big meal that everyone likes. That’s what I want to do again,” she says, “just cook a big meal for everyone.”
Gerritsen Beach is a town like few others in New York. Tucked on a tiny peninsula between Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park, it began in the 1920s as a middle class beach community tightly crowded with one-story bungalows. Over the years, they were winterized, second floors were put on, and Gerritsen Beach became a year round community of working class people. Everyone I spoke to in Gerritsen Beach has family there; parents, children, siblings and grandchildren living (if not in the same house) within a few blocks of each other.
In October of last year, Hurricane Sandy crippled this tight knit community. Government agencies, including FEMA, came and went, as have the insurance companies. One mother of four boys I spoke to recieved $7000 from her insurance company—not even enough to cover her boiler ($7,700), let alone to rip out dangerous walls and floors and start rebuilding. And now, for all these months, people like Liz who lost most of their possessions are forced to live in two rooms above ripped up homes, unsure how or if her living conditions will ever improve.
I learned about Gerritsen Beach through the magazine Every Day with Rachael Ray, who asked me to help spread the word about how much work is left to be done post-Sandy. Meredith Corporation, (parent company of EDWRR) teamed up with an incredible organization called Rebuilding Together to help get the residents of Gerritsen Beach back into habitable and healthy homes. A little over a week ago, Meredith brought several of us to Gerritsen Beach to talk to some homeowners and see what Sandy wrought. They’ll bring us back again on June 6th — along with hundreds of Meredith employee volunteers who will spend the day sheet-rocking, painting, laying tile and doing what ever else it takes to get families back in livable homes.
I keep thinking about the women I spoke to and I pretend it is after June 6th. They are in their kitchens, and it is just an ordinary day. Maybe Mrs. Morel takes a little taste of molasses from the spatula just after she slides a tray of her ginger-molasses cookies into the oven, and maybe Liz wipes a drip of sauce off the edge of the casserole dish before she brings it to the table. Maybe they are both home again, in their kitchens, doing the most everyday kinds of things that everyone deserves to be able to do in their homes.
I will let you know.
For more information about this project, go to WeRebuild.com