BY JULIA JOHN-SCHEDER
“Most of my friends stayed. I don’t think I can name one who evacuated,” Samantha Grillo, Breezy Point, Queens
“We paid no attention. We went about our daily business. And that was our downfall,” Anthony Lyrixs Ricketts, Far Rockaway, Queens
“The damage is the damage but we had to go through that whole trauma that could have been avoided,” Janet DiGeronimo, Bergen Beach, Brooklyn
These are the voices of three New Yorkers who stayed behind in their homes during one of the most damaging storms, bringing disaster and chaos to this region. Hurricane Sandy’s high surges and strong winds blew up to 90mph at the end of October.
When Hurricane Irene touched down last year approximately 9,200 people followed the mandatory evacuation warning issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the summer of 2011.
This time, Mayor Bloomberg ordered an evacuation of all 270,000 residents in Evacuation Zone A, which encompassed Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, the Rockaways and coastal areas of Staten Island, among other neighborhoods. As Sandy approached, only 6,100 people left their homes to seek shelter from the devastating storm.
There are many reasons why people decide not to leave when such an incredible force of nature approaches. Some choose to stay out of the fear of looting, or if they don’t have anywhere to go. Others are afraid of shelters and not knowing what to expect there. Others might be physically unable to evacuate their homes, whether they live in high-rise apartment buildings or single-family houses. Pet owners might have been worried about not being able to take their animals along. Others, who had evacuated for Irene and nothing happened to their property, opted for waiting out Hurricane Sandy.
Janet DiGeronimo, a Brooklyn College student, lived in Bergen Beach for a little than over a year. She shared a house together with her parents, her younger brother, her grandmother and a dog. The family lived on the first floor of the house, which was still under construction. Bergen Beach was not ordered to evacuate, since it was in Evacuation Zone B.
When she recalled the night as Sandy touched down, DiGeronimo compared the beginning moments with her experience from Hurricane Irene. It started similarly. The water came in at the front door, right next to her room. The family hectically started to put down towels and blankets. Her father left work early on Monday after his family called him and told him they would have to start pumping out the water.
“There was a moment when we all looked at each other and realized we need to leave,” remembered DiGeronimo. She and her family members all carried the same look on their faces because it had dawned on them that the situation in the house would soon be too dangerous for them to stay. They decided to evacuate to their aunt’s house in Bensonhurst. But the storm would not let them.
DiGeronimo remembers the strong winds that also managed to knock down the fence in their backyard, which forced them to have to crawl out underneath it. When they reached the front of the house, she was shocked because “the water was up to my knees,” she said. “It was so weird because the backyard was dry. This whole time we didn’t realize it was that bad.”
The family got into the car and they noticed that all other cars on the street were trying to do the same. They went down the road and then the water started coming at them.
“At that point the water in the car reached up to my chest,” she said. The water pressure from outside made it difficult to escape the car. When they finally struggled their way out of the vehicle, her picked up the dog and they started making their way back to the house. In pitch black darkness, the family waded through the chest-high water. They saw trees down and electric wires catching fire. A woman they have never met before spotted them from her attic and let them stay in her house until the early morning hours when her uncle picked them up and brought them to his house in Bensonhurst.
Looking back, DiGeronimo recalled that up to the last minutes before her house lost power the family had been watching the news and heard nothing about their neighborhood being in severe danger. “Especially since we are close to the water. It’s angering,” she said. On top of that, after they contacted FEMA they got to know that their claim is going to be denied after the first round of inspections.
The DiGeronimo family lived in Zone B, which did not have mandatory evacuation. Residents in areas like Bergen Beach, parts of Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Beach and Canarsie, all which experienced major flooding, were not ordered to leave their homes. Zone B is described as an area that might see potential flooding from a Category 2+ hurricane.
According to the New York City Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan about 670,000 people live in Zone B. Hurricane Sandy turned out to indeed be a category 1 storm but its eyewall, the area within the storm where most rainfall occurs with wind speeds up to 150mph, was that of a category 3 hurricane. This posed higher threats for even higher lying areas of New York City.
The fact is, the flood maps used today indicating zones prone to flooding were drawn in 1983 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), long before people worried about global warming. Post-Sandy there has been much talk about revising the flood maps.
Other New Yorkers, like the Ricketts in Zone A decided not to evacuate this time since not much happened to their property during Hurricane Irene.
The Ricketts family, who live in Far Rockaway, consists of his father Anthony, a math professor at York College, his mother Sarah, Lyrixs and his little sister Shawna. They shared a two-story apartment house and had been living in the Rockaways for the past 8 years.
“When we got the news [about Hurricane Sandy] we didn’t pay no mind because of last year, Irene,” said Ricketts. “It wasn’t serious at all.” Then the family evacuated their house only to find that the storm didn’t do they expected damage. So they decided to ride this storm out.
“But we should have taken Bloomberg’s warning seriously. We stayed and we sure got the full experience of Sandy,” said Ricketts. He described the moments before the storm touched down in a nervous, but thoughtful tone. He and his sister stayed on the first floor of their house. He was on his phone texting with friends, watching TV and following the news on Hurricane Sandy. He didn’t think much would happen until the water started to rise up from the basement of their house.
“The real terror happened when our carpet began to get wet,” he said. The siblings first went outside but couldn’t get far as the water had already risen so high that the family’s car was submerged.
“So we went to the higher floor to my parents, shut the door and prayed. I was scared. I’ve never been so scared in my life,” Ricketts said.
While they are rebuilding after the storm, “my mother and father told us that once it’s rebuilt, they’re going to sell it,” said Ricketts “My mom doesn’t want to go through that experience again. And we’re going to move out of the Rockaways.”
Samantha Grillo, also a Brooklyn College student has a similar story. Her father had decided to ride the storm out in their house in Breezy Point, together with their dog. While he let his wife and two kids leave and evacuate to relatives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Victor Grillo was prepared for the storm to come and leave, just like Irene did in 2011.
But this year’s hurricane would prove a different experience for the retired police officer. During the day his daughter hadn’t talked too much with her father but around 8 o’clock on Monday night when the storm made landfall in New York City, she got worried and reached out to him on his cell phone.
“When I called him the first thing he said was ‘I shouldn’t have stayed, I made a mistake,’’’ Grillo said. She was shocked after hearing her father’s serious words and handed the phone over to her mother who had started crying over fear for her husband’s life. He told his family that he had to flee from the first floor to the attic in order to escape from the water surges coming into the house. The water rushed into the house too fast to save anything.
Meanwhile Grillo tried to call their neighbors in Breezy Point to go and check on her dad without success. Almost all of her friends experienced severe flooding in their homes as well. One of them advised Grillo that she should tell her father to cut a hole into the roof in case he got trapped in the attic with water still continuing to rise. She called a friend who worked in the local volunteer fire department, to see if someone could check on her father. When she finally reached someone she was assured that her dad would be checked on as soon as the water receded.
Then Grillo saw the reports of the fire that had broken out in her old neighborhood. She logged onto the social media site Facebook to see how her friends were faring through this storm and also got in contact with an old high school friend who she heard lost her house during the devastating fire that destroyed 111 homes in Breezy Point, a story that dictated much of the news cycle the day after the storm had hit.
“At that point I was terrified. My neighborhood was in chaos,” she said. A few hours later Samantha got a phone call from her father telling him he would go to sleep, since the worst of the phone was over. They are currently rebuilding.
The days after the storm showed the path of destruction the hurricane left behind in a city that realized how vulnerable it had became in the face of a natural disaster like that. The storm brought up a lot of questions for city planners, in terms of emergency preparedness and for residents in lower lying areas whether they want to keep living there in a future now uncertain.