Hurricane Sandy was clawing its way up the Eastern Seaboard on a pleasant October day when I left my house on the shore of New York City’s Staten Island. The government had issued an evacuation order for my Oakwood Beach neighborhood, as well as all low-lying areas of New York and New Jersey, instructing people to leave by dinnertime. So I loaded up my son, daughter, and 9-year-old shih tzu and headed to Brooklyn, where a close friend was letting us stay with her in an inland neighborhood. Little did I know that the next time I’d see my own house it would be submerged offshore, lost to us forever.
My husband, Peter, stayed behind to try to minimize flood damage and move everything in our basement up to the first floor. That evening, I was at my friend’s house playing Wii with my kids when I missed his call. The message said, “I love you. Kiss the kids for me. I’ll see you soon.” It was that last part that made my heart sink. Peter is an Iraq War veteran, so I was well aware that in wartime you always say “I’ll see you later,” instead of “Goodbye.” I knew then that things weren’t going well on Staten Island.
I tried Peter’s cell phone but couldn’t get through. Then the power went out. I went numb.
I finally heard from Peter at 9:30 that night, in what turned out to be the best and worst moment of my life. He was alive, but clearly traumatized from having had to swim out of our house and grab onto pieces of debris to reach dry land. “It’s all gone,” he told me. At the time, I couldn’t quite process what he was saying.
I’d later learn that the water had flooded the entire basement and risen to the first floor, reaching Peter’s chest before our neighbor’s house banged into ours and ripped it off its foundation. The water had risen nearly 16 feet. Our house floated almost a mile into the weeds and then just dropped into the water.
Facing the Aftermath
When I got back to Staten Island the next night, I understood what “all gone” really meant: There were no streetlights — or any lights, for that matter. Cars were floating in
We went back again in the daylight. The beach was flooded and I could see my daughter’s Little Tikes slide, upside-down around the corner from where my house used to be. “Where’s my house?” I asked. Even as I was looking at the scene in front of me, I didn’t believe it. It was like a horrible nightmare.
The next day, using a rowboat that had washed inland, we went to our house to see if we could salvage anything. I was able to get my wedding dress and our kids’ baptism outfits from the top of my closet, but that was about it. We had lived there for six years and suddenly everything was gone. No toothbrushes or coffeemaker or winter jackets or socks.
For three weeks I went through the motions of trying to put our lives back together: wading through insurance claims, renting a new apartment, getting our kids settled back into school when it reopened, and sorting through bags and bags of donated clothes and household goods.
Meanwhile, people were unbelievably generous — even total strangers. I’m so touched by what everyone did for my family when I was so exhausted and unable to think clearly. They donated food and water, air mattresses, and many other essentials. A running blogger I’d met only once set up a gift registry at Target to help us restock our home.
Mom’s Gotta Run
Before Sandy, running had always been my sanity. It was the one thing I did purely for myself, especially after I had kids. Before the storm, I was running three days a week, with two days of cross-training — either swimming or biking.
I had run 20 miles the weekend before Sandy to prepare for the 2012 New York City Marathon. Suddenly, I didn’t even have a pair of running sneakers. I was so down that I couldn’t see my way out of the hole we were in.
When city officials finally canceled the marathon, I was relieved. How could life go on as normal when it was so clearly not? But it also reminded me that part of my life was gone.
My husband had been pushing me to return to my old routine, as was my Staten Island running team. One of my teammates dropped off a sports bra and sneakers. I wore the sports bra under a T-shirt because I didn’t have much clothing. But I didn’t use it to run — I just wasn’t ready.
About three weeks after the hurricane, I finally felt like I needed to move and that I had to stop making excuses. I didn’t have any of the gear I’d grown used to: no headphones, no armband, no GPS. I just went outside, looked at my phone, and told myself that I’d turn around in 15 minutes if I felt tired.
The minute I started running, I realized that I’d come back to my safe place. I didn’t have to answer any questions or listen while someone told me how sorry she was for what I was going through. It was just me again. I was choking back the tears. Suddenly I knew I could cry and that it was OK.
I didn’t realize it consciously, but I ran straight to my old neighborhood. It was a disaster zone, and the beach where I used to run was closed. The storm had taken everything from me, even something as minor as my running route. When I got back to my apartment, I sat down on the steps and sobbed.
But it was a start, and running became the first routine I could return to after Sandy. I realized my body still worked, and that I needed to start caring again about what I was eating and take care of myself.
Forging a New Path
Today, I always run toward my old neighborhood. It’s important to me to not forget what happened there, because, for most Americans, Sandy is just an old news story. On Staten Island, though, it’s ever present.
Running and surviving have become intertwined for me. Sandy not only stopped the marathon, it destroyed the places where I most loved to run. The beach will come back, though, and I’ve learned that there is always another way.
I’m not running where I used to, and I don’t know where I’ll end up. But I’m running.