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A Year After Sandy, A Survivor Looks Back

October 30, 2013 by admin

By Tom Gullstrand

     I nearly lost my hat. A 90 mph wind gust blew it off my head and into the inky dark waters swashing against the house. “Dammit!” I thought to myself. I had paid $50 for that black fedora not two weeks before. Luckily, the bushes around my Union Beach home, which I always complained about, caught it and my brother is the stout sort of person to wade into three feet of nastiness to fetch it.
     Of course, I’m referring to Hurricane Sandy. Irene’s bigger, fatter, meaner sister. I had spent the days before preparing (as I had done with Irene). A briefcase packed with my papers, a duffle bag with toiletries, my good watch and cash, and a few outfits packed in a suitcase. I was ready. But then again, I’m the neurotic sort.
     Nobody REALLY took Sandy seriously, myself included. Irene had come-and-gone, and we were left unscathed. I spent THAT night on my bedroom floor, away from the windows, and watched old reruns as I drank Ale. We did not even lose power.
     The night of October 29, 2012 was something different. The days leading to it were different. The weather changed and the mood was dark. We did not leave. Union Beach had evacuated certain parts of town.      The shelter they set-up was Memorial School, which is in my neighborhood. If they were safe, we reasoned, then we must be safe.
     At around 7:30 p.m., the lights went off. We were plunged into blackness. Inside, I smoked a cigarette as the folks and I ate a mixed assortment of pasta and vodka sauce. The whining of sirens blared in the distance. Outside, you could see the dance of the neighbors’ flashlights. Transformers started burning-out in the distance. It was when I saw the blue and green flashes in the darkness that I became afraid.
     It was about 8 p.m. when the high tide rolled-in. A mile inland, where I live, the water had nowhere to go. The filthy water of the Raritan Bay and the creeks that flanked us bubbled-up from the storm drains. A half-hour later the sound of a car horn cried out down the street. Two head-lights glowed in the darkness like sad eyes as emergency workers drove whatever mammoth vehicle they had through the briny river that was my street to rescue those stranded passengers.
     The water came in from the sides and then from the back. We all raced frantically through the darkness to get whatever we could upstairs. Even in my readiness, I hesitated to leave. Emergency services for Union Beach had no answers. The neighbors stayed. The people on the phone suggested trying to get to Borough Hall on Stone Road, but stopped short of affirmation.
My mother, panicked and terrified, was desperate to leave. I would have stayed. But what if she was right? What if the house collapsed? I had no intention of dying in my slippers and beside my neighbors. It was do-or-die time.
     Strangely, there was little rain. The wind gusts were fierce, but not frequent.  After we rescued my hat, we waded through the frigid water. It was up to my waste on the lawns, but in streets, it was several feet deeper. The formidably cold water soaked my boots and my cotton slacks. My top coat and all within stayed oddly dry.  
     My brother and I brought strength to strength as we moved towards Stone Road. My mother and my stepfather struggled in the three-foot water. We had to help them.
“It’s just a little water!” I said, optimistically. There was no sense in losing irony now.
     Borough Hall was abuzz with activity and panic. People slogged-in from all over town. Radios shrieked with information and town employees frantically attempted to figure-out a solution... or at least find some control.  They had never seen this day or this disaster coming.
     The school flooded and then the back-up shelter began to fall apart. Patrol cars were destroyed by the water. People called for help, but no one could get to them. The volunteer fire department and all other emergency services were already doing more than they could handle. News of the devastation grew with every weary, tired, frightened group of three or four that appeared. Dogs barked, a mother tried to keep her kids calm and a policewoman ranted, “I can’t handle this. This is too much.”
I smoked a cigarette. I chatted with emergency workers taking their first break in hours and shook the hand of an exhausted fireman. By now, it was past midnight.
     Our cars were destroyed, most likely. But still, we could not stay here. My stepfather ventured-out into night to find a car. He walked all the way to his auto shop on Route 35 in Hazlet and borrowed a customer’s sedan. When he returned, we left. We were the lucky ones.
     The flood waters had receded almost as fast as they came in. Upstairs was untouched. Downstairs was a mess, though it could have been much worse. For many, it was.
I was lucky. I lost very little, not even my hat.

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