What Do You Do First After a Flood? Digging Out in Staten Island.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 5 2012 1:23 PM

Staten Island Households Reduced to Piles of Debris

Digging out in New Dorp and Midland Beach.

A seriously damaged home is seen in the flooded Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island on Saturday in New York City.
A badly damaged home in the flooded Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island on Saturday in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

At the corner of Hylan Boulevard and New Dorp Lane, about 30 residents of Staten Island lined up for gas, red cans in hand. They were there at 9:30 a.m. when I walked past the station and still waiting an hour later just outside the yellow caution tape wrapped around the Hess Express' perimeter. The thing was, there was no gas to sell. The station had shut down the night before in a tense scene as cops directed lines of cars and people away from one of the few stations on the island that had been selling fuel. The line in the morning was anticipating a delivery later that day.

Anxious queue-standers asked a passing cop for an update. He shrugged. “Truck's not here yet. I just talked to the owner, and he doesn't know when to expect the delivery. If it's even coming today.” Just then, a red-and-white gas truck turned the corner. The line watched as it kept going out of sight. “Island Transport,” one woman waiting in her truck told the pedestrians in line. “This station gets gas from Island Transport. You see a truck with that written on it, and it’s for us.”

Santo Cogliandro was toward the back of the line, holding four red gas containers of varying size. They would hold $40 worth of gas when full, the station's limit when it was selling. The nearby Gulf sold only $20 per customer when open. And that “when open” should have actually been an “if.” Irene Caughey, just in front of Cogliandro in line, said that her husband waited in line for six hours to get gas from the Gulf station Saturday, only to be turned away when it ran out. 

Cogliandro is a sales rep, and while he waited he fielded calls trying to get New Park Pizza some more supplies, especially cheese. New Park and Family Fruit were giving out food nearby, he said, just outside the hard-hit New Dorp and Midland Beach neighborhoods. His aunt lives in Midland Beach and lost everything. She is nearly 80 years old. Cogliandro was trying to get her FEMA assistance. She had homeowner's insurance but not flood insurance. Most banks won't give morgatges to houses in one of New York's flood zones without flood insurance, but her home was paid off.  Now it's gutted. As I left the gas line, Cogliandro gave up. “I gotta get back to my aunt’s,” he said as he started back to his truck with the four empty containers.

I walked with Cogliandro through the Allstate/FEMA aid center in the New Dorp High School parking lot on my way to meet his family. The center got up and running Sunday morning, Allstate mobile claims coordinator Bobby Smeltzer told me. There were only a handful of people there in the morning, with the largest crowd in front of a FEMA tent handing out clothes and food. Smeltzer said they had let people know the center was there by placing radio ads, canvassing neighborhoods, and putting information on their website. By midafternoon, the parking lot had filled up, and residents walked through the playing field path with shopping carts full of supplies. Other groups had popped up in the parking lot and were handing out food. Verizon was charging mobile devices for free. Smeltzer worked on the Katrina aftermath for Allstate. On Staten Island, Sandy had left “very, very similar devastation,” he said, but “it’s coming back quicker.” 

After meeting Cogliandro in the gas line, I had called Occupy Sandy organizers on his behalf to find a crew to help him with his aunt’s house. Someone called Cogliandro back and let him know about the aid center. It had cleaning supplies on hand, but Cogliandro wanted labor, and he wanted it fast. Looking around his aunt's house, it was easy to see why. 

Water levels reached 10 feet on Mason Avenue, up to the upper deck on Cogliandro’s cousin’s house, just behind his aunt Maria Barresi’s place. Their neighborhood was like the “inside of a bathtub,” Cogliandro said, and Sandy filled it to the brim. After the storm, a temporary morgue was set up down the block. The cousin’s home has its main living quarters on the second floor. The water stopped just below that level. But they lost their above-ground basement, where cousin Dominick had his “man cave,” and also a file cabinet with photographs and papers, including his marriage license. Their four family cars were gone, already towed away after the water drowned them. Barresi's house was elevated but lower to the ground, and the water line in her home reached my chest. Everything was ruined. Her mattress sat on the back porch, bloated from water. In front, an entire home's worth of possessions was piled on the curb, at least six feet in the air. Most other houses on the street had identical piles, entire households reduced to garbage bags of soggy contents and furniture that reeked of salt water. Firemen had helped pump water out of the house, but the only other utility or government agency they’d seen, Cogliandro said, was a crew that came to shut off their gas. On the wall by the back door, a wooden clock ticked away the seconds. It was the only working thing left in the house, so Cogliandro let it stay.

Barresi is staying with friends while her house is gutted. When the process is done, there won’t be much left. Cogliandro pointed to the water line on wall after wall. The floor was mud with a saltwater stench. Her family had contacted FEMA but needed insurance paperwork first before they could register with the agency. “The first step,” Cogliandro said, “is that you need volunteers to help people clear out houses.” Water, cleaning supplies, and the like are useful, he said, but not until the dangerous mess left by severe flooding is removed. “Sanitation is out picking this stuff up, but you gotta get it on the street, you know what I mean?” He and I were still looking for volunteers to help out.

Marie's daughter-in-law Laura Barresi stood on the second-floor porch and almost nonchalantly told me about her neighbor’s near death. As the flood waters rose, the neighbor held onto a cat in a carrier and the railing of her deck, refusing to drop her cat and swim to safety. She was finally rescued by a neighbor who used sheets tied together to pull her to safety (and the cat, too). As we looked at the plastic jugs of ruined wine (they make it every year), the neighbor’s car wedged up on a wall, and an above-ground pool now made redundant, Laura tried to put it in perspective. “We were lucky,” she said. “All our stuff will be replaced. We can't be replaced.” As a fire truck siren blared down the block, she grimaced. “Between 9/11 and this, I can't stand that sound.”

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.