With tons of Sandy debris at Nickerson Beach shipped away, Long Island downtowns bustling again and conversations turned from hurricanes to holidays, it almost seems as if normalcy has returned two months after the superstorm.
But the side streets in the hardest-hit communities like Long Beach are still littered with debris. Stray sandbags used in futile attempts to stop the historic floodwaters continue to blot some sidewalks. Eerily darkened waterfront apartment buildings sit vacant.
Although most of the Island has cleaned up and dried off after the worst storm to hit the region since 1938, more questions than answers remain. Many are tedious, like queries listed in insurance paperwork and Federal Emergency Management Agency applications. Others are unanswerable.
“But, mommy, if we’re not home, how will Santa Claus know how to find me?” was one question Rev. Msgnr. Donald Beckmann of St. Ignatius Martyr church in Long Beach recalled hearing during Christmas Eve mass.
The hardest of all to answer may be this: how much longer will it take?
Local officials say it may be at least a year. Those still recovering from Katrina—the only hurricane to cost more than Sandy—and officials in other tropical cyclone-prone regions say a comeback could take even longer. Less certain is recovery from the incalculable emotional toll—or how many residents will permanently move off LI as a result.
In the days immediately following Sandy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called getting hit with such devastating storms “the new normal” after tropical storms Lee and Irene caused comparatively catastrophic flooding upstate last year.
Amityville Mayor Peter Imbert is among those doubting the possibility of returning 100 percent to pre-Sandy conditions.
“Some homes just won’t be rebuilt,” he says of his village. “I think we can hope for a 99 percent recovery.”
Other local officials, like Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman, see the recovery as a chance to plan for future storms.
“We’re foolish if we look for 100 percent recovery,” he says. “We need to look for 200 percent recovery. If we build back exactly as things were before, we miss the opportunity to provide the protection and the security that our residents need and deserve.”
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who’s requested nearly $1 billion to repair the troubled Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant that failed during the storm, characterized the superstorm as a turning point.
“There are now two eras in the history of our county: pre-Hurricane Sandy and post-Hurricane Sandy,” he said in November.
When Katrina, the costliest and fifth-deadliest hurricane in national history, breached the levees in New Orleans in 2005 and government response efforts collapsed, now-retired Gen. Russel Honoré was sent in to clean up the disaster.
“Nothing will ever be exactly like it was before,” Honoré says of the Sandy recovery, noting that the Crescent City’s population is about two thirds what is was before Katrina. “Regardless of what politicians have said, they will not make this whole again. It will never be the same. Never.”
LI will likely see a similar population drop as New Orleans, says Honoré, who has been called in to help with the Sandy recovery efforts. He attributes the decline after Katrina to increased insurance and property costs. Those working toward recovery shouldn’t be too hasty, he warns.
“There’s a term we used to use in the Army called, ‘rush to failure,’” says Honoré. “In disaster recovery, you can literally rush to failure and people never recover because they made decisions too quickly.”
Long after Katrina, New Orleans continues to work with FEMA on recovery efforts, according to Cedric Grant, the city’s deputy mayor. City officials are now planning to service their subsurface water lines and finally make permanent repairs to roads that were torn apart by Katrina.
“This is just stuff that has taken that much time to get to,” Grant says. He expects all of the work to continue well into 2018—13 years after the catastrophic hurricane.
It’s unlikely that LI will be dealing with Sandy through 2025. But, even if New Orleans is more vulnerable since it’s below sea level, Grant says that the best advice he can give to municipal leaders in areas affected by Sandy, is to practice patience.
“[Recovery] is a long process,” says Grant. “I’m hoping that everyone in the country learns from us…it just takes time.”
In North Carolina’s vulnerable barrier islands—the Outer Banks—officials say they only recently recovered from the damage left by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
“We were still working on [reconstruction] after Isabel as late as 2010,” says Jessica Phillips of the Emergency Management Agency in Dare County, which includes Hatteras Island, the state’s easternmost tip. “The last problems we had to deal with were mostly mitigation projects, raising houses up out of the flood zones.”
In Florida, home to the National Hurricane Center and the country’s most hurricane strikes, some officials say it’s the mental impact, not the structural damage that lasts the longest. Hurricanes can shake residents’ faith in the area as a safe place to live, causing some to move away for good.
“I think the psychological effects last a long time afterwards,” says West Palm Beach City Administrator Ed Mitchell.
After the back-to-back hurricanes of Frances and Jeanne in 2004, he recalls, some West Palm Beach residents packed up and simply said, “We’re not living through another hurricane season, this was bad enough.”
The damage of those storms doesn’t compare to Sandy’s devastation, but the vacuum left by residents who fled can still be felt today, he says.
SINK OR SWIM
The hits LI took from Sandy likewise may be felt in more than just the destroyed homes and ruined beaches.
Carole Shepherd, a therapist practicing traumatology with an office in Long Beach, is among those trying to heal the invisible wounds residents suffered when they lost their homes, possessions, or both.
“I specifically have created group programs for this particular disaster because the need is so great,” says Shepherd. “Most importantly, the groups help to build community. A lot of people have different resources and information that other people could use, that’s happening all over already so this group is a way of consolidating that.”
Shepherd says that trauma therapy has helped her patients put the past behind them and start to create a new present and future for themselves.
“It’s inevitable that things are going to happen, the only question is, how are we going to deal with them?” says Shepherd.
Predicting a timeline for recovery is hard to do.
“There is no way to put a time frame on it,” says Gordon Tepper, a Long Beach city spokesman. “There is a lot of work left to be done. We’ve worked around the clock and will continue to work around the clock and rebuild stronger, smarter and safer. We want to get the beach and the boardwalk up and running as soon as possible.”
One thing is clear: it’s going to be very expensive.
“Money is the fuel of the engine of recovery, says Schnirman, city manager of Long Beach. “Whether it be rebuilding the boardwalk or the beach; repairing and improving our water plant and our sewer plant to protect our residents and guarding against future storms, all of that takes money.”
More than 100,000 people have registered for individual FEMA assistance in Nassau and Suffolk counties, totaling about $316 million in individual assistance. Long Beach has already received $24.3 million to help fuel their recovery, although a $9 billion request for all of LI’s municipalities was pending in Congress as of press time.
“I would expect we are going to be reimbursed,” says Steve Bellone, Suffolk County executive, “but of course that’s going to be a concern because it’s a major hit in your budget in a time where we are already facing great fiscal challenges.”
Village officials across LI were also facing the same cash crunch before the storm blew an even bigger hole in their checkbook.
“If we didn’t receive FEMA money, we would be in big trouble,” says Imbert, Amityville’s mayor. “Spending that kind of money could cripple our budget.”
Rev. Beckmann of St. Ignatius recalled that although the recovery process is still underway and uncertainties abound, there’s still plenty to be thankful for.
“I can’t count how many have said to me, after talking about all of the things that you’ve lost…but those are just things,” he says. “We have our lives. We have one another…and in light of that, the other things really aren’t important.”
—With additional reporting by Rashed Mian, Timothy Bolger and Lindsay Christ