I grew up in and around New York City. We’ve had hurricanes in the past. As a child, a tropical weather system meant an amusing evening of watching my father set up pumps in our basement while I spent the evening gawking at the inch or so of water that managed to make it past him despite his best efforts. Our floors were tile and clean-up involved a mop and some towels, at the most.
A little over a year ago, Hurricane Irene made her way toward the City of New York. At the time, we lived in a basement apartment. Despite that, we didn’t think much of the approaching storm. Not wanting to risk dehydration, we purchased a gallon of Poland Spring, a bottle of wine, and some beer. We lit some candles and enjoyed each other’s company. The water survived; the beer and wine did not.
On a Friday afternoon, my principal made an announcement asking us to please make sure that all of our windows were closed securely as there supposed to be a hurricane over the weekend. I obliged and headed home. This was the first I had heard it. Wasn’t a bit late in the season for a hurricane? Sandy? That’s a bit late in the alphabet, don’t you think?
If this was a year ago, we would have stayed put. I would have pulled out the ceremonial mop and towels and headed out to the beach to admire the waves before it started to rain. But, something was different this time around. Six weeks ago, we had a son. Since my son was born, I had been working three jobs and—even when I had a little bit of time off—was burnt out and distant. My wife was discovering the fact that motherhood is truly a full-time job and that her boss was incredibly demanding. At the very least, we would have a little of time to reconnect as a couple if the power went out.
We moved out to Rockaway to start a family. It was both affordable and safe—a rare combination for New York City. My wife had grown up by the ocean and wanted to give our son the same access. We spent our days and nights planning out our future lives together on this beautiful peninsula.
But, as first-time parents, paranoia and anxiety is part of daily life. We decided to heed the warnings. Logan and Wes went off to her mother’s place in Central Jersey and I stayed behind. Climbing into her aunt’s car with an obese cat, a dog with separation anxiety, and a newborn wasn’t her idea of the quiet weekend we had planned. She dropped and smashed her new iPhone in the process and was beginning to resent me for potentially overreacting and shipping her off to New Jersey. Given the information at the time, she was right. No one we knew was leaving and everyone else was treating this like business as usual.
At the last minute before public transportation shut down, I decided that I missed the two of them. Leaving Rockaway was not an easy decision. I battled with the choice for the duration of the trip and almost turned back on several occasions. If a little bit of water creeped in under my poorly-installed door and I was there to mop it up, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But, if I let it sit there for a few days, it might wreck my floor. What about looters? An evacuated neighborhood is a gold mine for someone with questionable ethics and a crowbar. At the time, leaving Rockaway could have been a potentially bad decision for my family.
That night, the storm arrived. 128 blocks of boardwalk were ripped up and thrown through the streets of Rockaway. Entire city blocks burned to the ground. Cars floated down the street and were piled on top of each other as the Atlantic Ocean swept over the peninsula to meet Jamaica Bay. The water was chest high in most places. Everything in our home was lifted four feet off the ground and floated for hours in a toxic soup of seawater and raw sewage before being dropped onto the ground. The water left, but the sewage stuck around. Our refrigerator was ripped out of its wall unit and knocked onto the ground.
If I had stayed, there is a chance I wouldn’t have survived the storm. The only reason we left was because of our son. That little boy saved our lives.
(Photograph Credit: Roman Iakoubtchik)