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Hurricane Sandy, a small part

2012-11-11

I am driving down Father Capodanno Avenue in a blinding rainstorm with Brandon and Connor strapped in their safety seats behind me. Normally my Ford Explorer is impervious to shocks and wind, but now it is rocking back and forth, the steering wheel threatening to tear itself out of my hands momentarily. My windshield is opaque with flooding water.
I’m only doing 25 mph because I’m can’t see a thing in front of me. The rain is coming down in sheets that obscure the road ahead only a hundred feet or less. My windshield wipers are on “high” but they don’t seem to be able to clear the water off enough to see.
I’m beginning to feel a sense of panic, far worse than what has affected me up til now. An hour ago I was just worried. A half hour ago, really worried. Now, I’m starting to panic.
Normally, Father Capodanno Avenue goes along the shore with a slight, gentle curve, all the way to where it turns ninety degrees and changes into Lilly Pond Avenue; right away there is the entrance ramp to the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge and Brooklyn. On one side, Father Capodanno borders the sea with a beach, and a boardwalk, but the sea is really a tranquil bay with only a slot exposing it to the open Atlantic.
Usually, on the landward side of the road are trees and occasional rows of houses, after you get past the hospital; there is a marsh beyond the trees that extends a mile or so inland before you get to more houses.
Usually, I enjoy driving along Father Capodanno and looking at the water, especially early in the morning when the sun is low in the east and renders figures in dark contrast. I like the sea, at least to look at.
Tonight, however, conditions are extreme; a heavy rain and wind has turned into a hurricane, predicted a week in advance, rotating counterclockwise, heading towards the Atlantic Coast of New York City. The rotation of the storm means that its powerful winds of more than 90 mph are blowing directly into the bay along which Father Capodanno Avenue runs.
In addition, there is a high tide because of the full moon, which enhances the high surf churned up by the hurricane. Flooding is affecting all the low-lying areas around the road. The waves are running 20 feet high. All buildings not above that line have been ordered evacuated. Most people with anyplace to go have gone.

Now I am driving on a road that is intermittently under water, with streams of black obscuring the pavement and rushing wildly across to the inundated marsh on the other side.
There is a median with a curb and I am keeping that on my left side as I drive, slower and slower, having to hold the steering wheel way over to the rightside to keep from running into the curb. Finally I reach a wave that crests over the hood and my engine stalls. At the same time, something hits the rear window on the right side and smashes it out.
Now I’m really panicking. The truck isn’t safe anymore with the windows blown out. I’ve got to get the kids out. I can’t hear anything because the broken window has let in a howling wind.  The children are screaming but I can’t hear them.

I unbuckle myself and reach back to trigger the buckles on both kid’s seats. I pull them both into the front seat, then open the driver’s side door, which is somewhat shielded from the wind. The water rushes in, up to my lap.
I pull both kids out of the front seat and put them on the roof of the truck. It seems to be the only thing which is above water. After a few minutes, the waves die down and I can see the pavement again. There is a row of houses in front of me on the land side of the road.
I decide to try for the nearest house, and I take the boys down from the roof and stand them up, holding their hands tightly. I try to point and indicate where we’re going. I don’t know if they understand; their faces are crazed with fear.
The wind continues to rise, until my truck is swept over, on its side, into the marsh on the land side of the road.

There is a tree that has been uprooted near the corner and I push the boys into the relative shelter of the roots, which are sticking up above the water.
The wind is howling so loud I can’t hear the boys screaming but I can see their faces drawn with horror. I can’t imagine what I’m going to do next; the wind is strong enough to knock me down if I try to stand up straight.
Exhausted, I hug my two boys to my chest and collapse among the tangled branches hiding me from the wind. A long time passes, I don’t know how long. Despite my daily workouts, I feel as if I have been carrying a thousand pounds. I try to get up, carrying Brandon and dragging Connor. I manage to get back up on the pavement next to the tree with both boys.
I’m not a big person, just five foot three and a hundred and thirty pounds. Brandon is thirty pounds, almost too much to carry by himself. Connor is bigger, and I can’t carry them both. In five minutes, I am exhausted again. My arms feel like rubber. My thigh muscles are burning.
The wind picks up again, rapidly pitching above even what it had been before. There is a dark mass in the sea that rapidly approaches, becoming higher and higher until, even as I grab the boys to my side, it covers us over and slams us back into the flooded marsh. I am rolling over and over, and the boys are no longer in my grasp. Finally the water subsides enough that I can stand up but the boys are both gone.  It’s easier to swim through the chest-high water.
I manage to get back on the road to where I’m high up enough to look around, but I can’t see either of the boys anywhere. Before, I was running on adrenaline; now, I’m in complete shock. They’re gone. Both my beautiful little boys are gone. I’ll never run my fingers through their fine, curly hair again. I make my way through the surf towards the houses.
Freed of the weight of my children, I make rapid progress. At the first house in the row, I see a light in the second-floor front window. I climb up the stairs to the front door and start banging on the door. After what seems like a long time, someone opens the front door slightly, on the chain.
I start screaming incoherently, then stop and start again more slowly. “My two little boys were swept away in the storm–please help me find them.”
The man–I can see part of him through the crack in the door–isn’t much bigger than me, dressed in loose shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops. He says, “I can’t go out there and look for your kids, I’m not a rescue worker, I can’t even swim. What are you doing out there anyway? Are you crazy to be out in this storm?”
I turn around and go down the stairs, walking now heedless through the howling wind, and make my way around to the back of the house. There are stairs, like in the front, but there are these two concrete flower pots sitting on the bottom of the stairs.
I pick up one of the flower pots and throw it at the door. It cracks but doesn’t open. In despair, I climb over the fence to the house next door, but it is dark.
I look for lights in the windows and knock on the door when I see a light, but sometimes the light just goes out and nobody answers the door. When they do answer the door, they refuse to come out and help me look for my boys. I become completely exhausted without realizing it and I begin to notice the ceaseless wind and rain again.
Finally, after what seems like hours, I huddle myself in a recess on the front porch of an empty house. I sleep, fitfully, seeing the boys’ faces rushing away from me in my dreams.
At last, it is light again, and I stretch myself out, standing up slowly because I feel like my arms and legs are made of wood. After a few steps, I begin to walk a little better. I go up Capodanno Avenue, noticing the devastation now that the wind and rain have stopped and it is possible to see again. All the trees have been blown down, and cars are washed up against the steps of the row houses.
To my surprise, within a few minutes a police cruiser drives up, slowly, lights on. I explain to the officer what has happened to me: my beautiful little boys were swept away by the storm. He gets on the radio. The other officer gets out with a blanket and wraps it around me. He guides me to sit in the back seat. I am utterly and completely exhausted, and I can’t stop shivering.
For two days the police search for Brandon and Connor; they send out divers and everything else they have, combing through the marsh behind the row houses. They even bring out a fan-boat. They seem to be putting out even more effort for a fellow  city employee.  My husband, when he reaches me, tries and tries to comfort me, but I can see that he is barely holding on to his own sanity; he can’t see anything but their faces, thinking they’re gone.
Two days later, Wednesday, they find Brandon and Connor drowned in waist deep water, covered by the waving reeds, piled up against the curb of another street, only a few yards apart, less than five hundred yards  from the landward side of Father Capodanno Avenue, on Staten Island, New York City.

 

 

Unknown to the woman in the story, two other people have died in a small cluster here in the community of South Beach:

Andrew Sammarco drowned in his home on Mills Avenue. He was 61 years old.

Artur Kaszparzak was 28 and a police officer.  He led his family upstairs to safety and then returned to the basement.  At 7 the next morning, his family came downstairs and found him dead.  He had apparently been electrocuted.

For no apparent reason, in a deadly storm that left more than 100 corpses, including a dozen or more whose names are apparently unknown, there are clusters of deaths, especially in the hard hit areas like Staten. Island.  Just glancing at a map of deaths on Staten Island in the New York Times, we can see four distinct clusters of deaths and two individual or paired deaths.  The largest cluster is in Midland Beach.  Looking at New York on a larger scale, Staten Island itself is a cluster, as is the area of Rockaway.   This clustering is a well known phenomenon but its causes are obscure.

The fact that clusters occur, especially in a phenomenon that is known to be uncommon, is sometimes understood by the use of Poisson statistics.  “Poisson” is French for “fish”, and the clustering phenomenon can be observed in fishing; what other reasons for calling the mathematics of Poisson statistics after a fish there are, are also obscure.

The mathematics of the “Poisson distribution” are well suited to rare phenomena, while the mathematics of the “normal distribution” are more appropriate for common phenomena.  Why this is so is unknown but relates to our ability to make decisions about the occurrence of such phenomena.  We should behave as if the likelihood of rare combinations of disasters is higher, or more probable, than we would normally think it is.  This means that we should prepare for the unexpected.  In this case the unexpected is an incident, called Hurricane Sandy, that takes over a hundred lives and destroys a hundred billion dollars in property.

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