Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island with the force of a tsunami.
Homes have been ripped from their foundations. Some have burnt to the ground. Towns are powerless, without mobile-phone signals, flooded with a mixture of sand, salt water and sewage.
Hurricane Sandy's trail of destruction
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Hurricane Sandy's trail of destruction
Superstorm Sandy leaves a trail of destruction in New Jersey and New York.
Shattered survivors comb the wreckage to salvage their belongings, wade waist-high through water to contemplate what remains of their homes, gather in groups to find strength and share their stories of the storm.
Every story is different but many are similar. Shock at the strength of Sandy. Embarrassment that they defied the mandatory evacuation. Relief that they and their loved ones are somehow alive. And grief and anger as they face a long, dirty clean-up, or the hard reality that they must rebuild from scratch.
Long Island is almost 200 kilometres long and about 30km wide, a fat digit pointing out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Its base is New York harbour, the borough of Brooklyn opposite downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
From there it stretches east, its southern coastline a long string of sandy ‘barrier islands’, holiday hamlets, beachside suburbs and canal-life getaways.
All were smashed by the wall of water pushed north by the storm.
First stop, driving east from New York City through dead traffic lights and puddle-strewn roads, is trendy Red Hook.
Here, artists and hipsters ignored the storm and stayed in dive bars until they were literally flooded out.
Today was a day of pumping out basements, ripping up carpets and regretting choices.
Beside the harbour, opposite a line of old warehouses that the sea has ripped open, workers at the Fairway Market fill shopping carts and bins with piles of ruined food. Teams of people sweep away the water. They’re not in the mood to talk, and I drive on.
Next stop Coney Island, home of funfairs and freakshows.
The famous boardwalk is intact – it’s mostly made of concrete these days. But behind it the amusement park has only just drained of water, and the damage shows. Rides are wrenched from their bases, and the sea surge has coated everything with muck. The ferris wheel stands silent above the drab scene. Nearby streets are covered with a thin coating of wet sand.
Around the corner is Coney Island USA: a freak show theatre, home of the annual Mermaid Parade.
The house manager crowbars open the garage to find his car a mess. Inside the theatre everything was submerged in a metre-and-a-half of water. It’s ruined, and it’s starting to stink.
Owner and chief executive Dick Zigun contemplates the scene.
“My home, my truck and my business are all destroyed,” he says. “It’s weird to wake up to this reality.”
Tonight was supposed to be the big Halloween show, the last night out of the freaks and circus performers before they go to wherever freaks go in the winter.
Now the interior is a mess of muddy sand, the stained, ruined props and furniture piled in heaps after floating and bumping around the building’s interior. He’s going to have to chuck it all out and gut the place before it gets mouldy. It’s going to be a tough winter.
“We have until spring to get the business back together,” Zigun says.
Zigun lives just up the road. He defied the evacuation order, like so many others, and nearly paid a heavy price. Now all he owns untouched by Sandy are the clothes he is wearing and the galoshes he is carrying.
“I assumed it was going to be bad but I could handle it,” he shrugs, ruefully.
When water started pouring into his living room over the sandbags, he realised he would have to find a safer place to ride it out, so he crossed the street to his neighbours’ apartment building.
The street was a knee-deep torrent as the high tide storm surge rushed through the suburb. “They were like rapids – I was worried I would be knocked over.”
Up on a high floor of the apartment block, he watched the water continue to rise.
“I learned something that you only find out when you go through something like this,” he says. “When the water level rises, the doorbells start ringing. And it rings the lowest bell first. Then the second floor… it’s like some phantom drowned sea captain who’s rising up, ringing each doorbell in turn.
“That was creepy.”
A few kilometres down the same peninsula is one of the city’s favourite summertime beaches – Rockaway Beach, usually a stretch of clean sand overlooked by apartment blocks.
Except the beach has jumped the boardwalk onto the road behind it. Tractors labour to clear the sand. A child swings on an intact playground, as his parents take pictures of the buckled boardwalk with their iPhones.
Further up Long Island, smaller islands barely more than extended sand bars sit just off the coast.
They are home to little towns, half holiday homes, half permanent residents who like living by the sea within a decent commute to the city.
One such hamlet is Breezy Point, a beautiful little estate perched right on the end of one of these low-lying islands.
The place is a wreck. On the long promenade, a row of fancy beach homes lie ripped from their foundations, some still lying in pools of salt water.
Long lines of residents are entering the town in rubber boots, armed with rakes and shovels.
However many find their homes are beyond recovery. There is nothing to rake. There are only a few undamaged possessions to gather up in bags and take back to the car.
“Try to stay strong,” a man says on the phone, as he looks at the scene.
Then at the end of the promenade, an entire block of houses burnt to the ground in the middle of the storm. All that are left are the plan-like brick outlines of where houses once stood, some still burning a day later, some with severed pipes still gushing mains water. Here and there a fireplace stands above the blackened debris.
People stand in shock at the sight of what used to be their home.
FDNY chief of rescue operations Joe Downey said his crew did a great job fighting fires waist deep in water as it rushed over the island at the height of the storm surge.
“The whole peninsula was flooded,” he says. “I’ve seen Katrina, I’ve seen 9/11, Haiti. This is on that level.”
Lieutenant Michael Scotko, 23, is a volunteer firefighter who has lived in the town his whole life.
He began the night in the firehouse. “We could see cars getting swept away,” he says. “People with flashlights were trying to signal for help from their houses.”
His team had to evacuate the firehouse as the floodwaters rose, so they gathered people from houses and headed through the surging water and waves to the island’s highest point, a clubhouse which had been designated the storm shelter. It was full of families and their pets.
They waited as the water continued to rise.
Then the nearby block caught fire. They smelt the smoke, then they saw the glow of the flames – it was moving towards them but there was nothing they could do about it.
“Water came into the shelter too,” Lieutenant Scotko says. “If that flooded there was nowhere else to go. That was our last stand, if that went, everyone would have died.
It was an hour and a half before they could leave the shelter to begin to fight the flames.
Lieutenant Scotko knew his own home was in the path of the fire.
“It was hard watching it, knowing we couldn’t get there. The waves were breaking on the houses.”
Finally the water started going down and they ventured out to fight the fire and continue rescuing people – though in some places the water was still above head level.
“Everything was burning around you,” he says. “It was just like total destruction, I have never seen anything like it. And the whole time I was worried my house was gone.”
They only had two fire engines – the rest had been damaged by the storm.
“The worst part was none of the fire hydrants worked,” he says. “We had to pump water from a parking lot.”
But there was one piece of good news. Lieutenant Scotko’s house still stood the next day.
Nowhere else is as bad as Breezy Point, but a lot of places are pretty bad.
As you drive up the coast, the story is repeated again and again.
Long Beach, a cute holiday town full of bars and cafes, has been claimed by the beach. Cars sit in their garages wedged up to their windscreens in sand. The watermark is more than a metre high on most homes.
Police have set up two checkpoints to stop people coming in – there is no power, no mobile coverage, no running water, and in some places there is leaking gas and sewage.
They are trying to persuade people to leave. The mandatory evacuation order has not yet been lifted, and they want authorities to inspect buildings before people go back into them. The last thing they want is another fatality.
But residents are stubborn.
They are pumping water out of homes and businesses. They are filling bags with their ruined belongings. They are driving through streets still submerged in sea water.
On a street back from the beach, a man cracks, shouting at his neighbour in a high, angry voice.
“Don’t tell me to calm down, you f---!” he yells. “You are the biggest f------ moron I have ever seen.”
He stands in front of his home, a cute little cottage in a pool of seawater.
On the road to Babylon, the last stop on my drive east, I pass a 7-Eleven which is remarkable for two reasons.
First, it’s open, despite the lack of power. The smiling owner sells me some M&Ms.
Second, there’s a yacht sitting in the carpark.
It appears to have sailed there.
Around the corner, a nearby marina has floated inland. Yachts, sailing boats and powerboats sit on the road, some pressed up against homes.
Then, in quaint Bablyon, the manicured lawns are stacked with stagnant, dripping couches, ruined dressers and mattresses. The streets are rivers of black, stinking mud that boiled up out of the canals that slice up the shoreline.
There is the whir of generators as people pump water.
Next to the canal, Carol is washing mud off her Crocs.
Half her belongings sit outside her house in a useless, ugly pile.
She shows me inside. The ground floor is dark, and covered in mud. The water line goes halfway up the wall of her kitchen. She’s just finished ripping up the floor with the help of her friend Nick.
Incredibly, though she is literally across the road from the ocean, she stayed home during the storm.
“I was upstairs shaking in my boots,” she says. “I’ve never been so scared in my entire life.
“I will never do that again. This canal was like the ocean. Staying here was the dumbest thing in my life.