Sandy Then and Now: A Reflection on the Days After the Storm and the Progress Made

Long Island was decimated by the Superstorm which struck last October, but has made great strides in returning to normalcy.

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A year ago today Long Island awoke to find itself reeling after the night Sandy struck. When the storm struck our traditionally calm shores it was classified as a post-tropical cyclone, but it combined with two additional storm fronts and a tide elevated by a full moon to earn the titles of “Frankenstorm” and “Superstorm.” The path of devastation left in its wake was as severe as any hurricane ever to make it so far north.

Sandy absolutely crippled the Island’s infrastructure, causing public transit cancellations, blocking roadways with toppled trees, knocking down power lines, destroying substations, and interrupting the flow of gasoline to LI. Nearly two weeks after Sandy struck, Nassau and Suffolk were forced to institute rationing measures in order to cut back on the hours-long lines which had formed outside gas stations across both counties. Shipments were delayed and unpredictable, but many residents chose to camp overnight inside their cars at dry stations in hopes of being able to fill their tanks when supply trucks finally arrived.

Conditions worsened as a nor’easter which came to be called Nemo struck a week after Sandy. Hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders were still without heat and power when the frost came, prompting towns and churches to open “warming stations” to give locals a reprieve from the cold. Many other locations and businesses also created charging stations where people could plug in their cellphones in an effort to stay connected with loved ones while electricity continued to be restored; in the days immediately following Sandy, however, reception was poor and phone calls were difficult to place. Nemo did more than just more than force those without power to suffer through frigid temperatures, it also set back recovery efforts substantially, prying power from thousands of residents who had just seen it restored.

Utilities provider LIPA struggled heavily to restore power to the nearly one million customers who had lost it, leaving many without electricity for weeks. Even after the lights had been turned on across most of the Island, there were still a great many hurdles to overcome.

Unprecedented floods damaged, destroyed, and in some cases outright washed away the property of many living near the coast. Debris from fallen trees and pieces of buildings blown off the structures which once held them littered the land; much of the shore had been eroded in the storm. The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant was backed up by storm waters, severing the flow of clean water to Nassau residents west of the Meadowbrook Parkway.

Homes and businesses which were not demolished by Sandy still suffered damage of their own. Roofs were stripped of their shingles or torn off entirely, and sodden houses quickly became susceptible to harmful molds. Insurance companies have been accused of shortchanging their customers and denying claims which ought to be honored. Reports of robberies sprang up around the most harshly impacted buildings, and unscrupulous individuals posed as repairmen or salespeople to take advantage of homeowners seeking a break on expensive repair services and materials. For many, damage done by the storm also caused their property values to sink.

Schools were forced to close for days or longer, putting a strain on students and teachers who already struggle to cram an entire course load into a single school year. New concerns about safety and the need for temporary housing caused emotional distress and psychological trauma in many children, straining the ability of districts to counsel their students. Vacation days were stripped away to make up for the time missed after the storm, removing the reprieves normally provided over the course of a school year.

Like any other structures, some schools were susceptible to damage during the storm. School buildings in the Rockaways and Long Beach were hit particularly hard: East Rockaway High School was flooded with 5 feet of water, and West Elementary School in Long Beach was so badly broken it could not reopen at all during the 2012-2013 academic year. Books, furnishings, teaching materials, wiring, computers, and desks were all lost in the floods.

For some residents there was unfortunately no return from the devastation incurred at Sandy’s whirling hands. Demolished homes are hard to replace, and storm surges washed away every vestige of the hardest hit businesses. 285 lives were lost across the storm’s path of destruction, including 14 on Long Island and 43 in New York City.

Long Island has, however, made great strides in recovering from the damage done. In the days following the storm, food pantries opened their wares to those with nothing to eat. New Charities opened up and continue to send aid to those still hurting as a result of Sandy. Major League Baseball players including Ike Davis of the Mets and David Robertson held a charity golf tournament to benefit victims of the superstorm; a great many musicians turned out to a concert held for the same purpose, and Long Island natives Twisted Sister headline a similar show. Donations are still being accepted for Sandy relief.

Sandy has cost the US an estimated $65 billion, and a large chunk of that burden has fallen on Long Island, but the federal government authorized substantial funding to further recuperation efforts in January of this year; support continues to be granted to both prior expenses and future rebuilding projects. Senator Schumer helped to obtain $42 million for repair and reinforcement of the Long Beach Boardwalk just last week, and Governor Cuomo recently released $815 million for Sandy recovery and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Portions of that package are being dedicated to mitigate damage to wastewater facilities (including the Bay Park Plant), providing better outage management and faster power restoration, as well as the strengthening of 8 vulnerable bridges on the Island. Over the past year, just under 4,000 homeowners have been awarded $451 million in housing assistance. A report from Senator Schumer released yesterday estimates that New York State will receive a further $6.3 billion in federal assistance in 2014. FEMA guidelines have also been set to allow homeowners to challenge the findings of insurance companies which have refused to pay for Sandy-related damages, giving residents an avenue to pursue much needed money for their own personal recovery.

The East Rockaway High School reopened its doors to the 1,300 enrolled students in April after suffering nearly $10 million in losses. With $3 million in federal support, Long Beach’s West Elementary School was able to open up in time for the 2013-2014 school year.

At the start of 2013 the Moreland Commission released a report recommending that LIPA be transformed or replaced as a result of its inability to restore power in a reasonable time frame after the storm. As a result, New Jersey-based utilities company PSEG is now set to take over the Long Island Power Authority’s day-to-day operations. Up to 32 flood-prone coastal power substations will soon be raised to avoid future flood damage and power interruptions.

National Grid is also in the process off improving its storm response operations. A new weather predictive tool has been created to help the company predict where damage is most likely to occur based on present conditions and past storm data, and its IMAP program will allow the company to track where crews are in relation to outages in real time. Every National Grid employee has been given a specific assignment in the event of another major storm, and several new practices have been put in place to keep the public informed of progress made during repair efforts.

There is still a great deal of work to be done, both to recover from the impact of Superstorm Sandy and to prepare for the next major storm, but donations and relief funds continue to come through as Long Island slowly returns to normalcy.

“The spigot is finally on, and the aid is now flowing,” said Senator Schumer.  “Things moved too slow in the first year – there were bureaucratic hurdles to overcome and red tape to cut – but now the programs are up and running.  New Yorkers will see an estimated $6.3 billion in aid next year, which is enough to rebuild almost every house, and create a community that is much stronger than before.  We’ll continue to recover, and will be back stronger than before.”

Businesses impacted by Sandy and the Long Island economy are also poised to receive a boost, as New York State has launched a campaign to promote tourism to the region. The LIRR is offering special discounts alongside packages with such destinations as the North Fork wineries and Montauk Village, and a television ad set to The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” will be airing to encourage tourism to the area. Nothing could completely undo the toll of Superstorm Sandy, but Long Island continues to forge onward, recovering a little more each day.