I have done a lot of reflecting lately, and I’ve decided that I need to do more reflecting. I’m the type of person that doesn’t do well with internal brooding. I need to share. I’ve definitely gotten some slack about that, but when it comes down to it, I am the person that I am. Nothing can change that, ever. I can’t be the quiet type. I can’t be the internal introspective type; I need to be the type of person that shares my musings, my thoughts, my ideas. So I am going to start writing a lot more about my innermost quarrels, the tumbling of random Michelle thoughts bouncing off of each other.
And the subject that has been weighing most on my heavy head? Hurricane Sandy. I feel deeply traumatized by the night that the storm hit my neighborhood. Fortunately, we have had so many deeply supportive people that have offered and given our family so many things. Unfortunately, I think about that night every single night before I go to bed. I wanted to share some things with you to help you understand my experience better.
One of the first things that I think the most about was that I thought our family was going to die that night. When I tell people that, they don’t understand. Gerritsen Beach was not ravaged like Sea Gate or Breezy Point or Rockaway. The big difference is that all those people were able to get out of their neighborhoods while I was with my three children in the upstairs bedroom alternating between crying in a ball and trying to organize our belongings so that if we were able to get out, we would have important things ready.
Something happens in your brain, something short circuits when you realize that you are primarily responsible for three young lives and that you possibly made a wrong decision that will stay with you the rest of your life. It’s a heavy thought to hold. I kept thinking constantly that I had killed my family by making the wrong decisions. Earlier in the day, I had been hurricane exploring, for lack of better word. I was curious and wanted to see where the waves and the water were. I was out taking pictures and surveying damage that had already been inflicted. I came home and everyone was in a good mood. We weren’t panicked or anything because we had experience with Hurricane Irene the year previous and nothing crazy happened.
As early evening came, the winds picked up and around 6ish as I was watching Bloomberg’s press conference the power went out. I went downstairs and we started lighting candles and finished eating our dinner. The mood was light and cheerful. I decided then, for some reason I have no idea, to walk to the end of our block and to see where the water was behind the concrete barrier. To my utter dismay and horror, not only had the water already passed the barrier but it was halfway down my block. And not only that, the water was also coming from the other end of my block. And THAT water was coming from what we call “The Point,” a small beach at the very end of our small neighborhood. The water was coming from both directions. I have never, ever witnessed something like that.
I know that when we bought the house we asked about flood insurance and we were told that we were out of a flood zone, that the area had not had a flood in 92 years. So to see that water coming from both directions made me realize that we were in trouble. I walked to my corner and could see that the water pouring in was about knee deep at that point.
I went back into the house and told Billy that we were flooding from both directions. We were careful with what we said to the kids, we didn’t want them panicking although I was certainly already feeling the rush of adrenaline. Here’s where the decision making came into play. Billy wanted to go immediately. I was scared to leave the house with no power in the neighborhood but also, with moving water. I had always heard that you should never move your car with fast moving water, you can lose control quickly and take you places you don’t want to go. I didn’t want to risk that with the kids. Billy heard me out and then agreed. I thought perhaps that was the right decision. I was actually okay for awhile with that decision until we checked to see how high it was again.
The water was getting higher and higher and it moved so fast, so quickly. There weren’t any waves breaking but just water flowing endlessly and endlessly. It was dark and it was cold. Transformers were sparking, cars were eerily honking and their lights were flashing. And that water still poured in. Thankfully, our house in Gerritsen Beach is raised so the water was still making its way up our steps, while some of our neighbors already had water pouring in their first floor living rooms.
I said to Billy that it was getting really high, probably waist deep at that point. Jenna was reading to Brandon, Justin was crying on the couch and I was two steps away from high panic mode. I told Billy we had to leave, had to leave
The only thing was that the water was now so high that we couldn’t open the door to the car. And in my panic mode, I needed a slap. If I was scared when the water was knee deep what the hell was I thinking to get in the car WAIST deep?? But I was scared and just talking, or rather, almost screaming.
I can’t begin to explain how I felt. Every time I looked out that door the water was getting higher and higher, things were floating, things were submerged, I was surrounded on all sides by cold, dark, water. My neighbors and I were continuing to have communication by shouting through our windows. It gave me a small comfort to know that people were with me, it wasn’t only just us. We might not have been all in the same house or area but we had a bunch of people on our block and if we were going to die, there were going to be a bunch of us dead. That might sound weird but that thought did hold a small consolation. We weren’t completely isolated.
Which bring me to another thing. I was asked the other day how it could have been so bad if I was on Facebook. That’s what people don’t understand. Facebook was my lifeline to people outside, my lifeline to people that know and love me and my family. 911 did not answer my calls, which is a whole different story, but to have FB was another small consolation. People were worried and scared for me. People were responding. People were there, even though not physically in the moment. That gave me comfort to know that. And besides, it holds true to my personality. I talk about what’s bothering me. I talk about what scares me. And Hurricane Sandy scared the living shit out of me.
When we realized that we couldn’t open the car door, panic really set in. I kept on thinking, “I killed my family, I killed my family.” While we were NOT in a Zone A mandatory evacuation area, and I would have left if we were told, I was thinking that we should have left when the water was only knee high. Now we lost that opportunity and it was my fault. We should have left. Now we were going to be stuck in this house and drown instead.
You have to understand, I didn’t know when the water would stop rising. I only saw flashbacks to Hurricane Katrina footage. Billy swore we wouldn’t die in that house, that we had a second floor, an attic and if need be, we would hack the attic out and we would get out that way. We weren’t drowning in that house. I thought that dammit, I’m a freaking Spartan, I got this. But I wasn’t the problem. The three small pieces of my heart walking around, were Jenna, Justin and Brandon. I thought of strapping Brandon into my baby carrier, the Ergo, and keeping him on me that way. Jenna and Justin I would get their life jackets. We would do what we had to do to keep our family together and alive. Billy said we would float on mattresses if it came to that. You have no idea the crazy shit that your mind thinks when you are in panic mode. I also was thinking that if we had to leave floating on something, what about downed power lines? What about lightning? Thinking of my children and their lives weighed heavily on my shoulders that night.
At a certain point I could no longer look at the water level. The last time that I looked it was chest deep flowing down my block. Our minivan was submerged. I could see its lights under the water. There was something completely surreal about that image, our minivan was underwater. What was next? I couldn’t take looking anymore. Emotionally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Looking out at that rising water was chipping away at my sanity. It was unfathomable. So, at a certain point, I resigned myself and the kids to Jenna’s bedroom upstairs. Our bedroom had a bigger bed and bigger space but there was a gigantic tree in the yard behind us and I was terrified that it would come crashing through the wall of the house while we were in that room.
So, in that room all four of us hung out. The wind whipped around us, the walls shook and the water continued to rush in but I no longer looked out the window. I laid in the bed with my three children all around me. We had small candles flickering and we just all started saying as a mantra “water down, water down, water down.” Well, my panic self started saying it, crying it and the kids just copied me. Billy eventually gave up staring at the rising water and he came to join us as well. We were all scared with hearts racing and tears rising, with adrenaline pumping and bodies sweating. But we hunkered under blankets and wrapped our sweaty arms all around each other and waited. Waited either for the water to come up to us and for us to make our next move or for the water to recede and for us to make our next move. But for now was a waiting game. There was nothing else that we could do. We had to wait to see what destiny would bring.
It’s interesting about that time when I gave up staring at the water and went into Jenna’s room instead. I know that I wasn’t sleeping at any point at all. But most of that time I feel like is missing. I don’t remember big parts of it. People told me that we spoke and I don’t remember that. It’s like I completely zoned out of that reality and went to special Michelle land. But also, on the other hand, I was also thinking about escape plans and I know that if I had to I would have been able to jump up and react. But I didn’t need to react so I kind of sat there in some weird-ass trance. I remember some parts so vividly and other parts are just a sick blur.
I don’t know how much time passed in that room but I know that we all just lay down in Jenna’s small twin bed and just listened to the wind and watched the candles flickering on the wall. Billy lay behind me, drenched in sweat and the three kids lay in front of me. I’m probably not giving you a good idea of what I felt that night but I can still picture myself in that room, hear the sounds, see the sights, feel every little detail. I didn’t know if that was the room that we would walk out of, or if that was the room where we would struggle with water, hacking out the roof, and possibly, death. Every parent is fearful of horrible things happening to their children, but for the first time in my parenting history, it became real, it became concrete. Of course, I have been scared before, like when Brandon unlocked doors and left the house, or when he fell in the pool, but it was nowhere compared to this night. 911 not answering meant that we were completely and utterly dependent on our instincts, it meant that we were going to have to save our children 100% by ourselves. It’s an overwhelming feeling to know that no one is coming to help you, no one is coming to save you. You are alone. Does that make it clearer? I feel like some people did not understand the fear that I felt that night, the horror of it.
After some time, Billy got up again. We had charged our phones earlier but because of constantly texting, calling, FB’ing, the battery was getting lower. Billy spent that time talking to people that he knew, trying to find people to get us out of the water. We were told that they were sending police boats and bulldozers to get people out of the neighborhood. That might be true but they never came for us. All I knew was that there was going to be a second tidal surge and my family needed to be out before that came. I couldn’t bare to be there again with water coming in again. Any hold I had on sanity would be completely lost with that.
At some point also, there was a police command center in the beginning of Gerritsen Beach. They were refusing to allow any people into the neighborhood to help people out. I couldn’t understand that at that time. We had no idea how far that water would rise, there were many families in their houses, the majority of them with children. I can only now half understand why they weren’t allowing people in, they didn’t want to risk people going back in there and getting hurt. I understand. But I also know that being one of those people in those houses, I was scared beyond belief. I wanted out. I needed help. And they were refusing anyone to get back into the beach. I thought for sure there were going to be mass casualties because of that.
Thankfully, that wasn’t to be the case. I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually the water receded. We still couldn’t get anyone to come into the beach but we finally, finally found someone who had gotten in there to help someone else and he agreed to get us out. I will be forever grateful to that man. It felt like a rebirth to know that we were going out, that we were saved, that if that second tidal surge came in, we wouldn’t be there. The relief I felt was tremendous. It was almost elation. We piled the kids in his car and headed out. Along the way, we alerted firefighters to our neighbor who was stuck in his house, water chest deep was preventing his way out. He was removed, along with his girlfriend, through a window.
Leaving the neighborhood was surreal. There were cars that the surge had pushed, everywhere. We had to duck and weave and swerve to avoid all the cars. They were horizontal, vertical, diagonal. Traffic patterns meant nothing. There were sirens and ambulances and police. I was shaking from adrenaline, fear, shock, I don’t know what. I was happy to be out. I was scared, I was sick. I felt utterly traumatized.
So that’s my story. I have lots more to say, lots more to process. But this novel is almost 2,800 words long and writing this is bringing back so many feelings so I need to chill. For tonight, at least. I hope that you can understand my point of view a little better. And hug your little ones a little tighter tonight, you never know when your world is going to be tossed completely upside down.