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Getting ready for bed, sophomore Fannie Berlau’s phone rings. It’s a picture message from her sister, Rachael, of 116th street in Rockaway Beach, New York. Water reaches storefront windows. Fires blaze on rooftops, reflecting on the water in the street.
Berlau didn’t see this coming. She didn’t think that Hurricane Sandy would hit her sister’s small town this hard.
* * *
Water going down, fires all around and the fire trucks can’t respond — with the wind the fires are spreading.
Sophomore Fannie Berlau reads the text from her sister from over a thousand miles away. Her other sister, Elise Heeran, is stranded. She’s stranded in her brother-in-law’s house in Rockaway Beach, New York, where Heeran has lived since 2006.
Flood waters from Hurricane Sandy tear through Rockaway’s streets. Fires rage across buildings and 70 mph winds rip the town apart. Heeran is scared. Scared that any minute they will have to go into the raging flood waters with two babies to find other shelter if the water rises. The babies are blissfully ignorant to the dangers that swirl around them; Heeran sings songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to keep them calm.
Berlau is scared, too. She texts her sister from her living room in Prairie Village.
She’s worried about her sister and her nieces — 2-year-old Brielle and 5-month-old Jillian — who are spending in the night in the middle of the storm.
Sitting in her living room, Berlau has her laptop on her lap in the darkness. She’s listening to police radios to see what they say about the fires, any deaths and where the major flooding was. She was texting her sister any news as she receives it.
Meanwhile, Heeran, in the dark, checks Facebook on her iPhone for information that friends have messaged her, like where the fires are, the closest being three blocks away. Heeran has no information besides what friends and family have sent her.
Before the storm, Heeran bought a life jacket for Brielle in the event that they had to get in the water. She knew she would have to carry five-month-old Jillian.
While other families in the area had to take surfboards into the water to try to get across, Heeran just tried to keep her daughters calm. One of Heeran’s neighbors even had to put her 3-month-old in a kayak to get across the street to other shelter.
“It’s just scary, especially with two young kids,” Heeran said. “It’s just hard to stay calm for them. We had to totally be normal for them, but we were freaking out inside.”
Water rose up the basement so fast that the group had to move to the second floor. Heeran wasn’t sure it would stop. When high tide stopped and the water began to recede, the wind threatened to tear the roof from over their heads, sending them back to the first floor.
Elise you’ll be fine. I promise everything will be okay.
Eventually Heeran’s phone battery, and her conversations with Berlau come to an end around 1 a.m.
* * *
Heeran’s apartment building had their power back as of Nov. 23, 25 days after the storm. The devastation caused by Sandy left Heeran no place to live, much less take care of her daughters. Rockaway’s streets were covered with sand and the boardwalk had been uprooted and thrown up the coast. Their apartment was deemed unlivable.
Heeran and her daughters left the next day with her sister-in-law, Lynn, and her two kids. Their dad had to stay in the city to work.Taking the time only to go to Brooklyn and get the car, settle four toddlers into car seats and take a look at the apartment, Heeran departed with her sister-in law, headed for their cabin in upstate New York. The cabin is in Hunter Mountain, NY, about three hours north of Rockaway. Rockaway Beach is on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, about twenty miles southeast of Manhattan.
“[We’ve just been] taking care of the kids,” Heeran said. “It’s a lot of work with the four young kids that all out of whack. They were all out of their daily schedules; at that point we had no idea how long we would be here.”
Heeran’s husband, Billy, splits his time between his job as a firefighter in Brooklyn and being with his family. He is there about once a week, for a day or two at a time.
For 32 years, Billy’s family owned The Harbor Light, a restaurant in town that burned down in the hurricane.
The Harbor Light was where birthdays, christenings and other events were celebrated. It was where Heeran had all of her baby showers. It held memories of Billy’s twin brother, Charlie, who was killed on 9/11.
Several other businesses and about 12 houses in town burned down during the hurricane. Many families in the area found themselves working with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to see if the combined aid can make up for the damages. But insurance doesn’t cover everything, like their car that was submerged.
Due to several feet of sand in the lobby and water damage, Heeran doesn’t know when they will be able to move back in. They’ll be in Hunter Mountain for the next few weeks, except for when they visit Berlau and her family.
Rockaway, a community deeply affected by 9/11, is again finding itself relying on its members for support. In the days following the storm, aid from the government and the Red Cross and organizations like it poured into New York City. It wasn’t felt all too strongly in Rockaway, however.
“I don’t even know if they really made a big presence there,” Heeran said. “It was kind of just the community, everyone was helping each other, orchestrating the recovery.”
Heeran and Berlau’s sister, Rachael, along with several of Heeran’s close friends, set up a website where people can donate money to help the recovery effort at giveforward.com/rescuetherockaways. They have so far managed to raise over $12,000.
The next few months will be focused on rebuilding. In the next month, Heeran hopes to be back into her apartment and job; she wants a sense of normalcy back. But that doesn’t mean that life will get back to normal soon.
“The news is probably almost done reporting about it, but there are still homes with no electricity,” Heeran said. “Recovery is still going on and it’s not getting easier for anybody at this point. We still need help. Life is not back to normal for anybody.”