Anthony Rifilato

The morning after Sandy, I didn’t know where to start

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“It’s total devastation — countless cars are ruined, the boardwalk is ruined, people’s homes,” Sgt. Eric Cregeen told me the day after Hurricane Sandy, as he took a moment inside Long Beach Police Department headquarters to try to make sense of the devastation.

The 28-year veteran police officer noted that the Atlantic Ocean had met Reynolds Channel — the worst situation imaginable on the barrier island — and that he had never seen anything like the destruction left behind by the 9-foot storm surge.

“The lifeguard shack? It’s gone, smithereens, nothing. In front of Waldbaum’s over here, there’s a big chunk of boardwalk — it sailed all the way up Riverside Boulevard and landed in front of Waldbaum’s.”

For a time at the height of the storm, Cregeen said, many first responders simply “couldn’t get a car more than 10 feet without it being buried under water.” And yet many of them ventured out anyway — Long Beach firefighters, for example, responded to eight house fires in the Canals, battling the blaze in four or five feet of water.

Covering Sandy was unlike anything I had experienced as a reporter, and, five years later, we’re still writing about its aftermath, whether it’s residents who remain displaced or ongoing rebuilding efforts. The City of Long Beach has made a remarkable recovery, of course. But it was the firsthand accounts from residents when the rain stopped and the skies cleared that struck a chord with me.

The morning after the storm, I headed south from the Herald’s office in Garden City with a colleague, Jim Harmon. As we drove through Oceanside and Island Park, the destruction grew visibly worse. The National Guard and State Police had set up checkpoints at roads leading in and out of Long Beach.

As we walked over the Long Beach Bridge, others were leaving the city, heeding a mandatory evacuation order. I mentioned to Jim that I didn’t know where to start — how could I possibly write about something so massive?

“You’re doing it,” he told me. “Be an observer, and write about what you see.”

We hiked through a desolate landscape that evoked Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.” Cars that had been swept away in the storm now protruded from hills of sand in the middle of streets. Luxury beachfront condos were caked in sand. Homes were destroyed. Sections of the boardwalk had caved in or ended up on Park Avenue.

In the days that followed, gas shortages sparked long lines and short tempers. I interviewed a woman who said that she and her husband had waited on line for two hours to gas up in Island Park, but left after they heard gunshots.

It was surreal, to say the least.

I had been editor of the Long Beach Herald for only two years when the storm hit. After Sandy, there were days when I almost gave up. But seeing the community come together was so inspiring that it kept me going. Whatever challenges I faced paled in comparison with those who were now homeless and faced what seemed like an insurmountable task of cleaning up and rebuilding. The Knights of Columbus, Shine’s, the MLK Center and the Ice Arena operated as relief centers. Volunteers could be seen gutting waterlogged homes, while others went door to door, checking on neighbors or serving meals or handing out necessities.

At work — some of my colleagues’ homes and cars were destroyed — we came together as a team. There was a sense of camaraderie as we worked side by side in a dark, cold office, huddled over computers powered by a generator, often rushing to news conferences for updates. We managed to publish all of that week’s Heralds, which was no small feat.

About a week after the storm, I accompanied a group of volunteers from Yonkers who delivered food and supplies to residents on Long Beach’s Louisiana Street, where a sand mountain blasted ashore by the storm surge had buried cars on top of one another. As neighbors dug out and piled up debris, one resident grew teary-eyed, wondering how long it would take to make her home habitable again.

But she also offered some stark perspective, expressing concern for residents of Breezy Point, Queens, whose homes had been destroyed by a raging fire. Nearly everyone I spoke with echoed that sentiment — that there were others in worse situations than they were.

“I’m very optimistic — Long Beach will be back, for sure,” resident Nicole Pelletiere told me a few days after the storm. “I believe that when we get power back, the city will slowly get back to normal. I think that we all need to be strong and take things as they come, day by day. This city is too wonderful to give up on.”

Anthony Rifilato is the senior editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? ARifilato@liherald.com.