Hurricane Sandy Storm Diary – Eyewitness Account During the Storm

By Shoshanna McCollum

Prelude – We got the robo-call at about 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Mandatory evacuation. Oh geez! We had been through this just the summer before last with Hurricane Irene: Panic by the call itself, annoyance at the disruption, uncertainty if the decision you make is the right one. This is not my vacation home. There is no “mainland residence” to retreat to. The only options are to be a burden as someone’s unwanted guest if an invitation is extended, or resort to the Brentwood shelter where there is talk of gangs. Plus we have pets. Too many to round up and cage. I am irritated by the sanctimonious phone calls we get at times like this. They only serve as an unwanted interruption when we have preparations to make: Fresh water to bottle, flashlights and supplies to gather, items to raise off the floor, computer files to back-up. At the Castaway’s Halloween party that night folks celebrate like the end of the world is coming.

MON. Oct 29 – “There is water in the house,” my husband says as I blink awake. “So soon?” I ask. We got bay water in the house with Irene at the second storm surge, but this is the first surge and I know we are in trouble. Not so much water, we will bail it out like the last time I think, but it rises quickly. Cats panic, a bottle of solvent falls off the table and makes a plume as it joins the bay water. Still in my pajamas I crouch under tables and desks to disconnect cords from power outlets that will soon be submerged. Drops of rain make tiny little rings outside the backdoor window where our deck should be. All at once I realize I can’t keep up and the only option left is to pack a bag. My hand shakes as I gather a few pair of socks and underwear, medications, as well as my camera, laptop and external hard-drive unit. The look on the cats faces as we go is heart -wrenching. John takes my hand and we begin to walk in water that is well past our knees on Ocean Road, deeper still on Midway. We get to Betsy’s who lives on higher ground on Wilmot. She comes with towels not even questioning why we are here. I sit on her couch staring into the grayness of the day in a state of shock. I know that nothing will be the same and the second surge isn’t even here yet.

TUE. Oct 30: The sun is shining as we wake the next morning to learn of the damage overnight as we slept. The ocean has broken through at many points. Some cars are overturned or trees fell on them. Trees snapped, building like the lifeguard shack moved so it is leaning against Molle Young’s house on Ocean View Walk. The Ocean Beach Police station is unusable and they set up headquarters in Fire Island School as an Emergency Command Center. Some folks also displaced from their homes took refuge at Fire Island School. The Ocean Beach Police station is unusable and they set up headquarters at the school as an Emergency Command Center. John found a kayak floating loose the prior day that he appropriated for his animal feeding rounds. Flooding is still high, and there is broken concrete and submerged objects that make walking treacherous. We board takes me on kayak to see how bad flooding is in our home. Most of the cats are accounted for having taken to high shelves and other dry places, but almost everything we own is ruined: Clothes, sheets, furniture. On the transistor radio last night we hear a story of how a Suffolk County Police vehicle was lost to the storm when taking a young woman out of Fair Harbor who had become ill. “NOT true,” say an SCPD officer who has come by to check on his house. “Just a flat tire that they rode out on.” The water clears out of our house by that night with the next low tide; we can soon get to work.

WED. Oct. 31: It’s Halloween, but no trick-or-treaters. That morning John and I venture to school hearing the Internet signal might be working, but it isn’t. Police Officer named Bacon sees me and asks my business here, was I here through storm? I say I was, I’m John McCollum’s wife. He offers me food, drink and shelter at school if I’m in need and I thank him. There is some tension. One emergency worker describes “total anarchy” among chiefs and emergency coordinators. Another complains of those in middle authority over-stepping their roles. People are leaving messages on John’s cell phone tell us of news reports saying our drinking water is contaminated, but it isn’t. We later lean that it is in Suffolk County Water Authority communities. OB shut off the valve exchange before it ours independent water system was compromised. John brings Debbie Goldsmith’s turtles to Betsy’s. We start to wonder how will we get to vote.

THURS. Nov. 1 – I change our phone messages to “essential calls only” because our mailbox is being filled up with calls, many of which are frivolous. A house fire erupts on Surfview Walk, started by motor scooter battery over-heating and catching fire on nearby curtain. John befriends Steve, who works for Verizon. Steve rescued a stray cat on Ocean Breeze Walk known as Buddy from the surge a few days prior and is now trying to nurse him back to health. Steve also has diabetic dogs that he is keeping with him on as he stays on the beach trying to get the phone lines in good shape again. An evening “fire watch” is established by the OBFD. It quickly transforms into a watch to keep out boaters: Some are legitimate homeowners desperate assess their homes, but others are curiosity seekers, or even worse possible looters.

FRI Nov. 2 – Sofa in scooter reignites. Friends coming from the mainland bring us milk, ice, cat food and a box of corn muffins. John befriends Steve who works for Verizon. Steve saved Buddy, a stray cat that lives on Ocean Breeze from the storm surge and has been keeping him along with his dogs where he is staying. There may be Marshall Law here, but Ocean Beach is bustling with people: DEC State Emergency Management Office, U.S. Dept of Forestry. Chain saws can be heard buzzing all day and generators cranking all night.

SAT. Nov. 3 – Post Office now open a few hours a day. A dumpster is set up near ferry terminal. Talk is that looters have been caught leaving Fire Island with a boat full of copper pipe cut from houses. Cell phone signal is slightly better then it has been, but not by much. Our landline has dried out and can be used with a rotary phone. John manages a jerry-rigged system so I can get an Internet signal for about an hour by attaching our modem to a battery. God I missed Facebook!

Sun. Nov. 4 – Buddy the cat dies from his injuries. Steve, John, and Kasaih Scully bury him. For lunch John and I share a box of cold precooked breakfast sausage and crackers that are among a box of food salvaged from someone’s refrigerator. We eat it outdoors not far from the garbage can and share some of the sausage with our cat Bossy. This feels like the apocalypse. Supplies of food and clothing are delivered via helicopter drop courtesy of a community out in the Hamptons. With the clocks dropping back many make it an early night and an impromptu gathering is held between the Fire Department and other agencies. My husband fails to tell me about it, so I miss out.

Mon. Nov. 5 – The talk about town revolves around “placards.” Fire Dept. personnel who did not evacuate can only leave Fire Island for limited time windows of time is they reserve one of these placards and Ocean Beach is only allotted four of them.

TUE, Nov. 6 – Election Day. I head to OB Fire Hall at the agreed upon time. Due to curfew it will be a short voting window, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Over in Ocean Bay Park the Lindsay family is holding the Brookhaven polling place out of their house. At the fire hall I see more food then I have seen in days: fruit, pastry, breads, cereals and an array of snacks foods including leftover candy from the decidedly unsuccessful Halloween. I take a plate of greasy potatoes and eggs someone cooked up earlier and then I do the unspeakable: I hoard. I sneak oranges, pop-tarts, chips and Halloween candy in my bag when I think no one is looking. It makes no sense, but I do it never the less. There are no voting machines. Privacy booths are just some broken boxes. Daphne and I strive to keep some normality to the situation. This is hard because right outside the office where they put us a Fire Department meeting is being held. The men are loud and help themselves to the food most heartily. At one point one of them starts shouting, “vote Republican” over and over again. I storm out of the office and bellow: “This is still a polling place and there will be no electioneering here!” They quiet down very quickly after that. Emergency ballots are cast and stuffed in envelopes. By day’s end get a whopping 46 ballots. Bambootique has donated a couple of boxes of clothing. Clean shirts! As I pick through one of the ladies in EMS tells me there is more clothing at the school, part that was part of the airdrop. At the school I find myself a bathrobe that I can really use. Sure it’s fluffy, pink, and stops well above the knee but it will do a fine job filling in for my more conservative one that was ruined by the bay surge. John and I lie in bed going in and out of sleep tracking the Presidential Election into the night on the battery operated radio.

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