The ‘new normal’ after Sandy

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Last February I participated in a “polar plunge” into the ocean at Beach 99th Street in Rockaway Beach. I remember thinking how beautiful the boardwalk looked, even in the height of winter. The ocean looked mean, and felt (at 38 degrees) even worse. But this beach town in the city still had a warm majesty about it, no matter how cold it got outside.

There will be no annual plunge this year. I visited Beach 99th Street this week, during our Sandy coverage. The boardwalk is no more. In fact, the “boards” are mostly gone, leaving behind only the big cement blocks that supported them for so many years.

Across the street, near the St. Camillus gym where we held our post-dip fundraiser, nearby homes and apartments were battered by the water. Basements were ripped to bits and upper floors overflowed with junk. And on the streets, there was a lifetime of memories left out for the sanitation department to cart off.

A few miles east, in Long Beach, Long Island, the scene was similar. The famous boardwalk there is also in tatters. And a mound of sand reaches five stories high. The force of the surge had sent the sands of the beach through the streets of the community. And after weeks of clean-up by sanitation front-loaders, the sand could not simply be dumped back on the beach. The reason: fears of contamination. Authorities worry oil and other toxic substances may have seeped in.

A month after Sandy, life is far from normal for its victims. This week I met the Brunette family of Beach 88th Street in Rockaway. They had power back, but no heat and hot water. Eight-year-old Miracle (yes, that’s her name) and six-year-old Danny did their homework all bundled up. “Sometimes it’s so cold I can hardly hold my pen,” said Miracle.

The boiler is so badly buried that it could take weeks to fix. So the Brunette family does its best, heating water on the stove for showers and strategically moving the space-heaters to where they need them.

I made a return visit to Staten Island this week, and it seemed that time has stood still. So many homes, sagging, waiting for the wrecking ball. And the freezing temperatures, giving residents a foreboding over what the real arrival of winter will bring.

This is the new normal for people living in Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, and on the coast of New Jersey. It will be months and perhaps years before so many towns come back.

But Sandy drew a historical dividing line in the sand. Things have changed drastically for everyone, and life will be different after the great storm of 2012.