NEW YORK — Still shaken by the memories of Superstorm Sandy’s frightening tidal surge, survivors came together Tuesday to rebuild and remember the day that changed their lives forever.
Devastated residents recalled the help they got from strangers in the days and months after the storm. Some have mostly recovered from the storm, while others are still homeless or living without heat. In one touching moment, mothers sang “Happy birthday” to their 1-year-old babies who were rescued from darkened hospitals at Sandy’s peak.
Sandy came ashore on Oct. 29, 2012, sending floodwaters pouring across the densely populated barrier islands of Long Island and the Jersey shore. In New York City, the storm surge hit nearly 14 feet, swamping the city’s subway and commuter rail tunnels and knocking out power to the southern third of Manhattan.
The storm was blamed for at least 182 deaths in the U.S. — including 68 in New York and 71 in New Jersey — and property damage estimated at $65 billion.
Here is a look at anniversary observances through a series of vignettes detailing how people are commemorating the unprecedented storm:
One year after Sandy, what Ellen Bednarz of Sayreville, N.J., remembered most was the kindness of the debris haulers who carted away the family’s ruined possessions.
“I never saw more caring people,” she said at an event to thank firefighters who used boats to rescue scores of people.
Before the storm hit, Bednarz and her family hastily moved their patio set, family room and office furniture to a storage unit and checked into a hotel. Only when they were allowed back to their split-level days later did they see the water had risen 14 feet — destroying everything, even the items the family had moved upstairs.
Bednarz is renting an apartment and waiting to close on a government home buyout.
“It’s over,” she said. “It’s probably one of the worst years of my life, but it’s behind me.”
Aiman Youssef found out the other day that one of his neighbors has been living in his own Staten Island garage.
He says many people in his shorefront neighborhood are still displaced or living in partially restored homes, often without basic facilities.
“A lot of people have moved out of the area,” Youssef said. “A lot of houses went into foreclosure.”
Some homeowners are still reluctant to accept help, Youssef said, while others have been stymied by bureaucracy.
He pointed to a bungalow across the street from his tent on Midland Avenue. A woman is living there without heat despite a city program that was supposed to restore heat, electric and water service, he said.
“We were lower middle class,” Youssef said. “Now we’re poor.”
When Sandy darkened much of the city, some New Yorkers were only hours old. Others weren’t even born.
On Tuesday, babies filled a Manhattan hospital room to celebrate their first birthdays — and their survival.
Kenneth Hulett III weighed only 2 pounds when emergency medical workers rushed him out of the New York Hospital intensive care unit and down the stairs while hooked up to an oxygen tank. His mother, Emily Blatt, says her faith sustained her as she was evacuated on an orange sled.
That day, more than 40 babies were safety moved from the hospital to other facilities.
On Tuesday, their parents and hospital staff lighted candles atop cupcakes and sang, “Happy birthday, dear babies.”
An accident of geography left Giuseppe and Innocenza Picheo with two New Jersey properties to rebuild after Sandy: a primary home in Moonachie and a second home in Manahawkin on Long Beach Island. The Moonachie house had “never had a drop of water” in 43 years before Sandy, Giuseppe Picheo said.
“Even now, I still think about it at night before I go to sleep,” Innocenza Picheo said. “When I go downstairs to wash clothes, I still look around and think about the water rushing in.”
Both properties have since been rebuilt with the help of volunteers from a church group. But Giuseppe Picheo knows others haven’t been as fortunate.
“I’m back to normal, but I feel very sorry for those who aren’t, especially now when you see all the images again,” he said.
The uneven nature of the recovery can be seen in places like the working-class Arverne section of the Rockaways, where many people are living in damaged homes they can’t afford to fully repair.
“When you drive around, it looks as if everything is OK. But everything is far from OK,” said pastor David Cockfield of the Battalion Pentecostal Assembly Church. “There is so much that is not being done.”
Residents and members of Cockfield’s congregation had a list of grievances Tuesday: While the city has been building flood defenses on the wealthier, beach side of the railroad tracks that split the peninsula, the mostly black neighborhood at the edge of Jamaica Bay has no sea wall or storm sewers, and it floods frequently with stinking water.
Moses Williams said the finished basement in his home is still a wreck because he can’t afford the $50,000 repair bill.
“You can smell the mold,” he said.
The lobby of the Wall Street Inn, a boutique hotel located in a 19th-century building in lower Manhattan, was lonely and empty. But manager Rachel Fogel said business is steady again despite initial fears that the hotel started by her grandfather might never come back.
The hotel was evacuated as the storm hit. The scene on South William Street the next day was discouraging, she said.
“It was dark. It was cold. It smelled like gasoline,” Fogel said.
Weeks of work was needed on basement electrical and heating systems before the hotel reopened in December. Contractors were the first post-storm guests.
Now the regulars are back. One was a man who came back months later to retrieve dry cleaning he sent on the eve of Sandy.