After Sandy: The fight to stay home
Barbara Minnieer, of Long Beach, stands with her son Christopher Serrano, 2, at her rental home. The family has been living in the home since superstorm Sandy. They have minimal electricity and are heating mostly with wood. (Dec. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Chris Ware
One family in Long Beach boils water on the stove for quick baths in a chilly bathroom. An Oceanside man lives in an apartment without heat, hot water or electricity - and plans to stay there through the winter. A third family in Long Beach took showers by flashlight and gathered wood outdoors to keep the house warm before they finally found another home.
More than eight weeks after Sandy, some Long Islanders are still living in homes without power, or heat, or hot water - and sometimes, without all three. For them, daily life is a struggle to stay warm and complete tasks they used to take for granted - washing dishes, bathing and getting to work.
"There were many days when I said, 'I just can't deal with this. I can't take it anymore,'" said Barbara Minnieer, who lived in a home without heat and only limited electricity in Long Beach with her husband, mother-in-law and five children for 47 days - two and a half weeks of that without any electricity at all. "I would just burst out in tears because it was just so awful. "
No organization or arm of government appears to track the number of people still living in storm-damaged homes in Nassau or Suffolk counties. The American Red Cross, which has been active in disaster relief, referred questions about the numbers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Workers are continuing to go door to door, seeking people living in such situations, FEMA spokesman John Mills said.
"FEMA is concerned about people still living without power, heat or hot water," Mills said, adding that the agency has been canvassing the hardest-hit areas. It is using information gathered from the Long Island Power Authority, local officials and neighbors to give out information about FEMA subsidies for rent, hotel and motel stays and home repairs. After Sandy, thousands of Long Islanders whose homes were damaged by the storm sought such assistance or went to live with family or friends.
The Rev. Msgr. Donald Beckmann of St. Ignatius Martyr Church in hard-hit Long Beach - who weeks after Sandy had no hot water at the rectory - estimated that 600 of his parishioners' households have people living without heat or hot water.
For a variety of reasons - financial, emotional, or practical - some Long Islanders continue to stay in homes that lack utilities, interviews show.
Family's fight to survive
Minnieer, 37, became an expert at tending a fire. Minnieer's home, across the street from the bay, flooded during Sandy and ended up with only two working electrical outlets, no gas and no heat. The wood-burning stove, once reserved for special occasions, became the family's source of heat. Minnieer's three older boys would forage for castoff wood and broken furniture, which they would chop up for firewood to keep the house warm.
Leaving was never an option, Minnieer said - her extended family also was devastated by Sandy, and she couldn't afford a hotel room. They also didn't want to leave their dogs, cats and bird behind. "After a while, it just became, this is what we have to do," she said. "There's no other choice. "
Minnieer cooked for the family on a hot plate operated from an extension cord running from one of the home's only working outlets. They had hot water but no electricity in the bathrooms, forcing the family to bathe by flashlight, which terrified her youngest son, Christopher, 21/2.
The family's few perishables - milk, eggs, butter - were kept in a cooler sitting in front of the nonfunctioning refrigerator. Her mother-in-law, Lupe Serrano, slept on three couch cushions pushed together; Serrano's bed, along with most of her possessions, were ruined in the flood.
"I can't even imagine being in a house now with heat and a refrigerator and an oven," Minnieer said this month. "It seems so normal, this situation that we're in now. "
After 47 days, Minnieer's family moved into a rental home that was unaffected by Sandy in the canals section of Long Beach. She said their move took every dollar of the rental assistance and furniture allowance the family received from FEMA.
'Whole life' is in his home
In Oceanside, one light blinks on nightly in the second-floor window of a shuttered apartment complex.
The lamp is connected to a long, orange extension cord that runs from the apartment's terrace door, across the lawn, to a generator kept there by workers gutting the flood-damaged apartments in the 92-unit complex.
In an apartment without heat, running water or electricity, Steven Cohn stays put.
Cohn, 65, cooks on a propane stove in his kitchen, keeping a window open so he and his Maltese, Jax, don't asphyxiate. He eats on disposable plates, since he has no running water to wash dishes. And at night, he sleeps in a nest of warm blankets on the living-room couch, snapping awake at any noises in the otherwise silent complex.
Cohn has lived there nearly continuously since Sandy, and plans to stay until the utilities are restored to his unit, which he said could be in March - or later.
"I'm gonna be here," he said. "I'll be here until they put the lights and heat back on. "
Cohn's fiancee, Joyce Rosinger, moved out shortly after Sandy, when a few days in the cold, dark apartment left her with a bad case of bronchitis.
"I don't know how he does it," said Rosinger, 66, who added that the mostly abandoned complex now gives her "the willies. " "Many times I tried to talk him out of it. "
But for Cohn - who did a variety of jobs, including construction and security, before retiring - the choice was simple.
"I put my whole life into this apartment," Cohn said. "I decided that I wasn't going to go anywhere. "
A calendar on the wall marks the days he's lived there since Sandy. He usually leaves the apartment during the day, going to the movies or a restaurant, or taking Jax for one of his four daily walks. He chats with the workers who are restoring the apartments during working hours. They call him the "Miracle Man. "
But at night, when he drives through the complex and sees the doors of the buildings gape open into darkness, and the silence is nearly complete, it scares him. He keeps air guns and a machete handy for protection.
"It's a little scary at night," he said. "But then I have a dog that will bark if needed. And I'll make it through. I'll make it through to another day. "
Sticking out winter, for now
Back in Long Beach, Neira Zamora developed a recipe for how to take a shower: take three big pasta pots, fill them with water, and put them on the stove to heat. Empty the water into a big green tub in the bathroom and try to wash up in the chill of the bathroom.
Zamora, 37, and her family - husband Hugo Zamora, 42, son Hugo Paredes, 17, and daughter Alessandra Zamora, 4 - live in a home with electricity, but without heat or hot water.
The family sleeps on the large, U-shaped couch in the living room at night, warmed by a space heater that is left running continuously when the children are home. The family can't use portable heaters in their bedrooms because those will trip the circuit breakers.
"Either you sleep in a comfortable bed and you're cold, or you sleep on the couch but you're warm," Neira Zamora said.
The home's boiler and water heater were destroyed in the flood, along with many of the items in Zamora's parents' downstairs apartment. The family is waiting for another boiler to be delivered by the new year, Hugo Zamora said.
If there's no heat by the time the weather hits the 20s, he said, the family will be forced to leave the house.
"I don't think this," he said, gesturing at the space heater, "will sustain four or five days in a row of 20-degree weather. "
Neira Zamora said both children have already gotten sick, but there aren't many options for the family. Hugo Zamora owns a co-op apartment in Manhattan, to which the family decamped for a few weeks after Sandy, but after Neira Zamora found herself getting up at 4:30 a.m. to commute to work and drive Paredes to school, the family gave up and moved back to Long Beach.
While they wait for heat, the family had a subdued Christmas, nothing like the extravagant lights and decorations and holiday shopping that the Zamoras normally did every year. Their block was mostly dark, with a few Christmas lights twinkling across the street.
"This year, you really realize that we did a lot better that most people, so I feel bad to get more gifts than I really need," said Paredes, a senior at Long Beach High School. "I'm just happy that we're still alive after this."