By Amanda Wyatt
Six weeks after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, life has returned to normal for much of Long Island. Power is back on, downed trees and branches have been removed and many families have returned comfortably to their homes.
But not everyone has been so lucky.
Some still face life without electricity, heat and hot water in their homes. And others, whose homes are simply uninhabitable, have sought refuge elsewhere.
For Joe and Anna Smith (names changed at request) of Oceanside, the East End has served as a safe haven in the weeks following Sandy.
Over a five-week period, the Smiths called the Cozy Cabins Motel in Wainscott home. Their three daughters — ages 10, seven and three — temporarily attended nearby Bridgehampton School.
“We were lucky to find the place where we [were]. They took us in with open arms,” said Joe, a business-owner. “The school district took our children in. The community was really incredible to us.”
The Smiths, who fled from their house with a few suitcases, lost virtually everything they owned during Sandy. They were grateful, they said, for the generosity of community members. Bridgehampton School, local businesses owners, church groups and others donated bags of food, gift cards, toys and coats to the family.
Still, the have been through an ordeal they will never forget.
“This is basically something that you hear on the news, about other people who are affected by storms like this,” Joe admitted. “When you become a victim yourself, there’s no word to describe how you could possibly feel when you lose everything.”
“I’ve been through hurricanes before, but [Sandy] is life altering. Our lives will never be the same,” said Anna, a nurse.
And like many others, the Smiths never anticipated the chaos and destruction wrought by Sandy.
“We figured there would be minor damage,” Anna said.
For this reason, they decided to wait out the storm with friends in Westchester. However, the Smiths found themselves stranded in Westchester for a week without power, waiting for the roads to clear up.
And when they managed to get back to Oceanside, they came upon a rather grim scene.
While the water — which had been up to the roof of Anna’s minivan — had receded by that time, the neighborhood itself “was torn apart.”
“Oceanside was basically left to die,” Joe declared. “There was no help, there was no aid, absolutely nothing.”
Just 10 minutes after the Smiths pulled into their driveway, they saw a vehicle pull up to a neighbor’s house. Four men stepped out of the car holding pix axes and began chopping away at the neighbor’s front door. Joe and Anna, watching in horror, saw another neighbor come out of his house with a rifle to chase the looters away.
Inside the house was even more upsetting.
“Everything was soggy,” they said.
In fact, the force of the flooding had been so great that their washing machine had been thrust through the walls and into the next room.
And to make matters worse, black mildew was already growing on the walls.
“The smell of mildew in the house was so bad that you wanted to vomit within 15 minutes or less,” Joe said.
“I [didn’t] want to put my children in that type of environment. You don’t know the after-effects of something that,” Anna pointed out.
Soon after, Joe called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a list of motels that were accepting Sandy victims. However, these motels were few and far between; the closest one to Oceanside was in Wainscott.
During their stay on the East End, the two-to-three hour commutes back and forth to their workplaces were “murderous,” said the Smiths.
With $120 a day spent on gas, “every dime that we earned went directly back into going to work,” Joe explained.
Yet in the midst of their ordeal, one bright spot was certainly Bridgehampton School.
“The only thing I can tell you about Bridgehampton is, I wish I were a kid who went there because the care, the love, the attention that my children have gotten was beyond incredible,” said Joe. “[Principal Jack Pryor] is very caring and just straight out with you, and like I said, I wish he were my principal.”
Their daughters have been enjoying their classes, and the Smiths were happy with the one-on-one attention such a small school affords.
Still, Anna said that it was “bittersweet” for their daughters. While they wanted to go home, they had been making new friends at school.
“It’s such a wonderful school and such a wonderful community,” she said, adding:
“I personally think [our daughters] have done an incredible job with this. It’s tough, it’s their childhood home, and they’ve never lived anywhere else.”
Even Joe admitted that going through Sandy has made them somewhat apprehensive about putting down roots.
“You’re afraid to put something down and bolt it to the floor because you know in your heart of hearts it might not be there tomorrow. It is devastating in that perspective,” he said.
But just this week, the Smiths were able to scrape together enough money to move into a small apartment in Long Beach, which is closer to their old home in Oceanside.
While they admit that their living situation is a bit tight, Anna explained, they’re remaining optimistic.
“Our favorite expression around the house is, ‘It is what it is,’” she said. “We do what we have to do. We’ve got to make the most of everything we have, everything we aspire to have again someday.”
She added: “But it’s stuff. Stuff is stuff. That’s what we’ve learned.”