Dozens of Legates in the Northeast rely on faith through devastation and rebuilding . . .
When Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic Seaboard last October, Stephen Antaki and his family fled their Massapequa, N.Y., home, fully expecting to return the next day.
“We figured we would go, come back and be fine,” said Antaki, a member of Legatus’ Long Island Chapter. After all, in 2011, despite dire warnings about Hurricane Irene, their neighborhood and others emerged unscathed.
This time, however, the Antakis and thousands of other New York and New Jersey residents returned home to devastation.
“Two-and-a-half to three feet of water came in — just enough to ruin everything,” Antaki said. For four months, while their home was being restored, he and his wife and sons stayed with his father in a 1,200-square-foot retirement home — a space smaller than the first floor of their own house. They finally moved back in March.
“The worst part of the restoration, believe it or not, was dealing with my own ignorance in this type of matter,” said Antaki, an accountant who said he was accustomed to pushing paper, but not managing a construction project. “I didn’t know what to do first.”
Superstorm Sandy, which barreled into the northeast coast on Oct. 29, was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing $71 billion in damage. It was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, with winds spanning 1,100 miles in diameter.
Other Legates in New York and New Jersey — along with the Legatus’ Northeast Region director — had similar experiences.
After what seemed to many like an overreaction to Hurricane Irene in 2011, Jeff Smith, president of Legatus’ New York City Chapter, wasn’t about to vacate his Manhattan apartment — even though it was in the city’s largest evacuation zone. At the last minute, he decided to go to Harlem where friends were having a hurricane party. He ended up staying a week.
“The hurricane came and the water, I’m told by my neighbors, was chest high on our street — and high enough that it blew out a nearby power station,” Smith recalled. “The electricity was out in our neighborhood for a week.”
From his outpost in Harlem, Smith used his connections with the New York archdiocese’s young adult outreach program to help his neighbors in a high-rise public-housing complex across the street by organizing teams to ferry food and water to the residents — many of whom are seniors.
“They were stuck in these buildings with no power and no water and it’s not like they could walk down 25 flights of stairs,” he said.
Families in trouble
Meanwhile, in Avon-by-the-Sea, N.J., Bernard Berry of the Jersey Shore Chapter also heeded the warnings and evacuated his home, returning to find his basement filled with water that had pushed onto the first floor, destroying the floors, walls and mechanicals. He also found beams from one of the New Jersey boardwalks in his backyard.
Although he described his neighborhood after the storm as a “war zone,” Berry and his family were unable to live in their house for seven weeks. He said his is a good-news story compared to what others experienced.
“The number of people who came to help was incredible,” Berry said. He and his wife were assisted by family members, local teens who helped remove debris, a neighbor who sent workers from his company to pump out the Berrys’ basement, a friend who offered use of his construction crews for the rebuilding, and another friend who allowed the Berrys to live in his second home while theirs was being restored.
“I love the expression from Les Misérables that ‘to love another person is to see the face of God.’ We saw the face of God in all of these people,” he said.
Antaki, the Legate from Long Island, said he also was fortunate. The paperwork with his insurance company went fairly quickly and he was able to cover the lag time between receipt of start-up money and subsequent insurance checks, which came several months later. “If you didn’t have enough of a network or a 401k or family to borrow from, you were in trouble,” he said.
Many people similarly affected by the storm have not even started restoration, Antaki said. “Most of the places in my neighborhood have come back to life, but a lot of houses in neighboring towns are in serious trouble.”
“We’re the exception,” added Berry. “We were inconvenienced and we’re blessed. The tragedy is that the poorest of the poor get hurt the most.” Many, he said, are being permanently dislocated because they cannot rebuild.
Indeed, the chaplain of Legatus’ Jersey Shore Chapter says that’s the situation for many of his parishioners. Monsignor Leonard Troiano is pastor of St. Pio Parish in Lavallette and Normandy Beach, N.J., which is still dealing with the aftermath of the most destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.
St. Pio is predominantly made up of retirees and seniors who are now grappling with what to do because many will not be fully compensated for their losses and thus may not be able to rebuild. New construction requirements imposed because of the storm have added to costs, and those who lack sufficient funds have little choice but to sell their property at a time when they’re unlikely to find buyers willing to pay what it’s worth.
Monsignor Troiano said outsiders often assume that by now everything has been rebuilt or is back to normal. “It’s far from normal,” he said.
No one knows that better than he. In late May, he was still displaced from his rectory and offices while continuing to oversee repairs in Lavallette and damage estimates at the parish’s summer campus in Normandy Beach.
Although St. Pio has resumed holding Sunday Mass, Monsignor Troiano said the average attendance has declined by two-thirds because so many parishioners are no longer in their homes and some have relocated permanently, resulting in a nearly $250,000 loss of income for the parish.
Monsignor Troiano said the Trenton diocese has been helping his parish with the restoration and, despite his own hardships, he is most worried about his parishioners’ lives. To help with such needs as paying rent and buying clothing, the parish has been putting money it receives into the St. Vincent de Paul Society account and distributing it accordingly.
In addition to material losses, Monsignor Troiano and his parishioners are also suffering from post-traumatic stress. After the initial shock, he said, they set about rebuilding.
“Now,” he said, “the reality is starting to set in that this is going to take a lot longer than people anticipated.”
Stephen Connolly, Legatus’ Northeast Region director, whose home and those of 10 family members in Howard Beach, N.Y., sustained severe damage from Sandy, said that even though the experience has been very emotional, adversity has given people a sense of what is most valuable.
“It’s almost like a little purging of the soul as well, getting down to what is really important — cleaning out the old and bringing in the new,” he said.
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.
How you can help
Legates can help the ongoing recovery effort by making contributions to Catholic Charities in the following dioceses:
Archdiocese of New York
Diocese of Trenton
Diocese of Brooklyn
Diocese of Rockville Centre
St. Vincent de Paul Fund, St. Pio Parish, Lavallette, N.J.
St. Vincent de Paul Fund, Howard Beach, N.Y.
In addition, a bill that would allow houses of worship to obtain disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — H.R. 592 — is in the U.S. Senate and in need of support.