Sandy victims share their thank-you stories

Anne Bantleon of Plainview and her grandchildren, from

Anne Bantleon of Plainview and her grandchildren, from left, Casie Caiazza, Caitlin Caiazza, Zach Rosenzweig and Conor Caiazza, thank the families of Fishers, Ind., who sent money. (Jan. 13, 2013) (Credit: Maria Boyadjieva)

More thank-yous.

That's what today's section is devoted to: thanking the family, friends, neighbors, strangers, co-workers and others who stepped in -- some from long distances -- to offer food, shelter, electricity, communion, hugs, beds and whatever else was needed to help Long Islanders affected by superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29.

Last month, storm survivors on the receiving end of that support shared their stories of gratitude, and today more Long Islanders do the same.

Anne and George Bantleon were lucky. Superstorm Sandy spared their house in Plainview and knocked out their power for just a few days. But three of their four grown children were less fortunate.

A tree fell in eldest daughter Patti Caiazza's yard in Melville, crushing the wood fence that surrounded her home. In Amityville, water flooded daughter Carol Rosenzweig's basement. Son John Berutich fared the worst in the storm. Floodwaters from the canal nearby flowed into his Copiague home, soaking furniture and appliances, warping floors and leaving mold on everything it touched.

"Our home in Plainview became the motel, cafeteria and laundromat," said Anne Bantleon, 72, who remarried.

Geography spared her youngest child from Sandy's touch. That's because Mark Berutich had moved to Fishers, Ind., with his wife, Barbara, and their two children six years ago to start a new job. When they arrived in Fishers, a suburb of Indianapolis with a population of about 79,000, they didn't know a soul. Since then, they've made friends -- very good friends.

After the storm, Berutich, 45, said he felt powerless. He was hundreds of miles from his family, and the news from New York was not getting better. All his siblings had lost power and food. When friends and neighbors asked about his family, Berutich's frustration showed. Although only some of them had met his siblings, they began donating gifts and money to send back East.

By Thanksgiving, more than 20 families had offered Berutich cash and gift certificates to stores like Target, Costco and Home Depot. He tallied up the donations and immediately called his mother.

"Mom, you're not going to believe this," he said. Soon afterward, a check for nearly $2,000 arrived in Bantleon's mailbox, along with handmade cards from the children of Berutich's friends. "I hope your house feels better soon," one card read.

Bantleon gave the children the gifts while they were gathered for dinner one night.

"It was just incredible," Caiazza, 51, recalled. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place. I miss my brother and his family terribly, but knowing he has this incredible community around him is so comforting."

Her sister's reaction was similar. "It was a wonderful, very overwhelming feeling," said Rosenzweig, 49. "We were just so overcome with emotions. I almost felt guilty taking it, but I knew how much it meant to my brother to be able to help us, because he felt helpless out in Indianapolis. They're wonderful people."

Rosenzweig used her gift cards to replenish the food she'd lost and is saving her cash to install a new foundation in her basement. "Whenever it rains now we get a few inches of water," she said.

Caiazza plans to use her donations to replace her fence and re-landscape her yard.

Thanks in part to the kindness of strangers, even John Berutich, 50, and his wife, Debbie, are slowly getting back on their feet. "It was very nice," said Debbie Berutich, tearing up as she spoke. "It was very nice for them to help us."

The family has spent some of their donations replacing items lost to the floodwaters, such as tools, clothing and shoes. The rest they are saving until their house is gutted and rebuilt.

His neighbors' kindness is not lost on Berutich. "We've been amazed by the giving spirit people here have," he said. "It's the human spirit at its finest. People here really rally when they know someone is in need."

His mother agrees. "I think sometimes people want to give to an event directly," Bantleon said. "No middleman, no organizations, just really grassroots. I think that was rewarding for people. They weren't throwing money into a pot. They knew exactly where it was going."

On Christmas Day, the Bantleons gathered in front of their parents' fireplace to take a picture for their friends in Fishers.

"God bless and thank you," Anne Bantleon said.

 

Watching far from home

Michelle DeBenedittis and her husband, Richie, were celebrating her 43rd birthday on the Caribbean island of St. Martin when Sandy hit.

"We were having the time of our lives," Michelle said. The night before the storm, the couple watched their favorite football team, the Miami Dolphins, trounce the New York Jets in a televised game, and then they made their way to a full-moon party to celebrate.

"It was a rather eerie night," she added. "The water was higher than usual, and the annual bonfire had to be canceled."

The next morning a neighbor called with news that their house in Oceanside was ruined. From that moment on, the couple was glued to the TV.

"We sat in the room and the tears flowed as fast and furious as ever," she said. "There was nothing we could do. We were truly helpless. No one there had power. They couldn't see what was going on. But we saw every little thing. Pure and utter devastation. Fires, floods, homes being uprooted and utterly destroyed."

The DeBenedittises weren't able to catch an earlier flight out and couldn't get home to New York for a week. In the meantime, Michelle's friend Denise Gajda sent her an email she'll never forget. It contained pictures that Gajda had taken of the damage to the couple's house and a simple written message: "We are all so sorry, but try to remember everyone is safe."

While they were stranded in the Caribbean, a team of their friends -- Marty Denton, Floyd Colasurdo, Julie Rooney, Kevin and John Wagner, Ed and Kristen Stepnowski and Gajda and her husband, Steve -- went to work on their house.

The crew ripped up carpets and carried waterlogged appliances and furniture out to the street. They bleached floors to kill the mold, disposed of perishable food and took soaking wet memorabilia off the walls. Along the way, they took photographs of the damage for insurance claims.

"You didn't think about it, you just did what needed to be done," said Denise Gajda. "Michelle and Richie are very good friends of ours. You do what you need to do when your friends are in need."

The helpers included a mix of newer friends and friends from high school, DeBenedittis said. Some of them had suffered damage to their own homes but still showed up to lend a hand.

"That's something, you know," she said. "That's a lot of work. You really don't know who your friends are until they show up for you in a time of need."

The DeBenedittis house was still uninhabitable when the couple flew home a week later. They stayed with Richie's mother for close to a month while they and their friends worked on repairs. In recent weeks they've nailed new walls, installed Sheetrock and added insulation. There is still work to be done to make the first floor livable, but the couple is now back in their home.

"Who knew you had friends like this," said DeBenedittis. "They saved us. They saved our house. Now we know they are more than just friends, they are our heroes!"

 

All the neighbors for dinner

Bonnie Liotti had planned to ride out superstorm Sandy in the comfort of her home. She felt safe in Elmont and had refused her son Jerry's invitation to spend the night at his home in Oceanside. But when he showed up on her doorstep around 5 p.m. the night of the storm, Liotti, 91, changed her mind and accepted a ride through lashing winds and rain back to his house.

"It was so comfortable and warm," said Liotti. "I felt at peace knowing that I was safe."

Oceanside was badly damaged by the storm. Jerry Liotti's cars and parts of his first floor were flooded, and the family lost power and heat. But they did have gas, which the rest of the block did not, and access to a generator, so Jerry threw open his doors.

"The neighbors would drop in for a hot shower, or bring their kids over and make a hot breakfast, and then everyone would return for dinner," Bonnie Liotti said.

Dinner at the Liotti house became a nightly ritual. Each night, some 20 to 25 people arrived bearing whatever food they had at home that might spoil. While Jerry, 60, grilled outside in the dark, his wife, Barbara, 55, and daughter, Christie, 24, cooked inside by candlelight. Liotti helped peel carrots, and her grandsons, Jesse, 20, and Dylan, 15, took care of serving and cleanup.

"The whole family pitched in and did it," she said. "I just sat there like a queen and was waited on."

The menu changed each night, depending on who had what in their freezers and refrigerators. There was shrimp scampi, peppered steak and beef stew. "It was not easy, but they managed to serve gourmet meals for two weeks," Liotti said. "I gained weight . . . I never ate so much."

And her son's neighbors didn't just eat their fill and head home. They stayed well into the night, socializing and consoling one another in the darkness. Liotti sat in a recliner, huddled in a bathrobe and overcoat, observing the strange feast. "These nightly gatherings helped us all and prepared us to cope with whatever the next day brought us," she said. "We prayed for the power to come back every day, but when it didn't, we knew that we had another wonderful meal, shared with very special people, to look forward to."

The Liottis' dinner guests ranged in age, from Bonnie, 91, to Jake Ganulin, 4, who lives across the street. "He looked forward to the 'party' each night," Liotti recalled.

"It's such a close-knit group of friends," Jerry Liotti said. "We all just wanted to make sure that everyone was OK. It's comforting to be with friends at a time like that. The house stayed warm, we lit candles and we ate well. And we went through 30 bottles of wine."

After a week, Liotti's power was restored, and she returned to Elmont. The nightly dinners continued for a week after she left, and her son and his family even hosted a celebratory champagne dinner the night the power came back on.

"Jerry's neighbors are all wonderful," Liotti said, adding that her son and his family were "one bright light in a sea of darkness."

 

Helped by a nearby friend

"This was the storm of storms," said Gloria Berrin, a widow whose home in Freeport took in 4 feet of water during superstorm Sandy. Everything on the first floor of her high ranch was soaked: furniture, books and the contents of her late husband's office.

Unable to stay there, Berrin, 72, moved in with her longtime friend, Diana Gibson, whose home 10 blocks to the north was spared Sandy's full wrath. "I was her guest for an entire month while my home was being torn apart and rebuilt," Berrin said. "We've been friends for at least 20 years. We got along marvelously. We both cooked, we shopped. It was a nice situation."

In fact, the two enjoyed each other's company so much that when Berrin finally moved back into her own home, Gibson, 67, suggested she return for a sleepover someday soon.

"It was great," said Gibson. "It was like having a college roommate, which I'd never had before. We had candles and flashlights. It was like camping. We read during the day, and we talked a lot. I got so used to having her there that when she got her heat back I said, 'Don't go home yet, wait 'til the end of the weekend.' "

In the meantime, Berrin's son Daniel, 43, was instrumental in getting her house back in order. The storm had wreaked havoc on his home, too, which sits just 300 feet from the Great South Bay in Babylon. After moving his wife and four children into a camper on their property, Daniel Berrin went to work helping his mother. He put up Sheetrock downstairs and helped her set up a new utility room so she could restore heat and hot water.

"In the midst of caring for his family, cleaning up his flood-ravaged home and going to work, he took time to get my home in working order," said his mother. "I really appreciate all he has done for me."

Ultimately, Berrin said, the storm taught her an important lesson about family and friends.

"Friends are forever," she said. "They are there for me. I can rely on them. Family is very strong. People out there are very, very accommodating. They help out when need be. It was really appreciated. Believe me, I'm happy to be home, but I'm glad I had such strong backing."

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