LI storm victims thank their helpers
That's what today's section is devoted to — thanking the family, friends, neighbors, strangers, co-workers, classmates, churches and businesses who stepped in, some from long distances, to offer food, shelter, electricity, prayer, hope, hugs, beds and countless other resources to help Long Islanders affected by superstorm Sandy.
As it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to lift its residents up and right itself after surviving a storm as destructive as Sandy. On Long Island, helpful, healing hands and open, compassionate hearts have been in abundant supply since that life-changing day Oct. 29. Storm survivors on the receiving end of that support shared with Newsday their gratitude and their stories.
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With no heat, no hot water and no electricity, Martha Nash was part of a mandatory evacuation in her Long Beach building. She was displaced for four weeks.
"My apartment didn't have damage because I'm on a high floor, but the building had damage," she said.
After the storm and just a few days into staying with her son, Ken Keisner in Coram, Nash went to have lunch at Collura's Deli in Baldwin, where she struck up a conversation with the owner, Ronnie Collura. "I just happened to mention that I live in Long Beach and most likely would not be able to return home for several weeks," Nash said. Then when she went to pay the bill, much to her surprise, she said, "he would not accept payment, saying lunch was on him."
What Nash didn't know was that Collura and his wife, Rachel, both 55, had also been displaced and were staying with various adult children. During the storm, his own home in East Rockaway had been flooded with about 5 feet of water on the first level and several inches on the second. "We lost a lot of personal things," Collura said, adding they were away from their home until Thanksgiving, "but we were lucky, because at least we had a house to come back to."
Collura is reluctant to take credit for his generosity toward Nash.
"We opened up the deli to help people. It wasn't to make money, it was to give people hot coffee," he said, adding that even with a generator, they had to boil the hot water and then pour it manually into the filters, as the regular coffee maker required the use of too many amps. With inoperative credit card machines, he gave many cashless customers free food and beverages. "One fellow wanted to use a credit card. It was for about $40. I said, 'Don't worry about it, it's on me,' " Collura recalled. "He said he'd come back, but I told him not to use up his gas." Two hours later the man was back with the money, shaking Collura's hand in deep gratitude.
Collura said during those days, rather than work at the deli, he would much have preferred to be working on repairing his house, but serving people who were in need "was the right thing to do."
For Nash, Collura's kindheartedness made an indelible impact. "This simple, kindly gesture made my day."
Baby on board
Other simple acts helped many Sandy victims get through the worst of it. That was the case for Linda Ficano, 56, and her husband, Anthony, 58. Water began seeping into their split-level house in Oceanside at around 6 on the Monday night of the storm, Linda Ficano recalled, flooding the ground floor den, a bathroom, the laundry room and the garage with more than three feet of water. Still, they didn't evacuate. Instead they grabbed their precious photo albums and camped out on the upper floor of the house, offering shelter to neighbors with young children who live across the street in a ranch house that was also flooded. There was plenty of room, because the Ficano's daughter, Christina, 25, was staying with friends.
By the morning after the storm the water had receded, but everyone on the block was left without power or heat and had only spotty cellphone service. Ficano said a friend's house in Merrick was available for showers — much appreciated once they began the labor-intensive cleanup effort.
By Wednesday, which was Halloween, they were deep into the muck in the garage when out of the corner of her eye, Ficano saw a white truck turning a corner to their street. As the truck got closer, she noticed New Jersey license plates, and much to her delight, making their approach to her house was her older daughter, Lauren, 29, her husband, Zach, 27, and their 7-month-old baby, Sienna — all the way from West Orange.
Also without electricity, the young couple had ventured out to see her parents on Long Island because "we wanted to give them a reason to smile," said Lauren Zeltzer. Sienna is the Ficano's first grandchild. Filling their gas tank up in the Bronx, they also loaded up on cases of bottled water and nonperishable food to leave behind, and hot Chinese takeout for lunch for the whole family.
"At first, I admit I was a little bit angry that they made the trip from New Jersey," said Ficano, but she got over it quickly when she spotted Sienna. "They brought a ray of sunshine into an otherwise dreary and upsetting day."
A helping hand
Cleaning up after the storm was no small feat for Don Wei-mer of Babylon, who at 60 said he's the oldest person on his block. That's why he is so grateful to 10-year-old Annalise Dankenbrink, who lives across the street. Annalise was helping her family sweep up storm debris in front of their house when she noticed Weimer hard at work on his own. "She came up to me and asked if she could help me rake," Weimer said.
The preteen is used to helping others. Her mom, Bernadette, said, "She volunteers on weekends at Broadlawn Manor in Amityville," playing bingo and visiting with the residents of the nursing home.
Weimer expressed gratitude to Annalise and her parents, who gave him candles and flashlights when he couldn't find his own, frequently brought him hot water for tea and coffee from their gas stove, and even did his laundry after they and everyone on the block but Weimer got power back. During the storm, he said, "a tree in my front yard fell over and ripped the wires off the pole." But his next-door neighbors Janet and Jim Navas came to the rescue once they had electricity back by running a few long extension cords from their house to his.
Meanwhile, Bill and Cynthia Ziesel, who live next door on the other side, supplied him with a steady stream of hot food. After 11 days, Weimer's electricity was finally restored.
"I had three sets of neighbors looking out for me. You can't ask for better than that," he remarked, noting that before the storm, he barely knew them, yet they all went out of their way to help him. "I'm blessed to have such nice neighbors."
Other storm victims cited how blessed they are to have caring friends. That was certainly the case for Patty Duryea, 56, of Babylon. Living near a canal by the Great South Bay can be lovely, although Duryea said she was used to flooding during heavy rainstorms. That's why she, her housemate and the rest of their block decided not to evacuate for Sandy, despite warnings from officials.
They stayed because "you want to make sure your house is OK. We were constantly in contact with neighbors asking 'Are you staying?', then 'OK, I'll stay too,' " she explained.
But on the day the storm hit, panic began to set in, she said, while she was walking to a nearby deli knee deep in water that wasn't receding. By the time the storm ended she had 41/2 feet of water in the first floor of her house. Where to go with Capone, her 12-year-old beagle?
Luckily, her friend and neighbor Alice Guercio offered up her brother Phil's house in West Islip, where she had sought refuge as well.
"They had nowhere to go. They were in trouble," Phil Guercio said. He and his wife, Claudine, were happy to help, even with three kids of their own — Chris, 21, Jake, 12, and Sammy, 5. "The kids thought it was a party," he said chuckling, adding that they were lucky to have lost power for only a day.
"We were interfering in their lives, but not to them. They were very accommodating," said Duryea, who camped out in the den with her housemate while Alice Guercio slept on the living room sofa.
"Everybody pitched in. We don't have a big house, but they needed help and we all just made it work," said Phil Guercio. "It was a very emotional time for them . . . their world was crumbling. After they realized their house was ruined, it set in, and it was tough to watch. So we tried to cheer them up."
After five days with the Guercio family, another generous offer was presented to Duryea, this one from Mike Rita of East Meadow, a friend and co-worker at the Western Nassau mail processing center in Garden City. Rita offered her, her housemate and their dog his finished basement, which is partly furnished and has its own entrance.
Rita downplays his role in Duryea's crisis.
"I said, 'Make yourself at home.' I just did her a favor," he said. A favor that lasted for 46 days, until Duryea was able to make her house livable again.
"I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping us out in such a tragedy," she said emotionally. "It was such a disaster. It's something nobody can understand unless you go through it, and I can never thank them enough for helping us out. Everyone. It's something I will never ever forget in my life."
Group hugs all around
Kathy Smith, 57, lives just west of Babylon in Lindenhurst, another South Shore community heavily damaged by the storm surge. "I appreciate everything everybody did for us. There is no way to repay it," she said, and there were so many individuals and organizations that extended themselves to help her and her husband, Warren, that she can't single out just one.
Their home, just south of Montauk Highway, took in almost two feet of water, so they evacuated to her brother Frank Esposito's house, on the north side of the same road. He and his wife, Rosemary, have grown children, so the Smiths stayed in one of their extra bedrooms.
The Smiths' house needed new insulation, wallboard, floors, a new kitchen. But before all of the new construction, Smith said, "we had a lot of friends and neighbors who came to help us with the demolition."
There were also many strangers and organizations that showed up in their Lindenhurst neighborhood to provide support and much-needed supplies. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church had hot meals and sandwiches on hand for residents in need. St. John's Lutheran Church also provided food and cleaning supplies. And then there was Camp Bulldog.
It was a grassroots effort started by North Lindenhurst spouses Morris Hartman, 61, and Robin DiGiacomo, 58, days after the storm. The couple wanted to help area victims, so they set up tables with food and supplies at the parking lot of the Surfside 3 Marina on South Wellwood Avenue. As volunteers joined them and donations poured in, the site became an ad hoc support hub.
Kathy Smith said she still feels overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers.
"Thank you will never be enough," she said. "Bless you all."