For the first few nights after superstorm Sandy struck, Ted Alexander had water dreams.
A phantom soundtrack of rushing water would awaken him, the same noise he'd heard when the family's Long Beach home was violated by a flood so powerful it picked up the refrigerator in his mother-in-law's first-floor living quarters and slammed it on its side.
Ted Alexander knew it was a dream, but he'd force himself from the warmth of the covers anyway and into the cold rooms, which had lost all power in the storm. He'd take the flashlight the family has since nicknamed Big Silver and inspect to be sure his wife, their three children and his mother-in-law were safe as they slumbered on the top floor.
He'd think of his son Harry, 5, tucked between him and his wife, Karen, in their bedroom. "When I sleep, the water is going to come into my bed," Harry had told Karen, fearful to close his eyes.
He pictured his stepdaughter, Ashley Russo, 20, whose bedroom also had been on the bottom, destroyed floor, and how she'd frantically grabbed her graphic arts portfolio as the water thrashed in through her windows, sluicing in from behind her closet, trying to save the years of artwork that could lead to a future job. Ashley was now set up in Harry's room, in his bottom bunk bed.
Only to Ted's daughter Jessie, 10, had the storm seemed to give instead of take. When Ted was bailing out the first floor, counting buckets by sets of 30 to keep himself going, he'd glimpsed a glint in the water. A fish? A live one had washed up into their house. Ted caught the silver baitfish, tiny enough to fit into a teaspoon, and brought it to the middle floor living room, which had become the family's command center. He put the fish into a glass vase, named it Sandy and presented it to a delighted Jessie.
After the first few days of the storm, Ted's water dreams subsided. But each day when he wakes up, the family's nightmare continues.
Each 24 hours is filled trying to stay warm, cleaning up the mess, occupying restless children and fighting the tedium.
What's worse than the physical hardship is the uncertainty: Will this be the day the electricity finally comes back on? Will the auto insurance adjusters show up to assess the family's totaled cars so they might once again have transportation? Will everyone make it to bedtime without somebody breaking down from the stress? And, increasingly, as the tiny fish has become a symbol of the storm to the whole family, this question seemed just as important: Will Sandy live another day?
"If he survives, we can survive," said Ted's mother-in-law, Olivia Lorch-Jaffe, 71.
Thursday, Nov. 8
(Day 10 without power)
That's the immediate challenge for the Alexander family. Everyone is hunkered down in his own makeshift nest on the family's 10th day without power. Grandma Olivia sits in the corner of the living room near the window light, wearing pants and a sweater, socks and boots, a jacket and downstyle vest, underneath a white fleece blanket. She turns the pages of a paperback book -- Michael Connelly's "The Drop" -- with gloved hands. "I lost my Kindle to the storm," she explained.
Karen is at the dining room table, warming her gloved hands over a tray with 15 candles. The dining room thermostat reads 51 degrees.
"The first few days it wasn't so bad because the sun was out," Karen said. "But now. Now the problem is beginning. We have no boiler. There's water in our electrical outlets. We can't put our power on until we get an OK from LIPA. My son telling me he's freezing in the night is heartbreaking. He slept on top of me because he was so cold."
Ashley gets ready to go to school -- Nassau Community College was closed the first week after Sandy, but classes have now resumed. All four of the grown-ups' cars were destroyed in the storm, each filled with water so high that their minivan's back door opened and Karen watched from the house as it covered Harry's booster seat. Ashley's friend Chris Esposito, 20, who lives in Flushing, is driving her to class.
She's hoping she won't feel as much anger today as she did when she went to class Wednesday and heard classmates complaining because they couldn't watch TV, when she had lost all of her belongings and her grandmother had lost her apartment.
The mailman delivers the mail for the first time since the storm. In the mail is a bill from the Alexanders' car insurance company. Ted and Karen aren't sure whether they're supposed to pay it because their cars are no longer drivable.
Navigating insurance has been overwhelming. Ted calls their car insurance company -- which is supposed to be sending an adjuster sometime today -- and is instructed to pay the bill while everything is being sorted out. White fog comes out of Ted's mouth as he talks, that's how cold it is inside the house.
The family needs to get the cars figured out as soon as possible. Ted, 39, is a mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service in East New York and hasn't been to work since Sandy hit. He's used up his vacation time and isn't getting paid anymore. "My husband is a civil service worker. We live paycheck to paycheck," said Karen, 42, who refers to herself as a housewife. Grandma Olivia has been able to rent a car -- but only because she arranged it in Brooklyn, she said. Other friends are still waiting to get a rental car locally and have been told it will be seven to 10 more days before one is available.
A FEMA representative has been to the Alexanders' house to talk about their flood insurance, which the Alexanders did purchase because it was mandatory where they live, several blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and the bay. But they have no idea what they will actually receive.
The unknown is wearying, Karen said: "I look in the mirror and I feel like I can see the stress in my face."
On a pre-Sandy day, Karen Alexander would be up in the morning getting Jessie ready for fifth grade and Harry for kindergarten at Long Beach's East Elementary School. Ted, who works nights, would just be getting home. Ted would go to the gym, sleep and then pick the kids up from school. They'd all have dinner, do homework, watch TV. Ted would leave for work about 10 p.m.
Now, the day is passed by all six family members gathered in the split-level's middle-floor living room and adjacent dining area. They rise by 7, and Ted goes to the backyard to pull the generator cord so the family will have about an hour to charge laptops and phones and so a small, portable space heater can take a little chill from the air. Karen cleans up from the night before, when it was too dark to do so. She makes her daughters' and mother's beds -- Grandma is bunking with Jessie in her room like, as Karen puts it, "Lucy and Desi."
After lunch, Karen needs to get out of the house, so she will take the kids for a walk: They still have no school. Then Karen's sister's family, who live a few blocks away in Lido Beach and also has no electricity, will come over to eat. They will eat off paper plates and with plastic cutlery to avoid having to wash dishes in water they're not sure is safe. "We wait for the sun to go down, go to sleep, and start all over again," Karen said.
Life during Week Two Without Power is better than Week One because Karen's cousin drove down from Connecticut to loan them the generator. Karen's afraid of it as much as she appreciates it. "I think the house is going to blow up," she said.
The Alexanders have been storing food outside on the deck, though Karen is sad when she looks in the backyard, where the trampoline and the grills are disheveled and ruined household goods are waiting to be picked up and carted away. "This was my beautiful yard. My white picket fence. I don't know if I'll get it back."
Ted finds one bright side to the power outage: "We're all here together. I've seen Ashley more this week and a half than I have all year. She's not texting right now. It's nice."
Ted demonstrates how to prepare a Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE for short. The family's been getting them from a relief center set up a few blocks away at the East School.
Open a box, and inside is a cooking bag, a packet of water and the main dish. Pour the water into the "magic" bag, insert the main dish packet as well, and it cooks itself in 10 minutes. The whole family is fascinated by the novelty of it -- instant meatballs in marinara sauce.
"It's strange to be given a box of food and a case of water," said Grandma Olivia. "What you've seen on TV -- other people getting packages and food and their house is a disaster. It's for other people."
The family isn't dependent on the MREs because friends and family have been bringing them dinners and food as well -- baked ziti, pound cake, black-and-white cookies.
Karen's brother-in-law Steve Ochs -- her sister's husband -- knocks and comes in. "You can't flush again, do you know that?" he tells them, and Karen is horrified they're back to that. "They should be passing out vodka and Vicodin at City Hall," Steve joked. "That would help us all. I think we've got another two weeks of limbo."
Ted and Steve head downstairs to do some work in the decimated first floor, filled with mud, gypsum wallboard they've already half ripped out, and toppled furniture they haven't decided whether to keep or trash. Little Harry goes with them, wearing green rain boots with frog faces on them and Spider-Man gloves. It's a little boy's dream -- he gets to hammer the wallboard walls while Ted and Steve work to disconnect all the electrical outlets and cap the wires. It looks like an episode of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in what used to be Grandma Olivia’s living room. If only.
Olivia is nervous about them working when she still has some belongings downstairs that she hopes to salvage. She gets up from her reading chair in the living room and heads downstairs. She rolls her desk chair away from where they're working and has Ted fold a mosaic snack table she wants to save.
Steve laments the wreckage; his family room looks similar. "I have a semi-in-ground pool in my yard. It was crushed. Crushed." Insurance? He has three policies, homeowner's, flood and umbrella. "No one will go out on a ledge and say it's covered. I called my insurance agent; he lives in Oceanside. He's homeless. It's no time to be breaking his chops about what kind of coverage I have."
Ashley walks in from class. Only about eight of the usual 40 students showed up, she said. "A couple of girls in the class were like, 'If you need a shower, if you need a place to stay . . . ' Everybody was really nice." She heads for the dining room sideboard to check on Sandy. "It's still alive. You win a goldfish and they don't even last that long. It's a miracle."
Karen wants to go for a walk, get some fresh air before it gets dark. Ashley, Chris, Karen and Karen's niece Jamie Ochs, 13, who has shown up at the house as well, bundle up to head out to the relief center set up at the East School.
They pass the Bagel Café, with its sign: "We are closed until further notice." They pass The Bungalow restaurant, also closed, where Ashley works as a waitress. Karen peers in through the window. "It doesn't look that bad in there, Ashley," she said.
At the relief center, the group picks up another box of ready-to-eat meals and two bags of Sandwich Thins. Chris carries it back home. The streets along the Long Beach canals are lined with mattresses, couches, bookshelves, lamps, carpeting, dressers -- it looks like every street is having a multifamily garage sale. If only.
Olivia, back sitting in her chair, is on page 30 of her paperback. "I'm used to my Kindle. This starts to strain my eyes," she said.
"Want me to read to you?" Chris offered.
"No, I just read a few pages, and then I stop." She puts the book down and starts to talk about how she's feeling; she's arguably lost the most of anyone in the household. What saddens her most is that she no longer has her privacy. "Even though I'm welcome here upstairs, you reach a point of your life, I raised two children, worked many years, you value your quiet, your down time. It takes away your natural kind of freedom."
The light outside is starting to change; it's transitioning to evening, the time everyone except Jessie dreads. Harry is cold. "I want my own blanket," he said. He's sitting on the couch sharing the covers with Ashley, Jamie and Chris, watching "Raise Your Voice" starring Hilary Duff, on Jamie's laptop.
"Harry, we're all cold," Ashley said.
Karen is sorting laundry. She will take some to a friend's tonight and give some to her mother, who is going to stay with a friend Friday night.
"I guess . . . [the insurance adjuster] is not coming today," Karen said.
She switched gears. "How are my candles?" Karen said, checking on her tray on the dining room table. "I'm in charge of making sure the candles are lit."
Jessie loves the candles. She, in fact, seems to be enjoying the storm's aftereffects. She got her fish. She's had sleepovers with cousins. And when she's home: "I like the nights because the candles are lit. It looks pretty."
Karen's sister Lisa arrives; her daughter Hallie, 7, is here now, too. Lisa reports that a fire department representative came to her house to check their circuit breaker and gave an all clear; they're good to go as soon as LIPA can turn their power on. "I've had it," she said. But, she adds: "We're better off than a lot of people. We do still have a house."
Olivia predicts that in five years, the family will sit and laugh about this time. "We're going to be hysterical and poke fun at each other. 'You did this' and 'You did that,' " Olivia said.
"Fifty-three inches," Ashley said. That's what she will remember -- the number the FEMA specialist determined on his visit to their wreckage. "Fifty-three inches of water in my room."
The whole extended family spends the evening at the Long Beach apartment of their friends Leon and Kiran Box and their children, R'Sian, 8, and Rohan, 6. The Boxes are from London and have been in New York since last year, when Leon was transferred here with his company. They invited everyone over to shower, do laundry and share Chinese food.
"We have electricity," R'Sian announced when everyone arrives.
"You're lucky," Hallie said.
"I want to sit on the radiator," Olivia said. "I want to crawl into the radiator."
The Alexanders' friends Bob and Julia Kester are there as well, with their daughter, Samantha, 5. The Kesters' house is unlivable; their main-floor kitchen and master bedroom were wiped out by the flood. They're sleeping in different places every night.
Ted and Ashley both shower; Karen puts in a load of laundry. The women share red wine; the guys do a shot of alcohol in the kitchen.
"How's the fish?" Leon asks Ted.
Ted gives him two thumbs up. Leon gives Ted goldfish flakes he has left from when his daughter had a fish.
Lisa gets a message on her smartphone from a friend who is a PTA representative that classes will resume on Tuesday, but that the kids will be doubled up at the schools that aren't damaged. They are buoyed by some news that seems definitive.
Karen's not relaxed as she folds the laundry in the laundry area. She's anxious about Friday night, when Ted plans to go back to work, Ashley plans to stay with a friend and her mom goes to Brooklyn for the night. She will sleep with the younger two kids at her sister's even though she hates being away from home.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, isn't that what they say?" she said.
When the family enters the house, they go straight to the fish vase to feed Sandy the goldfish flakes.
Sandy isn't moving.
Jessie starts to cry.
"Come on Sandy. Don't do this to us now," Ashley urged.
Ted pushes goldfish flakes toward Sandy using a screwdriver.
Sandy slowly swims down into the murky water.
"He's alive! He's alive and well Jessie!" Ashley said.
Ted picks up Big Silver and shines it into the water so Harry can see Sandy.
"This is crazy. Who'd have thought we'd be sitting here at 9:30 at night staring at a fish?" Olivia said.
"It's the only thing in 10 days that has brought us some joy," Ashley said.
Friday Nov. 9
(Day 11 without power)Grandma Olivia is up and tries to straighten the dining room a little. Ted turns on the generator so Ashley can style her hair with a blow dryer before school. The sun is shining. Some good news from Karen's sister, Lisa: They got their power back.
And, when Jessie woke up, there was news for her, too. "The fish is alive," Grandma said.
"Yay!" Jessie said.
Ted makes coffee in the kitchen -- the gas stove will let them boil water. Karen joins him by the sink. She breaks into tears -- as she's said, usually someone has a meltdown before each day ends.
Jessie hears her mom's voice, thick with tears, and rushes in to hug her. "Everything's going to be OK, Mom," the 10-year-old said.
"My house is like a pig sty. I'm a housewife and this is my job, and I can't do my job," Karen said. "I don't like being dependent on other people. That's how I'm starting to feel, like I'm a burden on everybody."
Ted decides to clean the refrigerator. They'd already jettisoned the spoiled food, but the foul smell lingered when the door was open. Ted put water on the stove to boil so he could use it to clean.
Karen sat at the dining room table to reassess the condition of the candle tray and light new ones. "This is something that gives me so much pleasure," she said. "I have no idea why."
Harry is hovering nearby, singing "No more Monkeys Jumping on the Bed." Jessie is watching mom fix up the pretty candles Jessie loves. Sandy continues to swim in the vase on the sideboard.
Karen looks up to see what Ted is doing. In the kitchen, he's cleaning two wax-filled votives to add to her tray, so that for his wife, some small sense of order can be restored.