The fake palm tree floated in with Sandy. Emil Caiazza stuck it in the ground outside the trailer he'd parked on his lawn, a rare note of levity on a Lindenhurst block where the superstorm took far more than it left.
"Vacant, vacant, vacant and vacant," said Caiazza, as he looked toward the bay down South Fourth Street and counted his neighbors' houses. "And vacant, vacant, vacant and vacant. And I'm in a trailer."
Or at least he was until it developed electrical problems. Now he's sleeping in his nearly repaired house, he said Tuesday. "It's got a floor, heat, electrical -- everything but furniture."
Sandy's discomforts are receding memories for many Long Islanders. But here -- as elsewhere the storm hit hardest -- life continues in crisis mode, seemingly frozen in an almost surreal disconnect from normal life just a few miles, or a few blocks, to the north.
Houses on the south tip of this street -- which ends at the Great South Bay -- remain in various states of disrepair. While some near restoration, others still sit dark, gutted and empty. By day, contractors' vehicles line the street. At night, a sullen stillness descends.
No one knows to what extent the $50 billion in federal aid for Sandy disaster relief, or the money raised by celebrity concerts and fund drives, will trickle down to South Fourth Street.
This may be a collective disaster, but the losses and the struggles to recover are endured by individuals -- one house, one insurance claim at a time.
"Strangeness is normal now," said Chelsea Caiazza, 21, who had stopped to visit her father and her dog on a cold night in January. She and her mother Barbara are still renting an apartment in West Babylon with FEMA funds while her father, 58, oversees repairs at home.
"It's weird to feel normal, it's normal to feel weird," she said. "It's an expression that absolutely applies to this situation."
Her father agreed. "This is not an easy issue to live with," said Caiazza, who drives a Pepsi delivery route. "There are the insurance companies and money to deal with -- but psychologically, you get beat up. You've got to be positive and look ahead or else you'd spiral into a major depression."
He and his neighbors are middle-class homeowners and tenants, many without substantial resources. Those with the means to push ahead on repairs are beginning to show progress, while those wholly dependent on insurance, slow to come or inadequate, are seemingly stalled indefinitely.
"If you see people moving forward, it's people like me and Emil, people more able to handle it financially," said Tom Lombardo, 63, a facilities manager for a national convenience store chain, and Caiazza's next-door neighbor.
"It comes down to this: if you miss your insurance payment, you'll be canceled in a blink of an eye. But when it comes time to settle your case, there is no time frame."
Slow pace of funding
Since Sandy, nothing much has happened with the house near the street's tip that Luigi Stolfa, 31, bought and moved into last August. The storm shifted the house on its foundation and a village building inspector recommended demolition.
After almost three months of repeated calls, he got $98,000 in insurance money the last week in January. But he said he can't proceed because insurance engineering reports conflict in their damage assessments and the insurance company hasn't completed its report.
"It doesn't stop," he said. "It's exhausting. It's like a bad dream."
The Navy veteran's troubles don't end there. The night after the storm, he said, his house was robbed: a flat-screen television, his grandfather's collection of military knives, electronics and other valuables, including his service medals. His insurance company wants receipts or photos, most of which were ruined in the floodwater or were on a stolen computer.
"It's horrible right now," said Stolfa, who is renting an apartment with FEMA funds. "Pretty much everything I own right now fits into my car . . . I used most of my savings for my house. I've been trying to stay calm and hope everything will be taken care of."
Someone took the 36 20-foot wooden pylons that washed up by his front door. He doesn't know where the blue-lined Jacuzzi came from. It sits in his yard with sodden debris -- a mattress, an overturned trampoline, roofing, a soggy address book -- behind a sagging chain link fence.
Paralysis has also settled over the modest bungalow that Linda Vanderhoof, 64, moved into 38 years ago and now shares with her sister, Millie Perrotta, 63. Perrotta is staying with a son, and Vanderhoof, a widow, is with a friend while awaiting an engineering report on the condition of the gutted house's foundation.
"It's very frustrating," she said. "You can't go forward on anything until the insurance company signs off on an amount. FEMA can't do anything until the insurance company tells me what they're giving me."
Alex Fokine, 45, a garage door installer, is living with his two Hungarian sheepdogs in one room of his partially repaired three-bedroom house next door to Stolfa. At night, he sits in a single pool of dim light. When insurance payments stopped two months ago, he said, so did his repair work. His final insurance payment just arrived and he hopes to order Sheetrock soon and do the remaining repairs himself.
"I had 10 inches of water from Irene and had to gut everything" last year, too, he said.
FEMA's work not yet done
The Lindenhurst Memorial Library is a Disaster Recovery Center, where state and federal employees have seen more than 6,000 residents asking for help. About 200 a day came at first, now an average of 50 a day come in, Monday through Saturday, said library director Peter Ward.
The center's FEMA manager, Jose Monge, said most people now are coming in for rental assistance, or appealing FEMA decisions. "People are not happy with the decisions of the insurance company and they are coming to us to get a little more money to complete their repairs," he said.
Lombardo said he was refused FEMA money because his credit card charges were too high.
"I said 'Of course my credit card charges are too high! I have almost $75,000 on them because I'm buying everything on them.' " FEMA, he said, is now reconsidering his request.
The initial $35,000 he's gotten from insurance went quickly in the renovation of the house his father built in 1944, and that he bought and expanded when he married almost 40 years ago.
Lombardo and his wife Donna are renting a friend's basement apartment, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and trying not to think about all that they lost: the little statues his wife collected, the wall murals she loved, the curtains she changed with the seasons and the bedroom set purchased when they married.
"I just have to focus on what I have to do to get my wife back in the house," he said. "You just have to make it happen. You go forward, you don't step back."
As in any chronic situation, whether disease or disaster, those not mired in it may find the subject increasingly remote.
"My husband spoke with a relative recently who didn't even ask how we were doing," said Jacqueline Salvia, 44, a part-time teacher who lives across from Caiazza and Lombardo. "One friend says 'That's what you get living on the water' every time I mention something."
Repairs to the first floor began in January, she said. "I think if they're not living it, then they probably can't empathize. It's enough already."
It will be hard to erase the images of the storm and its aftermath. Streets accessible only by boat. Looters testing doors and breaking into houses before the patrols started.
A reminder of that time remains spray-painted on the door of a dilapidated house on the street: "Keep out or get shot."
No heat, no power
Salvia and her husband Donald, 48, and daughters Samantha, 8, and Julianne, 13, continued to live upstairs without heat, power or phone service after the flood damaged their first-floor den, spare bedroom, bath, laundry and utility room. Their deck split, and heating oil from their toppled tank drenched the lawn.
For a month, before the power came back, they sat in hats, coats and gloves playing cards by candlelight. She said: "I tell them they'll never forget it. It was like one long camping trip. I think they enjoyed it."
Her 13-year-old looked up at her incredulously. "Did I look like I enjoyed it? I was wrapped up in blankets. I was cold. It was horrible."
Images of intimate and pervasive loss were everywhere, littering lawns, bobbing in the water.
"I saw dentures in a Mason jar float by, and family photos . . . People's memories are gone," recalled Michael Pergolizzi, 22, busily repairing the tiny rental property on the bay that his father, Steve of Northport, owns and rents to a tenant he hopes will return. The blessing was that everyone on the street was safe, he said.
"It's just stuff," said Rhonda Verrier, 62, whose bayfront home was her husband Remi's childhood summer bungalow, enlarged and modernized in 1977.
Awaiting flood insurance payments, they used a $7,000 insurance payment for his waterlogged classic car to clear out their wrecked first floor. She poured bleach on her floor joists until the smell went away.
And on a bright January day, Verrier and her husband, 64, snapped photos of the Christian relief members who were pounding nails and hanging Sheetrock in their home.
"They're miracle workers, they truly are," she said.
"When this happened, I had a difficult time accepting charity," she said. "But when you are cut off at the knees, your pride goes out the window and you learn to accept and open your heart up to allow people to help."
"It renews my faith in human nature," she said, and strengthens her resolve to assist others.
Similar acts of kindness resonate up and down the block: Caiazza is touched by the anonymous Farmingdale woman who unloaded food from her minivan, saying she felt she had to do something. Lombardo praised the Red Cross' hot meals and village workers who brought water and cleared debris.
They depend on Camp Bulldog, the encampment of volunteers who converged the day after the storm to give out hot food and supplies from the driveway of a wrecked marina. It is still a focal point of community recovery at its current location in a heated tent in Shore Road Park.
Now open Friday through Monday, it dishes out hundreds of hot meals and distributes donated food, clothes, paper products, diapers, pet food, garbage bags, blankets, bleach and masks and gloves. On a cold weekend, Vanderhoof and Verrier were there for lunch, and Salvia arrived with her daughters for some supplies.
Said Vanderhoof: "Through the community and the local organizations we haven't been forgotten."