Expressway: The double landscape of Long Beach
The Saturday before superstorm Sandy hit was sunny and warm, much like the gorgeous summer day in 2011 that preceded Tropical Storm Irene, which in memory seemed to pass over Long Beach with a few mild gusts and a bucket or two of rain.
However, by Sunday, Oct. 28, the sky was looking ominous, and like many people in our city, my partner, Robin Hudler, and I went to the beach, which is across the street from where we live, and started shoveling sand into plastic garbage bags -- an emergency measure to create the sandbags we should have bought a week before.
We worked more anxiously as the ocean began to churn into huge, menacing waves. It soon became clear that our old friend, the Atlantic, was falling under the spell of some really bad juju. Then, a member of the local surfing contingent who was working beside us pointed up at the sky. Everybody on the beach paused to watch as the gulls abandoned us, flying out to sea to ride out the coming storm. Soon after, police cars with loudspeakers came down the street, announcing a mandatory evacuation. Robin and I ignored them and kept on working, hauling our sandbags home in a shopping cart as we watched others carrying theirs off in car trunks and children's wagons.
By Monday night, Oct. 29, the wind was screaming down the streets. Robin and I sat in the living room watching television until the cable went out. Oh well, I said, not to worry: We have DVDs. We slipped "Gypsy" into the Blu-ray player and got to the point where Natalie Wood was singing about how she hopes Mamma will get married when the screen went black. I stepped onto my porch and watched the lights go out, section by section, all along my street. And then I looked toward the shore.
In the dark, I could just make out a tower of black water rising up, up, up above the concrete barrier at the end of the beach and then hurling itself over the wall onto the street. What looked like a million, billion, black gallons of water was rushing toward my little house.
For the next few hours I sat by my front window and watched a biblical struggle between the howling wind and the oncoming water. The flood was surging east, down our street, but the wind was blowing west, and kept pushing the water back. Sometime in the night, when the wind died down a bit, I went outside to check our garage, which is slightly below street level. Our pathetic little wall of sandbags -- maybe 2 feet high -- was not only intact, it was dry. The driveway was dry. The wind had saved us. It had won its contest with the floodwaters.
So Robin and I went to bed. What we did not know was that night, we were sleeping in the sea. All around us, on almost every other street in Long Beach, a once-in-a-century storm surge was submerging the town. A block away, Lido Towers, an enormous landmark building with a nightclub in the basement, was pushed off its foundation. Houses, high-rise apartment buildings, cars, stores, supermarkets, the hairdresser, the Laundromat -- the Atlantic smashed into them all. It drowned the West End of town. It killed the railroad. It swept away the pews of the churches and synagogues, and all the while, Robin and I were dreaming.
It wasn't until the next day that we understood the extent of the devastation around us. At the end of our block was a huge mound of sand left behind when the flood tide retreated. Like a monstrous mousetrap, it had already caught a pair of badly damaged cars that had been carried there from some other part of town.
Shell-shocked, climbing over the huge piles of debris and sections of boardwalk that had been ripped from their concrete pilings and flung into the street, we wandered through the double landscape that we now inhabited -- the ruin our eyes could see, and the sunny, summer town that still existed in our minds -- to find that we were one of the very few tiny dry patches of our island city.
For the next nine days we lived in the cold and dark, believing that any minute the lights would come on in the world again. We boiled water on a stove that Robin built on our coffee table out of an oven rack and Sterno that my brother sent from Washington, D.C., by Federal Express.
Finally, around 7 o'clock on the ninth night, a Long Island Power Authority truck showed up. Robin, in her winter coat (it was very, very cold by then), carrying what looked like a miner's lamp and wearing two watch caps and a scarf tied under her chin to keep them on, quietly talked to the linemen as they did their work. She's a tiny, long-haired woman, but at that moment, she looked like Levon Helm in "Coal Miner's Daughter," talking to our new heroes. (We hate you, LIPA, but the guys on the ground were angels.) Twenty minutes later, God said let there be light. And there was.
I don't know why my little house was spared the deluge. I don't know if there will be another. But the gulls are back, the sea has returned to its usual boundaries and spends its days placidly grumbling to itself. My neighbors are coming home, or are trying to. Soon enough it will be summer again. And because we are who we are -- beach people; that's why we live here -- we will get out the surfboards and sand chairs and stroll along the double landscape of our boulevards. Hello, friends. Hello. Come visit us some hot July day. We never left. We are still here.
Eleanor Lerman is a recent Guggenheim Fellow and a National Book Award nominee. Her novel "Janet Planet" (Mayapple Press) was published in 2011.