In Sandy's wake, displaced families use Thanksgiving to gather strength
When the relentless fury of Superstorm Sandy swept through New York City, entire neighborhoods were washed away, drowned and burned to the ground. Families who for generations were rooted in places such as the Rockaways, Breezy Point and Staten Island were completely upended, everything they've ever known now simply gone from their lives.
And yet, as we approach Thanksgiving, in Sandy's wake those families have one thread in common: resilience. Though their homes were destroyed, their cars totaled and some were left homeless, being together for the holiday is giving some families the spirit to look at what they've lost and pull together to rebuild.
amNewYork spoke with three such families.
After evacuating to her sister-in-law's place in Red Bank, N.J., Kate Rigaut was far away from her Rockaway home the night Sandy hit. She had left the day before, on Sunday, Oct. 28, fearing for the safety her children, Jimmy, 10, and Kelly, 5, and her husband, Mike, 61.
Her neighbor across the street stayed behind, holed up in her large stone house, and the night of Sandy she sent Rigaut Facebook updates every hour or so about the status of her house.
For most of the night the updates were fine. But around 10 p.m., the neighbor called.
Rigaut's home, the one her grandfather built in 1937, had collapsed.
"I had a nervous breakdown," said Rigaut, 52. "The house fell down on Monday, and I cried until Thursday. I just had days where I really couldn't get a grip. I was the keeper of things in my family. And now it's all gone."
For next two weeks or so, Rigaut, her husband and her kids bounced around between south Jersey and the Rockaways, sleeping at different relatives' homes until eventually renting a place in south Jersey, where they're currently staying indefinitely.
Throughout the heartbreak, Rigaut said she sees Thanksgiving as a chance to forget, just for one day, the tragedy she and her family have endured for the last three weeks. She and her family will spend Thanksgiving at the Rockaway home of her sister, Carrie, whose home also sustained severe damage during Sandy.
"We're thankful we're together and we didn't go to a funeral," she said. "Carrie is hell-bent, she's having Thanksgiving come hell or, this year, literally, high water. But it doesn't matter whose house it is, it's that we're together," she said. "We'll hold each other up, and we'll get through this."
Rigaut added: "My house is gone along with basically everything I owned, but I am gonna have turkey on Thursday. What more could I ask?"
Irene Dougherty has been staying in a Bay Ridge two-bedroom apartment with three adults and six children since Sandy hit. Her home, in Rockaway, is indefinitely uninhabitable, after nearly eight feet of water flooded the basement up through the first floor during the superstorm. Her family lost both of their cars, and her brick front porch is sinking and has separated from the house's foundation.
"Everything is gone. All our memories, all our Christmas decoations, our winter clothes, everything is gone," said Dougherty, 45.
Most of her siblings and relatives live in nearby homes that had equal or worse devastation. If her mother-in-law didn't live in Bay Ridge, her family would have had nowhere to go.
So this year's Thanksgiving is a little different. The apartment she is staying in with her family isn't big enough to host any type of dinner - her sister has been staying with friends because there's no room left - and the rest of her extended family isn't faring any better.
But this past Monday night, Dougherty gathered up her husband, their three kids, her sister, her mother-in-law and every other member of the family in the area and trekked to St. Patrick's on 95th Street and Fourth Avenue. The church was hosting a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner for Rockaway refugees who otherwise wouldn't have anything Thanksgiving at all.
"The holidays may not be at home, but I have to say, myself and my sister and the kids, we're just really looking forward to connecting with a lot families we know that we haven't been able to see," she said.
"It's bittersweet, but to surround myself with familiar faces and friends and families and seeing their faces and know they're okay, that's what I'm thankful for."
Kathleen Valentine was at work the night Sandy hit. She's an FDNY dispatcher, so it was a long, busy night, to say the least. Being at a nerve center during the storm, she generally knew which areas of the city were being hit the worst. So as the phone calls kept coming in, her thoughts kept returning to one thing: her home in Breezy Point.
Three days later she finally was able to get to her house, and she was dumbfounded at the damage.
"I knew where the water was, so I kind of thought I knew what to expect. But to go and see that the decks had shifted, that there was a lake in front of my house, it was surreal. Unbelievable," said Valentine, 44.
The house is uninhabitable, and the family is still pumping water out of the basement. There's no gas, no power, they've thrown out the furniture and they've cut down the walls to avoid mold. The family is now spread out all over the Rockaways, staying at shelters and with family, and unfortunately, that misfortune will bleed into this year's Thanksgiving.
"At 7:30 in the morning on Thursday, I'm meeting our flood adjuster at the house, so I think I'll be working there, tearing up the floor," she said. "Maybe spend some time with my sister." Her daughters will likely spend the holiday with their father, Valentine's ex-husband, at a dinner for refugees at the Rockaway Point Activity Center.
"We're trying to make the best of it," she added.
But despite the distance and destruction, Valentine said she isn't despairing.
"The property is property. It's replaceable. The floor can be fixed. The walls can be fixed. But I'm just thankful that all of my friends and my family are still here and everyone's alive," Valentine said.
"I'd rather they have no house and be able to sit down and have cup of coffee with them than something worse," she said. "That to me is what matters on Thanksgiving this year."