Rebuilding post-Sandy lives elsewhere, both near and far away

Former Copiague resident Jim Parente sits with his dog outside his apartment in Bradenton, Florida, on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. / Steve Nesius

Laura Cromer hikes two, sometimes three miles each day in the wooded trails near Lake George. Scurrying alongside is Remy, a 9-month-old golden retriever mix.

Not much of life upstate reminds her of Lindenhurst, the South Shore community she called home for 12 years but left in May 2013 — six months after superstorm Sandy flooded her bungalow beside a canal, and her car.

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Laura Cromer hikes two, sometimes three miles each day in the wooded trails near Lake George. Scurrying alongside is Remy, a 9-month-old golden retriever mix.

Not much of life upstate reminds her of Lindenhurst, the South Shore community she called home for 12 years but left in May 2013 — six months after superstorm Sandy flooded her bungalow beside a canal, and her car.

“I couldn’t get off that island fast enough,” she remembers thinking as she packed up her new Mazda SUV.

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Her life in Queensbury, where she looks for work as a real estate appraiser, is free of several stressors, particularly the tidal waters that define Long Island’s South Shore.

And the undeveloped contours of upstate New York evoke the familiar — her 1970s childhood in Farmingville, past where the major highways ended, with sprawling woods frequented by teenagers.

“It’s rejuvenated my soul,” she said. “I have peace of mind now.”

’We’ll never move back’

Cromer, 58, is among the displaced Long Islanders scattered across the region, state and country in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. Many of those who migrated off the Island, or away from the shore, had endured months — or years — of battles with insurance companies, banks and contractors.

The resettlement certainly has brought relief, but also means families separated by long distance, interruptions in schooling and homesickness.

Some of them are in agreement: Long Island is, and always will be, fixed in their rearview mirror.

“We’ll never move back to Long Beach as a postscript,” said Peter Hawkinson, 67, who lived in the “City By The Sea” for 33 years with his wife Barbara, 63, and whose house was flooded in the storm. They now reside in Marina del Rey, California.

The couple moved to Southern California in February 2013 and reunited with their adult daughter, Nina, who works as an attorney in the Los Angeles area and helped her parents get settled. After a few moves in the area, they’ve downsized to a 1,200-square-foot condominium overlooking the marina.

“We love Southern California,” Hawkinson said. “I think I would highly recommend it as a lifestyle. There’s nothing like it.”

The Hawkinsons have embraced a more minimalist approach to life. “I don’t worry as much, I’m not that focused on possessions,” said Hawkinson, who works as a construction manager.

“I’m a little surprised we’re living so close to the water,” he said. “It’s so pleasant and so easy, that we never looked back and never thought twice.”

Panic and anxiety

Those who decided to leave Long Island did so as repair bills piled up and personal hardships intensified. Memories of the storm — and the recent news coverage of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Jose — have triggered flashbacks and anxiety.

Jim Parente, 65, who lived nearly 20 years in a cottage in Copiague, decamped for Bradenton, Florida, in November 2015. He was struggling at work and suffering anxiety and panic attacks.

“Since Sandy, I have been in a fog,” said Parente, a media technician.

“Feelings of unreality come and go after this entire storm,” he said. “It’s traumatic, and you try to convince yourself it’s only things that were destroyed. It really does affect you.”

He returned to his West Drive home a few days after the storm and had “the only laugh I was going to have in a while” when he opened the door and saw a beer bottle balanced upside down.

“What didn’t strike me as funny was the smell in the house. [It] was awful. It was a distinct sewage smell,” he said.

Parente’s financial situation grew worse, and he eventually defaulted on the home, he said.

“What did I do wrong?” he remembers asking himself. He eventually met with mental health counselors made available to Sandy victims.

“Irma was a trigger,” Parente said of the hurricane that pounded Florida last month. This time, he did not evacuate. “I was a wreck during it.”

He has struggled to adapt to his new community, he said. He also has had trouble finding work. He enjoys the wildlife of the Robinson Preserve, particularly the community of birds and reptiles surrounded by salt marshes and mangroves.

“I miss Montauk,” he said, wistful for the dayslong fishing trips for tuna or “deep drop” tilefishing on the bottom of the ocean’s floor. He’s contemplating a move to Cozumel, the Mexican island off the Yucatán Peninsula’s eastern coast, because of the cost of living in Florida. “It looks like it would be a good place for me to heal,” he said.

Some relocating

Five years after the storm, some are in the midst of relocating.

“We’re leaving, and it’s not on our terms,” said Silke Wedding, 54, a longtime Freeport resident living in an apartment atop Hurricane Harry’s, a bar on the Nautical Mile that she owned and managed with her husband, Rick Sweet, 57, until last month. The property is in the process of foreclosure, she said.

The couple have been apart since early September, when Sweet, a freight forwarder with the Teamsters working in the shipping industry, moved to Greenville, South Carolina.

The family purchased a home there in an auction and Sweet left the Island last month in search of work. Their son Ricky, 13, is attending parochial school in Queens and living with Wedding’s mother in Flushing. Wedding visits Ricky on weekends.

The transition has been tough on him, she said. “He was born in that house and that’s all he knew, all he knows,” she said. “He was adamant. He didn’t want to leave.”

Recently she stopped by the family’s old house to check the mailbox for missed correspondence. “I broke down crying, walking around the place,” she said. “It was really hard to see my home.”

Wedding works as a teaching assistant in the Freeport district, providing extra math instruction for students needing academic intervention. She hopes the family will reunite in South Carolina after the school year ends in June.

“He has to try to establish himself there,” Wedding said of her husband. “We’re kind of playing everything by ear, because this wasn’t exactly part of our grand plan.”

‘Rhythm completely lost’

Feelings of homesickness abound — even for those who stayed on the Island.

Deborah Fauci-Dardis, 55, moved out of her ranch-style home in Massapequa after the storm and stayed in Deer Park for 10 months before moving to Hauppauge in September 2013. Today, she lives off the ninth hole of a golf course in a gated community there.

The departure from Massapequa, where she lived across the street from a canal, to the Suffolk County hamlet in the middle of the Island, was “absolutely gut-wrenching” at first.

“I was extremely homesick,” she recalled recently.

Fauci-Dardis said it was challenging to relocate her daughter, then a freshman and a special needs student, to a school district with comparable accommodations. A local Special Education PTA chapter president, she lost her “mommy network” and closed her excavation business.

“It’s a rhythm, and that was completely lost here,” she said: “Establish a new relationship there, figure out where was the better pizza place to order in a pinch, all of it because the mental and emotional strength felt like mountains to climb. Nothing was a no-brainer.”

Life events were put on hold. She and her fiance married in September 2016, nearly five years after the couple were engaged.

And, Fauci-Dardis said, “I’m still discovering things that are missing.” Recently she went to search for an evening bag while getting ready for a wedding and realized it was nowhere to be found.

The feelings of homesickness have begun to fade, taking on an air of nostalgia.

At one point, her then-fiance surprised the family, arranging for boulders and landscape rocks that had been on the Massapequa front lawn to be moved to her Hauppauge home. Those had been a perennial spot for family pictures on the first day of school, Halloween and other special occasions. Now, they continue the ritual for important pictures.

“We built a wonderful life here,” Fauci-Dardis said.

“If I had the opportunity to go back to Massapequa right now, I would say no,” she said. “Now, I’ve put down roots here. It’s my home now.”