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A year after Sandy, family is back home for Thanksgiving

Pete and Doreen Schaefer, along with their children,

Pete and Doreen Schaefer, along with their children, Brian, 9, and their daughter, 13, in their newly reconstructed home after superstorm Sandy ripped through their Oakdale home. (Nov. 25, 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

Peter and Doreen Schaefer's Oakdale house flooded on Halloween during superstorm Sandy. It was raised on Good Friday. Now, more than a year after Sandy struck, the family will celebrate Thanksgiving in a home recovered and nearly restored.

As family members prepare to sit down Thursday to their turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie -- at their old dining room table set with their good dishes -- they say that despite a year of unremitting toil and uncertainty they have much to be thankful for.

"I don't know why this happened to us, but as stressful as it was, I'm proud of my family," said Doreen Schaefer, 47. "We did it."

She added, "I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I do believe you are supposed to learn from whatever happens to you, and we learned from this . . . Things are not as important. It really is about people. In actuality, it made us better people."

Sandy destroyed or damaged more than 50,000 Long Island homes, causing an estimated $8.4 billion in property and economic losses and left in its wake thousands of Long Islanders who have struggled to reclaim some or all of what they lost.

Doreen Schaefer, a speech and language pathologist at Sequoya Middle School in the Sachem Central School District, her husband, Peter, 49, technology manager at St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, and their children, Grace, 13, and Brian, 8, moved back into their ranch house two weekends ago after a year living with Peter Schaefer's mother, Jeannette, also in Oakdale.

Their house, now about 5 feet higher than before, is in the same footprint, but its interior is largely new. The kitchen was finally put in place this week, and contractors are still tending to final details.

The Schaefers did much of the work themselves, salvaging possessions, gutting and rebuilding and painting. Even that wasn't all bad, Peter Schaefer said.

"I went into a zone when I was working," he said, adding that he had earned money back in college doing roofing and siding work. "It was physically demanding but it was actually a stress relief, and a great feeling of self-accomplishment."


Much to be thankful for

Very high on the list of things to be thankful for, the couple said, was the help of friends, co-workers, family, school districts and neighbors. Week after week, Doreen Schaefer's parents, Elaine and Bill Schneider, who are 70 and 74, respectively, drove an hour and a half each way from Greenport to help out. It was Bill Schneider who urged them to celebrate Thanksgiving in their home, and they will be there at the table.

Week after week, Doreen Schaefer's co-workers came to help gut, salvage, lay flooring and paint. They washed 35 loads of filthy sodden clothing for the family. They brought wood for the fireplace and stood in lines to buy gas for the generators so fans could blow constantly, drying out the wood interior. They and others came with hot food night after night.

"I'd put out a text, 'floors going down, can anyone come help paint' and every day a different group of co-workers came out for three days of painting," she said. "I will be eternally grateful."

Neighbors bonded over their common travail. School PTAs, teachers, administrators, social workers and counselors came through with gift cards, breakfasts, supplies and concern. The camaraderie touched the Schaefers so much that they say they'll never move.

And, said Doreen Schaefer, she is grateful for how Grace and Brian came through the ordeal.

"I knew my son knew too much when he'd play Minecraft [a computer building game] and build a house and put in sump pumps, plumbing and higher foundations," she said.

More to the point, her kids shared a room in a bunk bed for a year, coming to rely on each other and support each other when they most needed it. They get along "so much better now," said their mother. "They were definitely there for each other," she said. "They lost most of their belongings and what I loved is that they were OK with it. They moved on and when people gave us things, clothes or toys, they were very grateful that people went out of their way to help us . . . They say, 'We can make new memories.' "

She bought them posters to inspire them through the year, with phrases like "Make every moment count," "Embrace every possibility," "Nothing is impossible," "Everything happens for a reason," and "Be Thankful."

For Grace, the experience made real the images of other people's tragedies so often seen on television after disasters elsewhere. "The whole experience was just so weird," she said. "You always feel bad for them but you don't know how difficult it is to go through it until you do. It is so surreal."

Said her mother, "She completely grew up in one year."

The lesson learned, said Grace, is "as long as I'm surrounded by people who love me, that's all I really need."

Now she wants to help people, she said. Grace's guidance counselor was "there for me, a friendly face I could always talk to," she said, and that's what she wants to be when she grows up.


Knows what it feels like

The Schaefer children had long accompanied their mother on her community work as coordinator, for 18 years, of the Sequoya community service club. "After I went back to school, I said I know why I went through this: I was the person giving assistance and now I know what it feels like" to get help, Doreen Schaefer said. ". . . I always knew it was important, but when you are dealing with it [yourself] you realize, 'wow, it does make an impact when you reach out and help.' "

Strains and pressures remain. Their credit cards are loaded up and they don't know how or when they'll get back on their feet financially. They've applied for a New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program grant to help pay for raising the house, but don't know if they'll have to rely on a Small Business Administration loan, with interest, and insurance that doesn't fully cover their costs.

The Schaefers don't have the money to finish everything needed, and continue to realize how much more they need to buy -- like window shades, shower curtain rings, and perhaps a last-minute turkey roasting pan.

But that takes a backseat to the sheer relief of being back home.

"It's been a long year of planning and working hard and we didn't know for a while if it was going to happen," Doreen Schaefer said. "We were very unsettled for a long time and this finally gives us our stability back . . . It's just a wonderful feeling now."

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