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Displaced Long Islanders find post-Sandy comfort with family

Larry and Maryann Lapolla have been bunking at

Larry and Maryann Lapolla have been bunking at daughter Gina Silverman's house in Merrick since their Massapequa home was damaged by superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 14, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

For thousands of Long Islanders displaced by superstorm Sandy, home became a spare room or extra couch in the house of a family member.

While some of the storm's victims checked into shelters or hotels or left the area, many more relied on their families coming together to get through these difficult times.

Thursday, Long Islanders who once looked forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with extended family now find themselves living with them.

Many of these arrangements have no expiration date. Thousands of homes are uninhabitable. Many need extensive reconstruction before owners can move back in. The Federal Emergency Management Agency already has given grants for housing aid to people in more than 30,000 homes in Nassau County and more than 500 in Suffolk.

Newsday visited a number of these new family alignments during the last two weeks. In one, children and grandchildren help two octogenarian great-grandparents start anew. A mother sees her grown son as husband and father to children of his own. A man learns to live under his in-laws' roof. Two grandparents found themselves living in a granddaughter's princess bedroom, and liking the decor. Here are their stories:

"Out of their element," but grateful

After Richard and Jane Grempel's little house on St. Marks Avenue in Freeport blew up, firefighters found him floating in the basement and her in the living room.

That was shortly after 5 a.m. the morning after Sandy struck. It was a gas leak, family members said, that started when a line to the gas-powered dryer in the basement snapped in the storm surge; what sparked it isn't clear.

Richard was on his back, stunned and bruised but breathing. Jane's sternum was broken.

Both were hospitalized and are recovering. But it was clear, almost from the start, that the house was too damaged for them to return. After more than 50 years there, the Grempels, both 82, are homeless.

For now they are living in Babylon Village with one of their two sons, Rick, his wife Debbie, two of the younger couple's daughters, Mallory and Lindsey, and a golden lab, Chloe. They sleep in the room once occupied by Brayden, their 2-year-old great-grandson, the child of Rick and Debbie's third daughter, Brittney.

"We are so grateful we're still here to be with them," Jane Grempel said earlier this week. She was looking forward to Thanksgiving at her other son Steve's house in Nesconset; after all the math was done, it was determined that 16 Grempels and their significant others would be there. "It will be the first time in a long time that the whole family's been together," she said.

The storm has made life harder for everyone in this family, in ways big and small. Rick, 55, an aircraft mechanic and Babylon firefighter, has been going out on more calls than usual since Sandy struck; Debbie, 53, a secretary, has been cooking for a full house, adjusting their health-conscious menu for her in-laws, who are accustomed to white bread and red meat.

Richard and Jane, who'd always been vigorous and independent, seemed lost when they first arrived, Debbie said, "out of their element."

Richard, a retired Freeport Village electrical worker and honorary chief of the Freeport Fire Department who volunteered there for most of his life, used to walk to the station house most days to clean equipment and talk with other firefighters. He can't do that anymore. Nor can Jane tend the house she ran for a half-century.

They are unused to relying on others, even family. "We try not to be too dependent on them," Richard said, "but they're helping us so much."

The younger Grempels have been looking for an apartment for Richard and Jane, with little success. The insurance money hasn't come through and there don't seem to be many apartments available nearby. They're on a few waiting lists and have turned down a few places that were available but "filthy," Debbie said.

With everything that's happened and all that's yet to be done, Rick said, Thanksgiving will be a respite, but a short one.

"We're going to celebrate," he said. "Then we're going to move on."

In havoc, lessons learned

When the cold and wet in Thomas and Carole Maguire's Lindenhurst house grew unbearable a few days after Sandy, Carole's son from a previous marriage, Randy Martin, 44, asked them to stay at the Levittown home he shares with his wife Jacqueline, their three children, seven rabbits and two dogs.

The Maguires have been sleeping on a daybed off the main bedroom. It's not big enough to comfortably sleep two people, but they've worked out a schedule: Thomas, 56, a truck driver who works nights, sleeps from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Then Carole, 64, an administrator at Dominican Village retirement community in Amityville, wakes him and goes to sleep herself.

For a woman who enjoyed reading and writing poetry at home in solitude, life in a bustling household with kids ranging in age from 11 to 19 has been a shock.

"When you're raising children and they get all grown up, you get used to life on your own," Carole said. "They're helping with everything, but this is their environment; this is not my environment. I like quiet. They are not."

Has any good come out of this?

Martin, an engineer, said he has spent quality time with his stepfather ripping wallboard out of the Lindenhurst house. "Things like this make relationships tighter, that's for sure," he said.

Carole said she has enjoyed helping her grandchildren with homework -- 11-year-old Sarah's project on the pros and cons of taking pets to school sticks out. And she gets to see the son who began living on his own at 19 navigating adulthood.

"I see him day-to-day as a father, as a husband, and I'm very proud of what I see," Carole said. "My son is a grown man making all these grown-up decisions."

But when she looks at him sitting tall at the dining room table, she asks herself: "What happened to my baby?"

'Tense' life with the in-laws

Keith Casey, his wife, Jennifer, their 9-year-old daughter Chloe, and their dog Carly have been living with Jennifer's parents in Holbrook since Sandy left their Long Beach home uninhabitable.

Keith, 53, a construction worker on disability after doctors found a tumor on his spine, has developed new respect for his in-laws.

"They make dinner every night for us," he said. "They go out of their way to help us. They do anything they can."

But life since the storm hasn't been easy. Actually, Keith said, "It's been hell."

Every day he drives Chloe to Lindell Elementary School in Long Beach, where she is in fourth grade. It takes about an hour-and-a-half each way and in between he goes to their old house. It stinks of sewage and he figures it won't be ready for them to move back for a long time.

At night, in Holbrook, "You feel like you have to ask if you can do this, do that," he said. "Before you take a shower, you've got to ask if anyone wants to use the bathroom."

The two couples never spent more than a few straight days together before Sandy -- trips to Disney World and the Caribbean.

It's been a learning experience. "At times it gets very tense," Keith said, "and other times you just laugh."

'Living again -- almost'

Larry and Maryann Lapolla had been spending their days at their Massapequa house waiting for building inspectors and electricians and insurance adjusters.

But at night they were going to a lovelier place, a land of castles and princesses and a quietly winding river that never floods its banks.

They had been bunking at daughter Gina Silverman's house in Merrick, where a mural covers one wall of 6-year-old granddaughter Dylan's room.

"You're looking at another castle from yours across the river," said Larry, 63, a recently laid-off pharmacist. "It's a spectacular view."

They still shower in Merrick but now have resumed sleeping in their powerless home. For Larry, time spent coloring or playing with Dylan and her 4-year-old brother Cole was a respite from the stress of recovery.

"We used to speak all the time over the phone, but this is different," he said. "It keeps life real. You can almost forget your problems at your house. You can get into living again, almost."

He and Maryann always host Thanksgiving; today the family will split between their two daughters' smaller homes.

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