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Long Island

Lessons from Long Island's worst storms

Mother Nature has visited her destructive wrath on Long Island bearing the names Gloria, Irene and Sandy. Hurricanes and a superstorm have destroyed homes, damaged businesses and decimated state park trees that stood and rose to the skies for a century or more.

Past storms offer lessons learned and opportunities for insight and reflection, as detailed by five Long Islanders who have weathered Gloria, Irene and Sandy.

Nearly 32 years ago, Hurricane Gloria roared onto Long Island as a Category 2 storm. It made landfall on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, moved up the coast and made a second landfall on Long Island on Sept. 27, 1985.

Eleven Long Islanders were killed and wind gusts of 100 mph knocked out power to more than 700,000 LILCO customers.

Hurricane Irene struck Long Island with less ferocity than Gloria but caused major flooding and knocked out power to more than 450,000 on Aug. 27, 2011. A year later, on Oct. 29, 2012, superstorm Sandy cut a path of destruction across the area after making landfall in southern New Jersey. It left 13 people dead on Long Island alone and cost an estimated $75 billion in damages.

When major storms strike, recovery depends in large part on pre-storm preparations and others’ willingness to help rebuild communities and lives. Here are some of the lessons learned:

DARLENE AND BOB FANTEL, Lindenhurst Bob is state
Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

DARLENE AND BOB FANTEL, Lindenhurst

Bob is state maintenance supervisor for the 106th Rescue Wing at Francis Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach; Darlene is a former pharmaceutical professional

"The first rule of thumb is to keep a level head and prioritize a plan for survival."

DARLENE'S TAKE:

"It's 1985, Hurricane Gloria is on her way! I lived in North Lindenhurst at that time and had a 21-month-old little girl named Candace. I didn't own my own home, and my only care was my baby's safety. I won't claim that I prepped a lot other than what I needed for my baby.

I knew enough to keep Candace away from windows and out of rooms where large trees were in close vicinity. After the storm, many trees were down, and we were without power for 11 days. It was difficult to find milk for my baby's bottle; there was no power, no refrigeration. I wished I would have thought of powdered milk for Candace's bottle!

In the blink of an eye, it's August 2011 and Hurricane Irene's heading our way. I now lived in South Lindenhurst with my hubby, Robert, and our fur baby Chance. We are 60 feet from the Great South Bay. Not enough time to prep our home as we attack our to-do list that keeps growing like an out-of-control monster. We worked tirelessly nonstop and still didn't accomplish everything we wanted to. I asked Robert to cut a small hole out of the plywood that covered our windows so I could watch the red and green buoys in the bay just south of us. I stayed awake all night to make sure those buoys didn't move.

Water rose to 4 inches below our first floor. Lots of flooding, high winds, but nothing like what we were about to experience. Irene was our teacher, she gave us more insight."

ROBERT RECOLLECTS:
Photo Credit: James Carbone / Caption: Garbage piled in front of the Fantel home in Lindenhurst after Sandy.

ROBERT RECOLLECTS:

"My wife Darlene and I tracked superstorm Sandy using the NOAA website and prepared for the worst-case scenario. We used our combined past experiences to aid us in preparing for Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a trial run for Sandy.

Once again water, food, gasoline, generator, batteries, blankets, electric heater, Coleman stove, small propane canisters for the Coleman and a life jacket for our pup Chance were all necessities.

Planning in advance is always crucial for potential storms, and having a list to go off is key instead of shooting from the hip. We boarded up our home while neighbors laughed at us for doing so. Thank God we did -- the storm surge placed the crest of the waves which hit our home directly at 7 feet above our base floor. Our home would have suffered extreme structural damage like some of our neighbors' homes.

Two of our neighbors' homes broke free of their foundations and plowed into our second-floor deck footings, then spun around and rested in our backyard. The days that followed Sandy were the hardest for our community. People walked around in dazes seeing their homes and lives turned upside down.

Darlene and I immediately started a priority plan of attack for restoring our community the morning after Sandy passed. Our entire family and close friends pitched in to assist our community by promoting food drives and assisting families in need in whichever way possible. What I have realized from such natural disasters is the following:

When dealing with a catastrophic event, the first rule of thumb is to keep a level head and prioritize a plan for survival.

It's amazing how personal effects mean less to people when food and water are the sought-out resources."

DR. DAVID HECKLER, Port Jefferson Station Family physician
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

DR. DAVID HECKLER, Port Jefferson Station

Family physician

"... even if they are not in traditional flood zones they must prepare to evacuate as need be. "

"When I saw the news reports on how severe the Texas hurricane was likely to be, I felt the need to volunteer. I had the same feeling in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, I tried but was unable to get responses from other well-known volunteer organizations, so I traveled to New Orleans on my own. Once there I connected with other volunteers and spent a week working in a 500-bed field hospital created on the LSU [Louisiana State University] basketball court. Reflecting on my experience in New Orleans and reinforced by my military training, I subsequently registered with two nonprofit organizations, Team Rubicon and Remote Area Medical, both of which provide disaster relief.

RAM, which operates solely on contributions from the public, contacted me first. This year, on Tuesday, Aug. 29 (12 years to the day after Katrina), I met my medical team at RAM headquarters in Rockford, Tennessee. The other medical volunteers with me were three nurse practitioners and one registered nurse, all with prior disaster-relief experience: nurse practitioners Beverly Coleman, from Kentucky; Whitney Nash, from Indiana; and Diane McGinnis, of Nevada; and RN Jane Gilliam, of Tennessee. All of them were willing to put themselves in harm's way for those in desperate need.

The original plan to fly into Beaumont, Texas, was nixed as it was too dangerous to fly. We loaded up a 15-passenger van with medical supplies, food, water and sleeping bags and drove 22 hours to Conroe, Texas, 40 miles north of Houston. By 9 p.m. on Aug. 30 we were getting the rain from the storm. RAM kept us up to date on reports of the Arkema chemical plant explosion, increased flooding and cautions of fire ants in the water.

When we arrived in Conroe we got three hours' sleep in a church before being awoken at 1:30 a.m. One trillion gallons of water would be released from the Toledo Reservoir Dam at 6 a.m., and we had to make it to Beaumont and then to Lumberton before that happened, because those towns would be effectively cut off by flooding.

Everywhere we stopped we were treated with generosity and kindness. A young couple in Nome, a town of 588 residents, gave us free food and 10 cases of water. Lumberton, a town of eight square miles and a population of 11,000, had no hospital, only a private [free-standing] Altus ER with one doctor and midlevel providers who had been working nonstop for four days.

They had been hit hard by flooding, and many were still trapped in 4 feet of water in their homes. Many had no electricity, water or sewer services, and neither FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] nor the Red Cross were there yet. Our team helped staff the ER and set up a clinic in the Woodcrest Methodist Church shelter, which housed 400-plus evacuees 4 miles away. The Lumberton firehouse became command central, coordinating rescues and helicopter evacuations of those needing hospitalizations. We had a team that went house to house in fan boats evacuating those still trapped.

Those housed in the shelter had not had medical care before we came, so we were immediately inundated with patients. We saw everything from fractures, snake bites, lacerations, fire ant stings to infections caused by the contaminated floodwaters. Many people had run out of their medications.

It became clear that part of our job was to console these people who had lost their homes, their cars, their jobs and most grievously their loved ones. It was heartbreaking.

Amid this I was overwhelmed by the number
Photo Credit: David Heckler, MD; Caption: Members of the first responder team RAM in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

Amid this I was overwhelmed by the number of ordinary people who stepped up to contribute whatever they could to help. We were given cots to sleep on by the fire department, and food left by evacuees was cooked by local volunteers to feed us.

In hindsight, after experiencing Hurricanes Gloria, Katrina and Harvey, I see that hurricane preparedness is crucial. Getting the word out through mainstream and social media, making people aware that even if they are not in traditional flood zones they must prepare to evacuate as need be. This is particularly important here on Long Island because of our geography and the limited evacuation routes.

From a physician's viewpoint, I would emphasize evacuees should take with them all their medications, their written medical history and an emergency contact list. Disaster relief shelters must include mental health professionals along with physicians and nurses. During a large disaster event, you might not be able to rely on FEMA or the larger relief agencies. Local resources, such as Remote Area Medical, must be developed and supported to fill the gaps.

Most importantly, we need to admit that climate change is real and is influencing the severity and number of climate-related disasters. Therefore, we need more aggressive legislation to decrease carbon emissions in the hope of slowing and ultimately reversing this dangerous trend. Otherwise, experiencing a 'hurricane of the century' every year will become the new normal."

NELSON STERNER, Great River Executive director of the
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

NELSON STERNER, Great River

Executive director of the 691-acre Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River

"...my experience during superstorm Sandy found trees falling that you least expected, and trees surviving that you thought would not."

"On Sept. 27, 1985, Bayard Cutting Arboretum was devastated by Hurricane Gloria, a storm which caused considerably more damage to the arboretum than the infamous hurricane of 1936. Over 1,000 trees were lost in the woodland and conifer collections.

Many of these trees were notable, including 18 of 22 trees from the list of Long Island's largest trees. The worst hit was the Old Pinetum, containing trees planted by Mr. Cutting [William Bayard Cutting, who once owned the arboretum property] at the turn of the 19th century. At the time of the hurricane, many of these trees stood 70 to 90 feet tall, and one, a Cilician fir, was 115 feet in height.

It took the arboretum staff almost a year to finish the cleanup and reopen the arboretum to the public. Of the 120 major specimens that existed prior to the storm, less than 10 remain today.

Today we prepare by trying our best to keep our trees in good health by pruning, in some cases fertilizing and liming if needed, and watering in times of stress. We do cable our specimen oaks, and that helps support branches that are weak, and we do remove trees that are dead or dying. We are vigilant to look for dead limbs and have them removed when found.

This year we also planted 90 new trees in anticipation of older trees passing on. We also try to anticipate the ultimate growth habit of our new trees and provide ample room to grow and prosper.

A homeowner can thin the canopy of deciduous
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert / Caption: Sterner poses under a Black Oak, from 1880, that survived Hurricane Gloria.

A homeowner can thin the canopy of deciduous trees to allow wind to blow through the canopy and remove deadwood or branches that might be deemed a hazard. We do our best so that the trees are prepared in case we see a major weather event, including high winds which may damage the trees. However, in the end, if Bayard Cutting Arboretum is hit with another significant storm, significant damage could occur again. We know we've done our best to prepare.

Trees extending over homes, important structures, playgrounds and high-pedestrian traffic areas especially should be evaluated so that they do not cause damage during periods of high winds. I might add that you should always use a certified arborist for your tree care, as that is a national accreditation for a professional.

That being said, my experience during superstorm Sandy [in October 2012] found trees falling that you least expected, and trees surviving that you thought would not. Arboriculture is not an exact science -- trees cannot talk back to you like humans! -- but we do our best."

MICHAEL WEINICK, Merrick Nassau BOCES school board trustee,
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

MICHAEL WEINICK, Merrick

Nassau BOCES school board trustee, field supervisor for student teachers at Molloy College

"I think that we as a country have to do a better job in the future. ... Good hearts are not enough."

"There are so many good people that come together in an emergency to help those in need.

When my wife and I heard that the Merrick Fire Department was collecting much-needed items for those affected by Hurricane Harvey, we couldn't wait to help. We jumped in our car and headed to Walmart to purchase what we thought was needed. We went directly to the firehouse to drop off our purchases, feeling elated that we were doing our share.

Needless to say, over the years we have written checks to many charitable organizations. What the money has gone for we are never quite sure, but assume that it is going for worthwhile endeavors.

This trip to Walmart was different. As we walked up and down the aisles, we carefully chose those items that we thought the Texans could most use in this time of crisis and that would be most needed immediately. We settled on diapers, flashlights, batteries, water, underwear, one-pot dinners and -- being dog lovers -- included some pet food.

We thought back on our experience with superstorm Sandy. We were lucky that our house survived undamaged. The water came halfway up our lawn and stopped. Other than no electricity for 10 days and a freezer of ruined food, we were in pretty good shape. Many of our fellow Long Islanders were not so lucky. So the buying of tangible items became a very real thing because we knew how needed these items were.

Now comes the flip side. A few days
Photo Credit: Michael Weinick / Caption: Volunteers collect supplies at the Merrick Fire Department in September.

Now comes the flip side. A few days later, I was able to volunteer by sorting and loading these items for delivery. The magnitude and the logistics appeared to be overwhelming, as the items donated at the firehouse and other collection sites now had to be sorted by type, and then they had to be boxed.

Next came loading the boxes onto trucks to go to the warehouse in Freeport. And then unloading the trucks so the items could be put on pallets, shrink-wrapped and then reloaded onto trucks either headed south to Texas or west to Kennedy Airport to be flown to Texas by American Airlines.

Could there be a simpler way? Would writing a check to a relief organization be simpler and faster? One call to the manufacturer and a trailer truck of diapers (or water, or dog food, etc.) would be on its way in a matter of hours, dropped or shipped to where it was needed.

The dozens of volunteers and hundreds of man hours, multiplied by towns across the state as well as across the country, would not be needed.

The process would certainly be sped up, assuming the paper bureaucracy didn't take over. But the writing of a check is certainly not nearly as rewarding as buying tangible products and physically moving them.

I think that we as a country have to do a better job in the future. There are immediate needs and long-term needs. Unfortunately, natural disasters will repeat and we need a more efficient plan to handle the logistics of getting the needed products to the people in a timely fashion.

Good hearts are not enough."

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