Vanessa Clarke keeps an emergency backpack in the bottom of a closet in her first-floor apartment. Among its contents are tuna fish, can openers, soap, washcloths, candles, a cigarette lighter and asthma pumps.
Her preparation is guided by memory — the hardship of being without power, heat and gas for several weeks after superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters engulfed the basement boilers and heaters in Freeport’s Moxey Rigby public housing development, which has about 100 units.
“It’s a very frightening experience. We’re used to the water rising, but not knowing if you’re going to be able to survive or have water or all those things, because nobody really prepared us for the storm” was the unique challenge with Sandy, said Clarke, 58. “But after Sandy, I can tell you I’m prepared now.”
Mention Sandy’s fifth anniversary and tenants of the complex on Buffalo Avenue, which opened in 1958 and has about 400 residents, are quick with recollections. Many left during the power outage to stay with relatives or friends, and those who did said their hearts broke for the neighbors who remained there.
“Most of the people didn’t have family to go to, so most of them were stuck in their apartments,” said Nathaniel Gregory, 60, who served as the building’s superintendent until his retirement last December. He and his family still live in the complex.
Gregory remembered the night of the storm, when he instructed his son Nathaniel, then 9, not to look outside the window as intense rain beat down. The family was separated for 10 days as they sought shelter with friends and others, though Gregory returned every day to his job.
Many of the residents traveled to the Freeport recreation center in search of hot meals and supplies.
“We helped each other. We all try to work together. Stay together,” resident Eula Adams, 71, recalled in a recent interview outside the complex.
During Sandy, Adams was living in Moxey Rigby with her daughter and grandson, Mason, who was 1 at the time. Her 1996 Nissan Sentra, parked in the back lot, was destroyed in the flood.
Freeport Housing Authority officials, with past troubles in mind, are pressing forward with a “long-range game plan,” said John J. Hrvatin, the authority’s executive director, who took office in 2014.
After Sandy, he noted, tenants “were living in a tough situation there.”
Construction has begun on a new $40 million state-of-the art facility just west of the complex — informally dubbed “New Moxey Rigby” — that is expected to open in two years and is to include two community centers and about 100 units. The facility will be built on pilings, and its buildings and parking spots will be above the flood-elevation base. There will be no basement or subbasement.
In Sandy’s flood, about a dozen parked cars were destroyed, and Moxey Rigby currently has 14 spots. The new facility is to accommodate 102 vehicles.
“This building that’s coming out of the ground, it’s going to have national recognition for what housing and what affordable housing should be for this country,” Hrvatin said.
The new complex, to be supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is being funded as part of a low-income housing tax-credit transaction with New York State, Nassau County, the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, and New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
“It will be a lot stronger,” Gregory said. “The building is brand-new. This building is shot.”
For Clarke, there was a moment after the Christmas holiday in 2012 when Sandy began to recede in her mind.
“We had heat, electricity, I was able to cook and prepare my own food again,” she said. “You know, home is where the heart is. This is all I know. I’ve been here for 25 years.”