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In Long Beach, a determination to rebuild

John Joyce sits on a pile of garbage

John Joyce sits on a pile of garbage he took out of his home on Ohio Avenue on the West End of Long Beach. (Nov. 2, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Rita Connolly, like so many others who live in Long Beach, wants to go home.

Connolly, 36, fled her first-floor apartment on Franklin Boulevard near Broadway as the storm drew closer, taking refuge with a friend on the third floor. The surging waters from superstorm Sandy swept her Toyota Celica to a resting place a few blocks away.

"I'm cold, I'm hungry, I have no water, and I can't flush the toilet -- other than that I am OK," Connolly said Friday, as she hauled ruined items to the curb for pickup. The high-water mark on her walls was about 4 feet above the carpeting. She lost furniture, too. But what's most upsetting were old photographs and negatives that were destroyed -- pictures from her childhood, her parents' wedding, her late grandparents.

Long Beach, a city that defines itself by its relationship to the sea, has now been devastated by it.

Until the plumbing works, safe drinking water flows from the taps, the heat comes back on and the mountains of sand are trucked away from Broadway, coping with day-to-day tasks is about all the people can handle.

Amid disaster, however, there is a determination -- to clean up, to rebuild, to bring back that essence of Long Beach lost to the winds and waves.

"It's probably going to get a little worse, but I know it's eventually going to get better, and I would never ever live anywhere else than here," said Connolly, an administrative assistant at a Melville law office. "I love living by the ocean."

Less than a week after the historic battering, residents as well as business and civic leaders are thinking about next summer. That's the unofficial deadline for restoration of the city's most cherished asset: the beach and 2.2-mile boardwalk.

A community effort

From the West End to the Canals, homeowners are talking about how they can help reconstruct Long Beach while at the same time they pump water out and discard soggy belongings.

"Everyone wants it [the city] to come back," said Gary F. Brinster, 55, an accountant whose home on West Penn Street flooded on the first floor and garage. "People would volunteer to rebuild the boardwalk. I'll volunteer to nail boards down."

The wooden boardwalk, where hundreds of people jog, bicycle and walk each day, is a tangled mess. The lifeguard station, restrooms and concession stand were washed away by Monday night's tidal surge.

"By next summer, I hope the beach and boardwalk will be open for people to enjoy," said Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), 78, a lifelong resident and lifeguard. "It's a tremendous resource; one of the reasons why people live here. We must do everything we can to give them access to it again."

The beach erosion and wrecked boardwalk are more than a psychic blow to this city of 33,275 people. Tourists visiting the beach are the lifeblood of restaurants, bars, surf shops and other businesses along Park Avenue and in the West End neighborhood, and provide sales tax revenue to the cash-strapped city government.

A detailed assessment of the damage has yet to be done because officials' first priority is to make Long Beach habitable. However, this much was known at week's end:

-- The hardest-hit neighborhoods are West End, Canals (located in the city's northeast corner) and the oceanfront.

-- The water and sewage treatment plants were knocked out.

-- Schools, nursing homes and businesses are waterlogged and may not reopen for weeks, even months.

-- Hundreds of residents lost automobiles, furniture, and irreplaceable photographs and other mementos. Six homes in the Canals burned down.

The price tag for repairing all of this isn't yet known, but officials predicted it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and require a cash infusion from other levels of government because of Long Beach's fiscal struggles, including a $10.25 million deficit.

Still, nearly everyone interviewed talked about the need to have the beach, called Ocean Beach Park, ready for summer.

Call for sand dunes

Some said the Long Beach City Council should reconsider a scuttled plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct high dunes along the boardwalk, add sand to the beach and other protections against storm surge. In 2006, a previous City Council turned down $100 million in federal funds for the plan.

"They cannot just put more sand piles on the beach to protect us; they didn't work," said Don Durando, 59, who saw the first floor of his two-story New York Avenue home become a "swimming pool" as the ocean met the bay.

"[Tropical Storm] Irene gave us a lesson and we didn't learn it," said the retired NYPD commander. "They should construct dunes all along the boardwalk as a barrier to the storm surge."

Durando, like many homeowners, doesn't expect to live permanently in his home "for months." He and his wife, Sandy, lost two cars, furniture and many collectibles. They plan to move in with their son, whose house in Lindenhurst was less badly damaged.

At The Laurel Luncheonette & Restaurant on Park Avenue, Andrew Loucas and his three partners are again serving food. While they don't know when they'll be able to offer hot meals, they're selling coffee, bottled water, pound cake, sandwiches and other packaged food.

"We fed all of Long Beach after Irene," said Loucas, whose family purchased the 80-year-old landmark eatery seven years ago. "But without water and sewer it's very difficult. We're doing the best we can."

Asked how long it would take to restore Long Beach to its pre-Sandy status, Loucas estimated "at least two years ... this city will be crawling in three months, which is better than we're doing right now."

City Council President Leoncio "Len" Torres hopes for quicker progress, saying help from the federal, state and county governments has already made initial repairs possible to the water and sewage treatment plants. He predicted most of Long Beach would be rebuilt in about a year.

Looking ahead

Once the extent of the damage has been assessed, City Manager Jack Schnirman said, reconstruction projects could be assigned priorities.

"The cost is incalculable at the moment, but rebuilding is our top priority," he said. "Our city has taken a hard punch. Right now, we are getting back up and dusting ourselves off."

But entering a new week with normalcy still far off, the strain is showing on residents' faces.

Going to the bathroom involves a five-block walk for Sylvia Woods, who lives on Market Street. And the portable toilets near City Hall are not available during the 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew, which was imposed to prevent looting. The teacher's aide also said she was having trouble sleeping because of the cold.

"I really appreciate everything the city is doing," Woods, 52, said Friday after picking up a ready-to-eat meal and a bottle of water at City Hall. "But I'm cold. And I have no heat ... looking around at all of the debris, it's very hard not to get down. I'm sure we'll get through this, but right now it is no fun living in Long Beach."

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