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Island Park perseveres amid hardship of Sandy

Peter Haleiko, who is still without power after

Peter Haleiko, who is still without power after superstorm Sandy, fills a generator with gasoline at his home in Island Park. (Nov. 12, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

Dozens of volunteers and U.S. Army National Guard troops gathered at the Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside Monday afternoon to sort through donations and dispense them to those hit hard by superstorm Sandy.

The JCC itself was in recovery mode. Most of the 5,700-square-foot building took in 2 to 8 inches of water, depending on where one stood, and part of the roof blew off, said Arnie Preminger, the center's president and chief executive.

"The only room that's usable at this point is the gymnasium," he said. "It has rubber floors and concrete walls."

Though elsewhere in the building, flooring and lower parts of the walls were being torn out, the gym was a sanctuary. Baby clothes, sweatshirts, pants and coats were stacked high on some tables, while cleaning supplies, toilet paper and infant formula topped adjacent bleacher seats.

Volunteers mobilized during the weekend -- with about 200 people who showed up on Sunday -- to go to distressed areas and knock on doors to see if people needed help. With some lacking transportation, it was difficult for some to reach the FEMA site that had been in Oceanside Park, said Preminger.

One group of volunteers found an elderly couple who, without electricity in their home, hadn't bathed in two weeks and were severely cold, he said, adding that the group secured social workers to assist the couple.

"There's a lot going on here. It hasn't ended," said Preminger. "It's going to be a long time for the community to come back to where it was."

Four caravans of cars departed the center with trunks packed full of water, cleaning supplies and clothing. They knocked on doors in Island Park, where the devastation from Sandy still lingers.

Couches, wooden floor boards and piles of garbage bags littered the fronts of many homes. Traffic lights on stretches of North Long Beach Road were still out, as construction vehicles and LIPA trucks worked. And cars damaged by flooding studded neighborhoods.

Mike Davies, 48, of Island Park was happy to receive water and bleach from the volunteers.

"The Red Cross was great," he said. "All of these community groups coming around, helping out. . . . We can't thank them enough."

Though officials say the drinking water is safe, Davies doesn't trust it. Especially not after seeing 18 inches of water -- including sewage -- rush through his first floor.

"It happened so fast when the water started coming. The water was over the top of that fence," he said, pointing to a metal fence about 4 feet high in the front yard.

Davies lacks flood insurance -- something had to give when he lost his job amid the poor economy -- though he now is working as a printer.

He chalked staying at home when the storm hit to being a "stubborn Island Parker."

"I've been here all my life and it never happened before."

To cope with the aftermath, neighbors helped each other, cooking dinner on barbecue grills and taking turns making gas runs in rented cars to fuel shared generators, he said.

Davies' gas water heater was restored about five days after Sandy hit, and since then, people have come over to take hot showers, he said.

"Everybody's helping everybody right now," he said. "It's making it a little bit more bearable."

Davies' son Kevin, 10, said there are some silver linings to the recovery. He has been able to watch "The Love Guru" and "Grownups" on his battery-powered DVD player. And some of the MRE dinners the Red Cross has dispensed, including sloppy joes and macaroni chili are actually pretty good, he said.

But he still remembers being at his mother's Island Park home on the other side of town when Sandy hit. An oil burner flipped over.

The fumes were so strong that they had to "go back downstairs where the flood was and sit on couches so we didn't smell the fumes," he said.

"My mom woke us up every hour to make sure we weren't dead from the fumes," he said.

An ambulance finally carried them away to safety the next day, said Kevin.

At this point on Monday, Kevin said he was no longer nervous or worried. But when asked if he was excited to go back to school this week at Lincoln Orens Middle School, the fifth-grader said: "We're not going to really learn. We're just going to talk about the hurricane."

The adults have been talking too, said Mike Davies, mostly about their frustration.

"Everybody's frustrated about the power. If you had a little bit of creature comforts," he said, his voice trailing as he looked around at his pale wood floors.

But Davies said he saw no need to waste energy on frustration. "You get by, day by day," he said. "There's really nothing else you can do."

Further down the street, at the corner of Redfield Road and Waterford Road, Jan Haleiko wore a mask and gloves. She stood in the middle of her tenant's first-floor apartment, which was stripped to its wooden subfloor and the wall studs.

"It's a huge undertaking," she said. "We just need to keep working.

The apartment took in 4 feet of water, said Haleiko, 55. Her tenants have moved upstairs to the apartment she shares with her husband.

She was "elated" to receive hot water three days ago. "I was boiling water on the heater and taking sponge baths," she said.

"The biggest problem is people aren't prepared and don't have the money" to buy survival necessities, said Haleiko. "You need to buy generators. We didn't have gas," she said, adding her sister-in-law from upstate Kingston drove down with fuel to power a refrigerator for four hours a day.

Haleiko has been cooking on a camping stove, she said, standing in her backyard with a deck that flew off the side of the house, adding, "It's never-ending camping."

Matters took a turn for the worse when her solar power inverter started smoking. "It was generating electricity and had nowhere to go," she said. Firefighters didn't know what to do with it, she said, so the solar power company had to fix it.

"You're just numb," she said of the devastation. "I'm trying to be grateful."

Like for her Halloween birthday, celebrated by neighbors who came to her house to eat chicken stew prepared at the home of a neighbor with a working gas stove. "It was fun," she said.

Shortly before 4 p.m. Monday, a LIPA truck drove past Haleiko's house.

"Yea!" she said of the sight. Later, she was told by a worker that her meter box had water in it and would need to be replaced before she could receive power.

But by 4 p.m. other homes on Redfield Road in Island Park were switched on.

Davies turned on his ceiling spot lights and was checking outlets to make sure sparking wasn't taking place.

"Hopefully, everything will stay on," he said.

At his brother Lawrence Davies' home across the street, power also was restored.

"Thank God," said Lawrence Davies, 47. "I feel civilized."

The lower crawl space took in 4 feet of water, but the first floor only had about 4 inches. "We're fortunate compared to a lot of other people," he said.

But two weeks without heat was particularly difficult for his mother, who is asthmatic. "Everybody's losing patience," he said. "You wouldn't mind if you had lights and heat and hot water."

They got by at friend's houses where they slept, ate and showered for several days, said Davies.

He stood at his front entryway, where hydrangea bushes were brown and blackened by the saltwater.

"It's still a shock," he said of the aftermath. "But we've got to go on. We've got to keep moving forward."

But moving forward still has its trials. Marilyn Benstock, 69, of Island Park, stood in her first-floor apartment, which was stripped down to a wooden subfloor and wooden wall studs as a FEMA representative assessed it.

"The smell in here was beyond," she said of the apartment, which took in 41/2 feet of water. "It was all salt from the bay."

Previously, Benstock relied on candles to see and a generator to keep the refrigerator cold. She and her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who live upstairs, cooked their food on a barbecue outside.

"And it's cold and dark to go out there," she said. "With the lights back on, we could have some normalcy."

Benstock said she has waited for two weeks for her totaled car to be towed, so she can collect money to purchase a new one.

"I have nothing," she said. "I'm a senior citizen and I have to start from scratch."

Roz and Tim O'Brien put what items they could salvage in plastic bags Monday from the Island Park apartment where they had lived for 28 years.

They managed to take a wedding album and Roz's framed needlepoint. But few things could be saved in the apartment, which now has blackened, slippery floors and smells of mold.

"It's upside down for us," said Tim, 56. "We lost everything."

He had to break down the side door so the couple could escape the 4 feet of water gushing into their lower-level apartment during the storm, said Tim. Roz was wearing only her bathrobe and didn't even have on time to put on socks or shoes.

They evacuated to their neighbor's home upstairs, she said, adding, "From the upstairs window, we were watching his car disappear under 5 feet of water."

Tim said the couple is happy to be alive. Still, Roz, 62, said, the grief and sadness comes in waves.

"Your life -- everybody's life -- are on the street," she said of the water-soaked items in front of homes. "Why did this happen? You question it."

"I'm not angry that this happened; I'm basically in shock," added Tim. "I didn't think at 56 and 62 that we would be starting all over again, but here we are."

They slept on a couch at their neighbor's house for five days and, to avoid imposing, went to Roz's sister's house on East Brunswick, N.J., for another five days, the couple said.

Next, they're headed to a temporary apartment in East Meadow. Some of their belongings will go to a friend's storage space in Freeport.

But the couple plan to return to the Island Park apartment when it's rebuilt, said Tim. "This is our home."

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