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Sandy-battered LIers brace for vulnerable future

John and Donielle Salinaro, standing in the backyard

John and Donielle Salinaro, standing in the backyard of their waterfront home with a neighbor's shattered gazebo in the water, have mixed feelings about living there after trying to recover from super storm Sandy. (April 25, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Six months after superstorm Sandy ravaged waterfront communities and toppled trees and power lines from Great Neck to Greenport, many Long Islanders are eyeing the future with a new sense of wariness and vulnerability.

The water and trees that most define the suburban landscape left chilling proof of their destructive power, and there is fear it can all happen again amid predictions of more frequent extreme weather in the years and decades ahead.

Near the shore, some homeowners have begun the process of raising homes above flood levels, and still others think of leaving altogether. More homeowners are installing expensive generator systems to try to insulate themselves from the fragility of the electric grid.

"More people than ever know there is a change a-coming," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "I would say in a very real way, everything changed because of Sandy. Living by the water now is tentative, and we need to plan differently."

The lure of the water remains powerful, and there has been no wholesale abandonment of even the most damaged communities, such as Long Beach. But doubts are growing.


Question: Stay or go?

Donielle and John Salinaro's conflicting emotions capture the dilemmas facing residents of shoreline communities.

She wants to leave their Massapequa canal-front home -- flooded by both Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and by Sandy -- for higher ground.

"I don't need to do this again . . . I'm anxious. I definitely feel trapped," she said.

He grew up on the water and loves walking out his door to his docked boat. "Being on the water is absolutely heaven," he said.

"I would prefer staying here if she were OK with it, but if we get another storm like this one, she's gone," he said. "If we have another Sandy, we're dead in the water."

The Oct. 29 storm caused billions of dollars in losses to Long Island's economy, to local government and to homeowners. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, 58,124 homes suffered storm damage totaling $6.65 billion, according to an April 3 state report. In January, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated tree debris in the counties at more than 500,000 cubic yards.

Long Island Power Authority customer outages totaled 1.2 million, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is moving now to put New Jersey-based PSEG in control of the system. District attorneys in the two counties, the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of Labor are investigating emergency contracts awarded after Sandy.

The financial burdens of rebuilding, costlier insurance and meeting new building codes could transform the social landscape as surely as surging floodwaters reshaped beaches.

"The beauty of Long Island was that working-class people could afford to live by the water and now that's questionable," Esposito said.

Phil Milo, owner of Jones Inlet Marine in Freeport and a canalside house in Oceanside, said he and most of his neighbors are rebuilding -- for now.

"The boaters are a different breed: They love the water and will stay by the water," he said. But "if it keeps on happening, people are going to have a different view."

The impacts and costs of Sandy fell unevenly, and so did the lasting reverberations. While most Long Islanders returned to normal routines within weeks, hundreds are still displaced.

There's a sense of betrayal: because of insurance policies that often didn't fully cover losses and insurers that have taken months to pay out -- a few homeowners are still waiting, and others are appealing insurers' decisions hoping for more money. There is concern, said Esposito, over "dangerous weaknesses in our ability to handle large-scale emergencies over the long term."


Sense of safety lost

Some Long Islanders suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, haunted by memories of danger and loss.

"Six months after a catastrophic event, people suddenly come out of shock and realize the extent of the losses and the sense of safety they had is no longer there," said Laurie Nadel, a psychotherapist whose Long Beach home flooded and who leads a support group in Long Beach for storm survivors.

"There's a sense of vulnerability they didn't have before," she said.

Robert Cavera, a doctoral student of psychology who is helping to provide free therapy to victims of Sandy at Hofstra University's Saltzman Center's Child and Family Trauma Institute, said the institute's small psychotherapy caseload quadrupled, to nearly 20 cases, with mostly Sandy-related patients.

"We see a lot of the hallmark features of trauma," such as hyper-vigilance for perceived, potential threats. Nightmares. "You become very jumpy," he said.

The chaos of a prolonged power outage and memories of displacement and cold created their own anxieties.

Andrew Popkin, of Popkin & Son Electrical Services in Hicksville, said demand for generators is "tremendous." Since Sandy, Mayfair Power Systems of Freeport has several hundred potential customers on a waiting list for expensive residential whole-house generators. It begins up to 15 new installation jobs a month said Paul Eberst, a vice president at the firm, compared with three to five new installations before. New calls come in every week.

Popkin said his own company now installs at least four whole-house generators a month (costing about $12,000 to $15,000 each) compared with four a year before Sandy, and hooks up three or four portable generators a week compared with two a month previously.

"There's a lot of fear," he said. "People are definitely buying into climate change and believe we're going to see more storms like that."

Experts are predicting an active hurricane season this fall and foresee more violent weather patterns. With dunes leveled and a breach opened on the barrier islands along Long Island's South Shore, residents there are noting stronger tides, higher water levels and more frequent minor flooding. Some residents tell themselves that Sandy will be that once-in-a-century storm. Others aren't so sure.


Water's 'magnetic draw'

Anthony Labiento, 66, commodore of the Long Island Yacht Club in Babylon who has lived in his canal-front home in Massapequa for 40 years, said he's looking at the water "with a little more respect . . . We never took any water in the house until Sandy." Most people on his block are still rebuilding.

"It has me thinking to move, which I never thought [about] before. Whether I do or not, I'm not sure, but my wife and I are definitely thinking about it."

But then he recalls his investment in the home, which he'd like to pass on to his children, and his love of the water.

"End of June, beginning of July comes along, and it's going to look beautiful, and everyone will want to get to the water," he said. "We don't have very long memories . . . We live on an island and this is where we live, on the water."

Lee Koppelman, a professor at Stony Brook University who for decades was Long Island's leading planner and executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, predicts not much will change after Sandy, even if it should.

He doubts there will be big change in how people live on the coastal plain, or in government policies and programs -- from flood insurance to federal disaster bailouts -- that make living on shorelines possible.

"I've been studying this now since 1960 and I have seen nothing to indicate to me you're going to see a change in human habitation," he said. "The waterfront is still a magnetic draw."

The only post-Sandy changes, he said, will be even more wealthy people on the waterfront and perhaps stronger building codes to limit damage.

"We do not seem to profit from the experience," he said, looking back on decades of fruitless attempts to create buffer zones along barrier islands. "The eternal optimism of people who want to live on the coastal plain is seemingly without limits."

But resources are not. Edward P. Romaine, Brookhaven Town supervisor, said some repairs to dunes, beaches and shorelines made necessary by Sandy were starting to happen, but "it's a struggle," he said, given the fiscal pressures on governments.

Long-term solutions, including buying out property in the most flood-prone areas and burying electrical wires, would cost billions of dollars, and he sees no political will to foot the cost. At least not until the next catastrophic storm.

Thomas Brennan, mayor of hard-hit Lindenhurst, said, "If we get another Sandy, people are going to move away. How many times can you be punched in the stomach?"

For now, Toniann Dillon isn't going anywhere, despite the $250,000 in damage to her Northport beachfront home and bulkhead. Hassles over insurance and storm cleanup work "definitely disillusions you and makes you think twice, but you're in it. What are you going to do? You rebuild."

She added, "When you are in this beautiful environment, you tend to forget. Or rather, you choose not to remember the bad. Storms like this don't come that often, and you hope it doesn't."

And if they do?

"I really can't imagine."

Editor's note: In a story and photo caption in the April 28 editions of Newsday, the first name of a Long Beach psychotherapist whose home was damaged by superstorm Sandy was mispelled. Her correct name is Laurie Nadel.

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