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Sandy survivors make their holiday celebrations special

The O'Connor family decided that this year, after

The O'Connor family decided that this year, after enduring a storm that swept 5 feet of floodwater into their basement and cut power to their Massapequa home for nearly four weeks, they would get a real Christmas tree. (Dec. 19, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

Still recovering from superstorm Sandy, some Long Islanders have had to adapt festive traditions for celebrating Christmas to new circumstances. Here are four of their stories:


The O'Connor family: This year, a real tree

The O'Connor family decided that this year, after enduring a storm that swept 5 feet of floodwater into their basement and cut power to their Massapequa home for nearly four weeks, they would get a real Christmas tree.

"We always had a fake tree," said Ken O'Connor, 76, who lives with his wife, Loretta, 75, and their granddaughter, Emily, 13. "But Christmas isn't for me and a fake tree. Christmas is for me and Emily."

Ken and Emily picked out the fresh tree, which sat in their backyard for days as they waited for carpeting to be delivered to replace what was ruined by superstorm Sandy.

When they learned the carpeting wouldn't arrive in time for Christmas, they set the tree up in a barren living room. Their furniture is in storage while they repair the house.

"The tree is the only thing in the living room right now," Ken said.

"At least it will look a little festive in the living room," Loretta said. "We put some ornaments on it, so it will look cheery."

Sandy was far worse than they ever could have imagined. Their basement and garage were flooded by water from the canal behind their home. The boiler, water heater and electricity panel were destroyed. Ken has been replacing water-damaged wood floors himself. They moved back in just three weeks ago.

"In the beginning, it was just so horrendous," Loretta said, "but shopping for Christmas and all has alleviated it all."

Though the Christmas lights they usually hang outside their home were in the basement and destroyed in the flooding, some holiday statuettes -- "the blessed mother, Joseph and a snowman" -- survived, Loretta said, and are in their usual spots outside.

"They made it through," she said.

She and Ken have raised Emily since the teen was a toddler. Her mother died after a battle with cancer.

The trio, with Emily's aunt and Ken and Loretta's other daughter, Janice, were to spend part of Christmas Eve with neighbors across the street. They plan to also attend Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church. On Christmas Day, they will be home.

""We'll be doing all right this year," Ken O'Connor said. "There's a lot of people who are far worse off than we are."




The Donnis family: Looking forward to next year


Christmas for the Donnis family has always meant home-cooked food. Lots of it.

For dinner there was antipasto, baked ziti, ravioli, lasagna and prime rib. Then there was dessert: Neapolitans, thumbprint and sugar cookies, along with lemon drops and coconut custard pie. Joann Donnis would start baking right after Thanksgiving and continue right up to Christmas, freezing platters of cookies so they were always available to take to a party.

But this year, all the cookies will be store-bought and the festive dining room table will be empty.

The Donnis household -- Joann, 60, husband Danny, 60, and their daughter Jennifer, 30 -- won't even have a Christmas tree in their Lindenhurst home. The entire first floor, including their living room and the kitchen, was ravaged by Sandy's floodwaters, and the family is working to rebuild.

"Everything is just so ripped apart that there's not even any place to put a tree," Joann said.

The family used to have an elaborate outdoor display during the holidays, but that too was scrapped. Gone are the dozens of white lights, the angels, the reindeer and sleigh, and the garland wrapping around the perimeter of the house. But there is still a sign of Christmas approaching: a modest wreath on the front door.

She and her husband have spoken about using money they would have spent on gifts for each other and instead putting it toward the house. But there will be presents for 5-year-old granddaughter Alyssa.

"She doesn't understand what really took place and I don't want her to feel like anything is different," Joann said. "I want to try and keep it as normal as possible for her."

Joann said she, her husband and Jennifer, who lives with them, will likely go to the home of their other daughter, Dana, for Christmas. She feels bad she didn't get to decorate and cook this year because she loves doing it, but realizes her family is fortunate to even be able to live in their own home.

"There's a lot of people out there who aren't decorating their house because they don't have a house," she said.

"Next year we'll be back to normal and have everything the way it should be."




The Roggendorf family: Downsizing Christmas traditions


John and Gail Roggendorf's home is famous in their Great Neck neighborhood as the "Holiday House," and sure enough, there are more than a dozen inflatable Christmas fixtures outside -- wreaths, lights, even Santa Claus himself.

It's called making do with less after Sandy.

"I usually have 200 blowups for Christmas," Gail, 59, said.

Maintaining their 40-year-old tradition after Sandy has been a struggle. The family, still busy with repairs on their property, had to pare down.

"We just started too late," Gail said. "With all the damage to the house, it was just too much. Sandy really took us for a loop."

Missing this year are the 6-foot tall inflatable soldiers; an igloo; and a blowup snow globe, where blown-up horses circled around inside. An inflatable train set that would hang against the backyard fence, is also shelved. The old fence was damaged from Sandy, and the family doesn't want to risk weighing down the new one.

Just before the storm, the family rushed to undo an equally ambitious Halloween house, which John spent a month setting up. There would have been fog machines, ghosts, witches and a big black cat. They "scrambled," Gail said, to tear it down. But much of it blew away.

Afterward, the family began the task of repairing their home. A backyard awning was badly damaged. So were the roof and the siding. Kitchen walls were stained, and the backyard grill was rendered unusable.

"I didn't even think about Christmas," Gail said.

But the Roggendorfs' six grandchildren did, along with their friends from school.

"Where are the decorations?" Berenise Roggendorf said Amber, 9, her daughter -- Gail and John's granddaughter -- told her. "Everyone keeps asking, when are they going to put up the decorations?"

John, 61, who works as a deli clerk for a supermarket in Garden City, understood he had a reputation to try to live up to.

In a normal year, "I make the Griswolds look like amateurs," he said, referring to the display put up by Chevy Chase's family in the movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

John is already thinking 12 months ahead. He recently spent $140 on a blowup of characters from the Nickelodeon show "Yo Gabba Gabba," Gail said with a bit of exasperation.

"We'll be back next year," John vowed.




The Becchina-Fuhrmann family: Drawing closer to neighbors


In Soo Becchina's Oceanside neighborhood, Dumpsters take the place of cars in many driveways. On her block, her house is the only one this year with Christmas lights, and setting them aglow took some determination because the electrical outlets in front of her house don't work.

"I told my husband: I don't care if we have to hook them up to the car battery, we're having Christmas lights," Becchina, 48, said. "So we went out and got the longest extension cord we could find."

Becchina was hoping to set a positive example of normalcy and holiday cheer for her neighbors. Two months after Sandy, most of the families across the street still aren't living in their homes.

Yet despite their absence, they've become closer as a community.

"I don't see how it couldn't be," she said. "Everybody has a story. If you weren't personally affected, you know someone who was. It's like after 9/11, everyone knew someone."

Before, Becchina had never set foot in any of her neighbors' homes. Now, she checks on their houses frequently, wards off any suspicious characters, and asks repairmen and contractors who stop by to show their ID.

She and her husband, Steve Fuhrmann, 52, were hosting their big traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner. But two Sundays ago, Becchina invited several neighbors over for dinner, something she wouldn't have done before the storm changed their lives and made them more dependent on each other.

"I just really think in some respects we'll never be the same. I always knew my neighbors, but now I really know them - they're like my second family, almost," she said.

"I think that this has made us a more charitable people."


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