Hurricane Sandy sprung to life in the central Caribbean on Oct. 22, 2012, more than 1,600 miles from New York, probably not much on any Long Islander’s radar.
It drove north, strafing the eastern edge of Jamaica and Cuba and cutting through the Bahamas, killing dozens along the way. By the time it steamed into the Atlantic Ocean, forecasters said it likely was headed north and west where it would eventually dissipate. Its winds had even started to slow.
But on Oct. 27, it took a startling left turn that would change the course of local history.
When the downgraded storm slammed the shores of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut two days later, it arrived at high tide, creating record storm surges. It also had spread into the largest Atlantic storm by diameter.
The “superstorm,” as it was called, killed dozens on the East Coast, including 48 New Yorkers. It damaged 95,000 homes, businesses and government buildings on Long Island alone, put communities such as Freeport, Long Beach and Lindenhurst under water, obliterated boardwalks, knocked out power to refineries, schools, waste-treatment plants and electrical substations, altered the dunes and the channel at Fire Island and washed more than 10 billion gallons of garbage, oil and sewage into people’s basements and lawns and eventually out into the ocean.
It was one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
Five years later, numbers tell part of Long Island’s story to recover, rebuild and rethink.
- $50.5 billion: the amount earmarked for Sandy recovery for New York, New Jersey and other states after a bitter fight in Congress, with $4.5 billion going to New York.
- 11,000: the number of Long Island homes included in the NY Rising recovery program — though 3,400 of them still aren’t fully repaired.
- 3,500: the number of homes in New York slated to be elevated to avoid future floods, though just 1,300 have completed the process.
- 500: Homeowners who decided to get out once and for all, selling their dwellings to the government in a buyout program.
- $1.4 billion: the amount projected to be spent for repairing Long Island’s electrical grid and fortifying it against the next storm. Though the fortifying part is half done, plans included installing thicker utility poles to withstand greater winds and overhauling substations. Meanwhile, New Jersey-based PSEG took over from the Long Island Power Authority as the system operator.
- 18 feet: the height of the wall built around the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant — double the pre-Sandy size. The storm surge flooded the plant, sending raw sewage into neighboring basements, yards and waterways, and triggering one of most expensive repairs on the Island.
Numbers, too, tell of misdeeds: $137,000, the amount Looks Great Services, a cleanup company, agreed to pay in back wages following a state investigation that found it underpaid workers for clearing debris; $225,000, the amount HiRise Engineering, a Uniondale firm, paid after pleading guilty to falsifying storm-damage reports for insurance purposes; 300-plus, the number of alleged contractor-fraud cases the New York Legal Assistance Group handled.
Yet numbers don’t tell the sweep of struggles, changes and proposals in the Sandy aftermath.
There’s Charles Spota, a Seaford resident, who labored for years to get his now-elevated house rebuilt. Despite the money, time and red tape, he told Newsday coming home was one of the best days of his life.
But there’s also Laura Cromer, who said leaving and moving upstate rejuvenated her, and Jim Parente, who relocated to Florida and acknowledged he’s “been in a fog” ever since Sandy.
Science hasn’t stood still, either. In the five years since Sandy, hurricane tracking has improved. The V-shaped cone of a storm’s projected path has been reduced significantly, thanks to better sensors, satellites and computer models, said Jon Miller, a coastal engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Storm surge forecasts — Stevens accurately predicted Sandy’s — have become more reliable too. And, working on a grant with the Port Authority, Stevens is trying to put together street by street “water over land” projections to be able to tell what city blocks and buildings might get swamped by the next big storm.
“The area we are still not all that good at is assessing the intensity of these storms. And that is a real tricky problem,” Miller said. Tricky not only because it depends on obtaining data from near a hurricane’s eye, but also because climate change is making storms more intense, he said. The volume of associated rainfall — such as the roughly 50 inches that fell in Texas during Hurricane Harvey — appears to be rising too.
“Sometimes it takes these shocks to the system” to learn our preparedness shortcomings, Miller said, likening it to putting off car maintenance until something goes wrong. Building codes, sea walls and beach “nourishment” have been improved, but there is still a ways to go.
“You have to take advantage of the amount of attention and money these storms generate to make yourself as resilient to the next storm as possible,” he said. “You have to realize another Harvey is going to happen. Another Irma is going to happen. Another Maria is going to happen.”