Wave of Death Hit New York Enclave

The Wall Street Journal - November 05, 2012


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.--As superstorm Sandy barreled toward New York City, Jack Paterno, who got around in a wheelchair, stayed put in the low-lying neighborhood of Midland Beach. Nearby family members assumed the storm wasn't going to be so bad. But when it hit, a wall of water submerged Mr. Paterno's one-story bungalow in a matter of minutes.

"There was this 5- to 6-foot wave of water just coming down the street, nonstop,'' said Mr. Paterno's next-door neighbor, Al Rami, 28 years old. Family members tried to get to the 65-year-old Mr. Paterno, but the storm surge held them back, a niece said. On Wednesday, police found his body inside his house.

Millions of lives have been upended by the storm, which left 110 reported dead, tens of thousands in the metropolitan area homeless and many more grappling with power outages and gas shortages. But nowhere was Sandy more deadly than in and around Midland Beach, a working-class enclave of families of Irish, Italian and Russian descent.

Ten of the 40 known to have died in New York City lived along a roughly one-and-a-half mile stretch of the Staten Island coastline. The dead were mostly older people, many of whom lived alone in homes that were no match for the storm surge neighbors said overtook the streets. All are believed to have drowned.

Several factors combined to turn the spot into a deathtrap: Many residents appeared to ignore evacuation orders; the low-lying maze of one-way streets and marshlands made it a catch basin for the surge; and aging one-story bungalows were quickly subsumed by water.

As residents dig through the rubble, many are pondering whether to rebuild in a place that suddenly feels vulnerable to natural catastrophe. It is a question being posed by many others in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut whose homes were ravaged by the storm.

"If I had the option, I would get the heck out of here,'' said Roman Bediner, who lives one block from where a 77-year-old woman died. "I know that this is just going to keep happening."

Mr. Bediner moved his family from a Brooklyn apartment to Staten Island in 2005 because he could afford a home near the beach. Soon after moving in, he noticed that every time it rained for a few days, his first floor would flood and the storm-sewer system would back up into his plumbing. On some rainy days, his toilet would overflow.

The neighborhood is bordered by Father Capodanno Blvd., a major thoroughfare running along Lower New York Bay that is higher than the streets behind it, and by Seaview Ave., also higher. Residents say that causes the streets in between to collect water in big storms. The nearby wetlands are supposed to act as a natural sponge for storm runoff, but development and road work has meant water regularly seeps into their homes, residents said.

Fearing a flood, Mr. Bediner drove his family out of Midland Beach at about noon on Monday. Many of his neighbors stayed.

As wind and rain intensified on Monday afternoon, the mood in the neighborhood was still upbeat. "We were out there joking, saying, 'They hyped Irene so much, and what'd we get? A little water,' " recalled Laura Gatti. About three-quarters of her immediate neighbors decided to weather the storm in their homes. Many recalled that Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 had turned out to be less fierce than predicted, and some worried about looting if they left.

Still, Ms. Gatti was a little worried about her 85-year-old neighbor, James Rossi. He lived alone and tended toward stubbornness and self-sufficiency. Earlier, Mr. Rossi had allowed Ms. Gatti's boyfriend to board up his front window.

The last time they saw him, Mr. Rossi, a military veteran, was returning to his house after moving his car to higher ground. By 6:20 p.m., Ms. Gatti said, water, a few feet deep, was flowing down her street. Within 20 minutes, she said, the water had risen well above her waist.

Ms. Gatti said there was no sign of Mr. Rossi as residents pried open windows and escaped, wading to higher ground.

Before leaving, she, her boyfriend and another friend collected necessities: her pocketbook, a trash bag full of clothes and dog food. Their 50-pound English bulldog can't swim and had to be carried. Water pushed at their backs as they waded up the hill where their car was parked.

Police said Mr. Rossi's body was found in his backyard. His dog, Shorty, was found dead atop the stove, neighbors said.

Eugene Contrubis, 62, also refused to leave his bungalow, despite his sister's entreaties to stay with her on higher ground. He told her he wasn't leaving and that his neighbors also were staying, she said. At 8:15 p.m., he left her a voice mail. "It was very calm, but he said the water was seeping into the house," Christina Contrubis recalled. That is the last she heard from him. He was found dead in his home.

School-bus driver Lorreta Desio, 57, said when she ran out of her bungalow and tried to escape to a newer two-story house across the street, the water swiftly rose from her knees to her neck. She retreated back to her bungalow with her boyfriend, David Troise, 58. They brought their cat into the attic and punched a hole through the roof as the waters rose.

For three days after the storm, Mr. Troise didn't hear anything from a man and woman who lived in the bungalow directly behind them. Before the storm, the woman told Mr. Troise she didn't want to leave her parrot, cats and dogs behind, so she stayed along with her roommate, a 65-year-old man who used to collect cans around Midland Beach.

On Thursday, Mr. Troise discovered the woman's body hanging out her living-room window. He said he waved down the National Guard troops patrolling the streets, who found the man inside.

Neighbors of Mr. Paterno, the man who used the wheelchair, said they assumed he had been evacuated. One of his brothers had tried to reach him in his van on Monday night, but the floodwaters were too deep, his niece Jessica Paterno said. The brother waded down the street, but turned back to get other family members in the van out of danger.

At the height of the flood, neighbor Daniel Walsh looked across the street and saw water one foot from the top of the Mr. Paterno's roof.

On Tuesday, a nephew of Mr. Paterno's used his boat to go to the house.

He rescued his uncle's dog from atop a bird cage, the niece said. But he couldn't locate his uncle in the flooded home.

On Wednesday, rescue workers found Jack Paterno's body in his bungalow. His niece said he had cerebral palsy.

"It's the saddest thing,'' said Mr. Rami, his neighbor. "Imagine the water is rising and you can't do anything about it."

--Dana Mattioli contributed to this article.