[First Person] Surviving Superstorm Sandy

Features - Special Report

It’s been one year since the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history hit OUR shores. Here, one PMP shares his story — and his personal photos — and tells how he survived those first harrowing weeks.

October 23, 2013
Bernard F. Wendell, ACE

On Sunday, Oct., 28, 2012, I received a call from my company, Arrow Exterminating, saying that we would be closed the next day due to Hurricane Sandy. Robyn (my life partner) and I spent all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday preparing for the storm by moving everything we could think of up to about 3 or 4 feet off the floors in the house and in the garage. Even during Hurricane Irene in 2011 the water never rose more than 7 feet outside and never reached the living area inside the house.

Monday morning at about 8 a.m. the water rose about 9 feet, which only filled our 4-foot soil crawl and then went back down. Monday night we lost power at 5:30 p.m. The storm raged and dropped a 100-foot tree in our back yard, tore off the garage roof, depressed our main roof and shredded an awning. That night Robyn and I were sitting in front of a large picture window upstairs in our finished attic watching the gigantic blue spruce and another large tree 3 feet from that window bend and sway violently in the wind. It probably wasn’t such a good idea.

That evening at about 9:00 the water rose another 9 feet. Robyn and I raced to move important stuff we had overlooked up to the attic. We grabbed the futon mattress and drug it upstairs in case we had to spend the night up there. As the water seeped through our first floor and covered the office floor, we rushed downstairs and tried to save stuff that was close to the floor. The water kept coming. There are 12 steps up to our attic and we watched the water rise one, two, three, four and then five steps. If it kept coming up we realized our only exit was the second floor window, which we would have had to climb out and onto a tree and wave to boats or helicopters for an emergency rescue.

At the fifth step it started to recede from the 13 feet of water outside, which was a result of the storm surge, high tide and a full moon. Everything we owned was floating around in 4 to 5 feet of very cold and nasty water. Don’t think for a second it was just salt water. It had oil slicks, odors, debris and a great deal of unidentifiable contaminants. Every appliance, piece of furniture, picture and CD/DVD; our furnace, water heater and electric meter; all of our clothing; everything in the garage (including my Honda Shadow) were all submerged. I went to bed. Robyn stayed up to watch the rest of the storm.



Tuesday morning we went downstairs and our hearts sank. It was hard to comprehend the destruction that the water had done to our home. Everything was soaked and the carpet, carpet padding and insulation held the water like a sponge. Robyn and I immediately went to work. We began by opening all the windows (it was fairly warm) and pushing all the wet stuff out of the house. I then got down on my hands and knees and cut up the carpet and pad and threw them out the windows. There was no power anywhere, but I knew I had to try and find toilet paper, cleaning supplies, paper towels, trash bags and oh yeah...water and food. Heading to the one open supermarket (where we had parked our newer car) was an adventure. It was much like driving through a war zone. It is amazing what havoc downed power lines and non-working traffic lights created. We didn’t open the refrigerator thinking that it would stay cold enough to save the food for a few days. We didn’t realize that all of the appliances (including the refrigerator) were full of water. We started sorting our stuff and moving most of it to the curb.

Two days later the futon mattress was proving inadequate (and even painful) to sleep on. No heat, no hot water, no electric and no stores of any kind were open. We would work all day and then eat a REM (ready to eat meal), crank our emergency radio and listen to the news. Cell phones worked intermittently at best, not at all at night, so we texted at night and the messages were delivered by the next day.

On the third day we visited the local volunteer fire department and they provided more food, water and blankets. The next day they were providing donated clothing, which we needed badly. I got shirts that said NYFD Haz-Mat, sweat pants, warm socks and plenty of leftover Halloween candy. Robyn and I asked if we could get a shower at the firehouse and were told to go to a nearby sports club.

Then it got cold.

Then 6 inches of heavy, wet snow came down.

Then I went back to work the following Monday while Robyn continued cleaning. I posted on Facebook that we were alive and ordered an air mattress from L.L. Bean.

Then 10 days later mold appeared.

What’s Happening Today?

PCT caught up with Bern Wendell last month to ask him the latest in his recovery efforts.

Many of my neighbors are still working on their houses or just now moving back in after 11 months. The stress of the past months have taken their toll on many people. The house across the street from me is now in foreclosure and the occupants have divorced, two houses down they raised the foundation by lifting the house and constructing a new higher foundation at an enormous cost and another neighbor found the men working on his house stealing his tools. My home was significantly damaged and I have flood insurance but it only covered about half of what the repairs would cost in the real world, and about one-quarter of the cost of demolition, a raised foundation and a new house.

In January 2013 I was offered a loan to reconstruct the home. To make a long story short, it took six months to send me the paperwork. Modifications to the loan began and it took another three months to receive the revised paperwork.

In June I called a mobile home company and they put me on their rental waiting list. When the mobile home came I hired a contractor to oversee the project, installed a temporary electrical pole and service, increased my flood insurance, had asbestos, rodent, electrical and plumbing inspections. In August I recorded the mortgage loan and sent it back.

We can no longer wait for the loan disbursement as we must prepare for hurricane season and winter weather. We are preparing to move back into the damaged home and repair whatever we can afford, as we can. All of the following must be replaced: gas pipes, all of the electrical wiring from the first floor and below, the baseboard heat and pipes, water cut-off valves, sub flooring, windows, doors, insulation, carpets, sheetrock, garage door, vinyl siding, landscaping, appliances, and the entire kitchen and bathroom. Demolition and building permits are just some of the additional costs I would incur to build a new house.

The clincher was when I learned that the taxes on the new proposed house would triple from my current taxes. So even if I rebuilt (with the loan that has not been disbursed), we would not be able to afford the mortgage plus taxes on the new home. I feel like somebody punched me in the stomach for the umpteenth time.

We will be moving back into our home and living in a basically gutted house until we can afford to repair the damage ourselves.

The insurance money was frozen until it was applied in full to the mortgage. It did not cover the outstanding mortgage balance and I had to use what was left of our savings to cover the shortfall. We lost all the contents of our home, none of which was covered by insurance.

I am hoping for no hurricanes this year and to be chosen by a philanthropic organization to help with reconstruction. I know how that sounds...but hoping for real help seems better than no alternative. I subscribe to the belief that you can’t control all the situations you encounter in life, but you can control your response to those situations. You can’t alter the wind so alter your sails!

We don’t feel sorry for ourselves. Many other people in other areas are much worse off. Many lost their homes or even their lives. We are thankful for friends, family, the East Rockaway Fire Department and mostly to have a loving supportive partner. We are Sandy survivors! — BW

Sandy and the Pests

On the pest management front: Squirrels have been much more active than usual, burying nuts and even coming right up to us asking for more. Spiders were more plentiful this summer and their webs seemed particularly strong. Mosquitoes are everywhere day and night and odorous house ants and carpenter ants seem much more active. Yellowjackets, baldfaced hornets and carpenter bees can all be found in my backyard almost any day.


Then the air mattress I ordered arrived from L.L. Bean. Our hearts fell when we read that the air pump to inflate the mattress had to be charged for 24 hours before use. We reread the instructions and found that the mattress could be inflated with the car outlet accessory without waiting 24 hours. We took the mattress outside (it was night, raining, cold and wet) but we were determined to inflate and use the air mattress. While filling up the mattress with air, the connection started to heat up, smoke and melt. We drug the mattress through the wet house and up the stairs partially inflated. We reread the instructions again and realized there were two similar accessories, the one we used was intended to inflate the bed through a small appliance such as a boom box; I guess that’s why we melted it using the car battery. We drug the mattress down the stairs and outside again, used the right accessory, blew up the bed and Robyn and I drug it upstairs again. We then fell down on the bed exhausted and went to sleep.

Seventeen days later a friend at work got his power back and offered us his generator. At first I declined but then thought better of it. He delivered the generator with gas, extension cords and multiple outlets. I put it in our detached garage, started it up and used it to power a small ceramic heater, which heated the upstairs and a drop light we carried around like a torch. Batteries started to die and there was nowhere to get more. We were living by candles for light, REMs for food, bottled spring water and five blankets on our bed. We were using the generator for heat at night, sump pump, fans and dehumidifiers during the day. Yes I spilled gasoline all over myself a few times while refilling the generator.

Then gasoline became unavailable. It was a daily grind to find gas to run the generator. Lines were more than 100 cars long and the stations either had gas but no power to pump it or were simply out of gas. Police were needed at gas stations to subdue the fighting and obnoxious behavior. New York instituted odd/even gas rationing but by the next day gas was available as stations got their power back or hooked up a generator to their pumps.

Robyn and I spent Thanksgiving at the local congregational church and the food was simply excellent with a desert table that rivaled a wedding reception. People were friendly and positive. East Rockaway is a small town (about 1 square mile) that pulled together and faced disaster helping each other.

Twenty-four days later we still had no hot water, heat, electric, phone, Internet or TV. We visited local sport clubs to shower and the firehouse for supplies. The East Rockaway Volunteer Fire Department was incredible. The support was our only lifeline to the real world. There were volunteers there daily to provide all the basics and then some. My favorite was the guy who was cooking hot dogs on a little grill outside the firehouse on Main Street for anyone who was hungry. They also provided cartons of milk and it was my first taste of milk in more than three weeks and it was chocolate!

Then floors started warping, walls began peeling and cracking and it got much colder.

Then FEMA called my cell phone and told me they would contact me by mail regarding emergency housing within a few weeks. I finally was contacted by FEMA five weeks after the storm offering emergency housing.

I called my boiler repair/maintenance company that I had used for 10 years and they told me they could get me an estimate in three weeks. The next company said they could install a boiler in three weeks. I asked them what should I do until then and they just threw up their arms.

Then I found someone who would install a boiler within three days if I paid him cash. I gave my approval and hoped the bank was open to get the cash. My electric was restored to the street but the electric company required that every house in the flood area be inspected by their approved inspectors. No one ever showed up to inspect our meter. I found an electrician that would certify the state of my electric pan if I paid him $250 cash. I did and he certified my electric pan was bad. As a result of this professional opinion the electric company then disconnected my wires from the street. I had the pan replaced for a couple thousand dollars (cash naturally) and it took the electric company another week to return and resplice the wires they had cut. Then the gas company turned off the gas to check the gas meter, replaced the meter and said an inspector would follow up to verify the repair/replacement was correct and safe, probably within an hour. The inspector checked the meter a week later. Finally the boiler could be checked since I had gas and electric but it, of course, leaked. It was fixed immediately and 27 days later Robyn could take a hot shower at home and we could begin to dry out our house.

What About the Pests?

I thought it was amazing how few pests were seen during and after the flood. We spotted some swimming Norway rats that were probably looking for higher ground. The squirrels were all over the place digging for buried food since their homes came down with the trees that fell. Raccoons also seemed to be much more active. Bed bug calls spiked after people returned home from temporary housing. Technicians reported that they saw an increase in crickets, spiders and pillbugs. — BW

I consider myself a lucky man. Myself, Robyn and our two elderly cats are alive, surprisingly healthy and closer than ever. Many of my neighbors left right away or after about 10 days of this disastrous event.

Forty-six days later most of the trash was gone. The floors were bare, walls were cut out to 5 feet, the dehumidifier was running constantly, there were no cabinets or appliances in the kitchen except for the gas stove top, water pipes were leaking, electric was spotty and only 10 percent of outlets worked. Roofs, awnings, fallen trees and landscaping were all in a state of disarray.

Robyn has been my strength through all of this. She worked harder than most men. I would have not been able to accomplish the demolition alone and there was no one to hire to help us. We watched other couples fall into arguments and shouting matches. Robyn and I were under a great deal of stress but always did our best to look for the good in the situation. Many people offered help, some just showed up to drag trash to the curb, help tear down walls, recycle metal trash, remove insulation and move appliances. We received care packages and Home Depot gift cards which made us smile and understand that we were not alone. Friends and family were supportive daily but Robyn and I were mostly alone and handled the situation together. Neither of us would have been able to face this disaster alone but we were much stronger together and I believe we can now say we survived Hurricane Sandy.


The author is manager of education and training for Arrow Exterminating, Lynbrook, N.Y., and can be contacted at bwendell@giemedia.com.

Photos By Bernard F. Wendell, ACE