Staten Island survivor recounts terrifying night

By Jacqueline Watson and Jim Killam

As a ReachGlobal Crisis Response team installs insulation and hangs sheetrock in her Staten Island home, Laura Lamont can scarcely believe the transformation. Nightmarish memories are giving way to hope.

Last October, Hurricane Sandy roared ashore, swamping the working-class Midland Beach neighborhood. Laura’s small, one-story house was left standing, but ruined.

“It looked like somebody took it and picked it up off the foundation and shook it, then filled it with water and shook it again and dropped it down,” she says. Everything she owned was covered with a muddy brown film.

Laura Lamont (right) with her mother, Carmela Saulle.

Laura Lamont (right) with her mother, Carmela Saulle.

Like many Staten Island residents, Laura and her mother, Carmela Saulle, had obeyed evacuation orders before 2011’s Hurricane Irene, only to return to find minor flooding but no big damage. For Sandy, they and most of their neighbors decided to stay.

On Monday afternoon, Oct. 29, Laura and Carmela walked the three blocks from their home to Midland Beach to view the unusually choppy water. That night, just after sunset, they were in their living room as the storm hit.

Noticing a lot of lightning, Laura opened her front door to look down the street. It wasn’t lightning. Electrical transformers were exploding.  A wave of seawater came down the street, rose to the level of her first outside step, then stopped for a minute.

“I said ‘I think we’ll be OK,’” she recalls. “And then it just came like a river. I quickly shut the door and turned around, and as I turned around into the living room, it literally came out all four walls.  Everywhere you looked it was just coming in.”

Realizing there wasn’t much time, Laura pulled down the folding stairs and, in pitch darkness, helped her 75-year-old mother climb to the attic. She came back down to grab Bella, their year-old American Eskimo Pomeranian dog, and lugged her to the attic, too.

“If I think about it now, I don’t know how we stayed so calm,” Laura says.

They’d been in the attic 10 minutes when they got a cell-phone call from their neighbor, Charlie. His house was filling with water, too, and he didn’t have an attic. Laura told him to come join them.

By the time Charlie made it to the street corner, the water was chest deep. Grabbing utility poles, street signs and and fence posts, he made his way to the door. Laura climbed down from the attic and waded through the water to open her front door for him.

The three of them, plus the dog, spent the next 12 hours in that dark, windowless attic, not knowing what things looked like outside. Carmela sat in a folding beach chair that was stored there. They did have some candles, and Laura also had stored winter clothes in Rubbermaid totes, so she and Charlie were able to change out of their cold, wet clothes. (Laura laughs as she remembers the only pair of pants Charlie could fit into were her bright pink sweatpants.)

Laura stayed near the stairs, periodically shining a flashlight into the house below to check on the water level. The ladder wasn’t touching the floor any more, so she theorized she could get partway down, then jump to her mom’s bed. Then the bed floated away.

“I never said anything to either one of them,” Laura says. “But all I kept thinking at that point was, we’re never getting out of here. If it gets higher we’re going to have to start making a hole in the roof.”

Time passed quickly. The water level inside the house peaked at about five feet, then receded a little. About 6:30 a.m., an hour before sunrise, a police boat arrived. Laura, Carmela, Charlie and Bella climbed down the stairs into the water, then got out of the house through a window. They stepped onto the roof of a car that had floated into the yard, and from the car into the boat.

Once the boat reached dry land, the rescued were transferred to flatbed trucks, and then to buses that took them to a makeshift shelter in a school. For Laura, this was no improvement.

“The storm in the attic was better than being in the shelter,” she says. “That was such chaos and depression.”

One big room at the shelter was filled with cages for pets. That’s where Laura had to part with Bella. For the first time during the ordeal, she cried.

“That’s when it really hit me, and I lost it walking through the hall, which is so crazy,” she says. “After 12 hours in the attic and not knowing what’s going on, putting the dog in the cage broke me down … she just looked so confused and helpless.”

They were only in the shelter for about an hour before Charlie found a relative for them to stay with for the next couple of weeks. From there, Laura and Carmela lived with their own relatives for about seven weeks and eventually were able to move into a studio apartment along with Bella, just a few blocks from their ruined house.

Renewal takes shape

Laura tells their story as the sound of electric drills buzzes in the background. ReachGlobal Crisis Response volunteers, many from Grace Gospel Church in Long Island, are at work. Walls and ceilings are up, and it’s beginning to look like her house again after months of setbacks and insurance red tape.

“I think it’s amazing,” she says. “I never thought we would get this far.

“It’s a volunteer thing. It’s been a thousand percent volunteers,” she adds, noting that the majority of help on Staten Island has come from not from government, but from volunteers.

Her immediate gratitude comes in the form of homemade, gourmet creamsicle cupcakes hand-delivered to the volunteers as they work. Covered in drywall compound and sweat, the volunteers devour the cupcakes before the orange frosting has a chance to melt in the July heat.

Laura is eager to be able to walk out her door, see her neighbors again and welcome them into her home. She’s already planning a party for when the house is finished later this summer. The invitees most  certainly include the Salem and ReachGlobal volunteers.

“We actually started to make a list,” she says. “I want them all here. If I have to leave the front door and the back door open and have people circle, I want everyone here for the biggest buffet ever.”

 

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