A Year After Hurricane Sandy, A First Responder's Wife Reflects

hurricane sandy, love
Love, Family

Batteries line the kitchen counter next to several flashlights. Behind them, a series of candles, some placed in holders, others bare on the granite. My husband, Jim, places matchbooks in my hand in an act of love, instructing me to use them sparingly over the next 24 hours that he'll be gone, then kisses my forehead and makes his way out the front door.

I look at the arsenal of supplies scattered about the room, then peer out the window, the October sky relatively calm minus a couple of gray clouds passing above. I watch as my husband drives away to a firehouse that isn't the one he normally works in, but to another that he's going to utilize with other rescue crew trained for extreme situations. A severe storm is on its way, but none of us have any idea what Hurricane Sandy has in store for us.

After the taillights of his old pick-up truck disappear into the world, my heart starts to palpitate. With eyelids clenched, I force myself to concentrate on inhaling and exhaling steadily, a breathing technique acquired from my shrink. My husband is a first responder to our community, and I have to be the first responder in our home, to our daughter.

When composed, I turn to my one-year-old daughter and rearrange the Cheerios on her tray. She looks up, her doe eyes unblinking, and says, "Tank you, Mommy." She's pretty sophisticated for a toddler, and I'm very lucky. But I've always been a skeptic with luck: it's usually short-lived, the end of it lurking right from the start.

I change the television program from Sesame Street to the news to see what our future holds. The anchorman spews information about the hurricane that's fast approaching, saying that the area of New York City in which I live, Staten Island, will be hit hard. We would later find out that Hurricane Sandy would take about 24 lives on Staten Island, accounting for more than half of NYC's death toll from the storm.

I glimpse again out of the casement, but it still reveals an average day. I jam a finger down on the remote control, shutting off the television, recalling how overly dramatic the forecast was with Hurricane Irene the year before. For some time, I've blamed the media for my anxiety.

I put sneakers and a coat on my daughter, and then myself, and head outside for a walk sans umbrella. Along the park path behind our house, we stop to pick up rocks, twigs, pinecones and hollow acorn shells, stuffing our pockets with nature's treasures. During the stroll I dial Jim and joke about how "dangerous" it is outside, squawking "Auntie Emme!" into the phone as a light breeze tickles at my cheeks. He chuckles, but asks if I'm close to the house. Because of the concern in his voice, I vow to go straight home and lock the door. 

Jim is a rescue fireman; his special skills and training qualify him to respond to extreme situations. In 2009, he was involved in the relief effort for the US Airways flight 1549 crash into the Hudson River, in a fireboat wearing a scuba diving suit along with other trained FDNY personnel and the NYPD ESU unit, assuring passengers reached safety. The truth is, I'm as worried about him as I am for my daughter and myself. But knowing he's saving others reassures me. Somewhat.

Back home on Staten Island, the day's activities continue as usual. Rain begins to clank against the sills of the windows. I turn the news on once more to see what soap opera is unfolding in the world, when images of big waves crashing onto the shores of New Jersey flash across the screen; it appears as if Atlantic City is being washed away.

To distract my jittered nerves, I bounce my daughter on my lap as I continue to watch. The meteorologist says that the worst is yet to come at around nine o’clock in the evening, when the full moon's gravitational pull will have an overwhelming affect on an already high tide. He's talking science, a language I understand from my days as an elementary school teacher. That's when my stomach starts to flip.

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It's about seven o'clock. I close the blinds and draw the curtains, part of the nighttime routine of putting my daughter to bed. The wind, which has gone from an occasional gust to a constant howl, has me worried that there isn't any tape on the windows to protect them from shattering. I call Jim for advice, despite his earlier declaration that duct-taping glass doesn't prevent it from breaking. But there’s no answer, leaving me to my own devices. I push the baby's crib to the far corner of her bedroom, away from anything breakable, and set up camp on the other side of her door.

I sit in the hallway as the beams of the house start to rattle and shake. There is no doubt in my mind now that we are officially experiencing a hurricane; the weather report was correct. Beads of sweat form at my temples as I hawk-eye the baby monitor. She is sound asleep and, thankfully, the windows are holding up. 

I lie back on my pillow when a crackling sound pierces the air, and then all of the power goes out. I crouch down and frantically graze the floor with both hands, feeling for my cell phone. I scoop it up and call Jim. He answers and, through the static, asks if I'm all right. I tell him we're okay, and he says to continue hunkering down, that he loves me, and then he hangs up. I still hold the phone to my ear, even after the conversation ends, half of my brain wanting to kick into full-on panic mode. But the other half, the more rational side, keeps me grounded.

I review everything that Jim has taught me to do if power goes out: don't open the refrigerator so it will remain cold for longer (like a giant cooler), only use your cell phone in emergencies (to preserve the battery life), keep the littlest flashlight lit for regular usage in order to conserve the powerful, bigger sources of light, and always utilize candles as a last resort because you don't want to create a fire hazard in already hazardous conditions. Somehow Jim, an emergency service provider to the community, is able to provide aide to his family even when he's not there in the physical form.

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The hour hand crawls around my wristwatch as things crash outside. I try not to think of my friends whose husbands are home with their family members, but I can't help it. Despite the efforts, my breathing becomes erratic. Something scrapes against the house and bangs out in the distance. I'm certain it's the old roof of my neighbor's house, ripped off by the fierce winds. I begin visualizing people's lawn furniture blowing down the street like tumbleweed. I shut my eyes and pray that the swaying traffic lights won't tear down the poles and electrical wires connected to them.

At about midnight, as the storm rages on, I send Jim a text message. I don't know if my service is working but I do know that he is out somewhere on this island, swimming in the swells and saving people who didn't evacuate.  Regardless, he needs to know that his daughter is all right. Curled up on the hardwood floor, I lay envisioning chaos similar to Hurricane Katrina and wonder what tomorrow will look like.

Then I start thinking, with the unruffled weather being as it was earlier, would I have evacuated if I lived by the shoreline? Probably not, but Jim would have made us. 

The sound of the baby's cry prompts my eyelids open. Daylight is now trickling in through the blinds revealing a new morning. I hop to my feet and retrieve my child from her crib. With her in my arms, we walk the perimeter of the house, and fortunately, the structure appears fairly untouched. Some trees are down across the street and debris litters the roads, but overall the neighborhood survived.

As we are about to go back inside, Jim’s truck pulls into the driveway. Our daughter greets him with a boisterous hello! as his eyes meet mine in sadness. I instinctively know he has seen death, and I can only imagine what else he's been exposed to. But I won’t dare press him for stories. As the spouse of a firefighter, one of my main duties is to keep curiosity at bay. 

Jim, not normally one for public displays of affection, takes the baby into his arms and then motions for a group huddle. There on the sidewalk, beneath a few dissipating clouds, we are reunited. I rest my head on his chest, sighing with relief into his shirt, before glancing up at the sky and thanking it for such a privilege. Showing gratitude to the cosmos is something I do after he returns from catastrophe; one never knows when their luck may run out.