The day after Sandy devastated the working-class community of Union Beach — just across the Raritan Bay from Staten Island — dozens of people were milling about on the streets, trying to comprehend just how badly their beloved town had been hit. It was a chaotic scene, with police checking IDs of drivers entering town, a faint scent of gas wafting through the air and barricades, blocking access to the waterfront. Welcome signs at the borough’s borders had once welcomed visitors to “Union Beach: A Clean Community,” but the area was now anything but that. The roads and sidewalks were caked with mud and littered with scraps of lumber, old tires and all sorts of scraps and remnants of people’s lives.
Linda Gonzalez had stayed behind with her family during the storm because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. She was horrified to watch out her front window as Sandy transformed Florence Avenue into a “river of boats and houses.” But she did her best to remain hopeful. “We’ll get through it,” she said. “Everybody will get through it.”
$80,000 and six months later, she says her family finally managed to replace all the vehicles they lost. And her husband — who works as a contractor – has also been able to replace all his equipment that was destroyed in the flood. She thinks it will probably be another year before they’ll pay off all their expenses and be able to start saving money again. In the meantime, she’s gone back to work at the snack bar of the local bowling alley to help her family pay the bills. “At this stage of my life, I just wanted to be a grandmother and retire, and now I can’t. It’s not that I can’t, but I feel like I need to help out a little bit more,” she said.
Gonzalez considers herself fortunate, since the floodwaters narrowly avoided her home. And she repeated the optimism she expressed the day after the storm. “It’s been a long haul, but you pull together as a family and a community, and you get through it,” she said. “Little by little, we’re getting back on our feet.” It certainly hasn’t been easy, though. She says her grandchild is still traumatized and afraid of flooding every time it rains. As for Union Beach, she adds, “The town’s never going to be the same. It’s going to take years if it ever gets back.”
Floodwaters from Sandy rushed down 3rd St. in Union Beach, filling the entire first floor of Mike Aponte’s house. Huddled upstairs with his family, he remembers looking down the stairs and crying. “I didn’t know how high the water was going to come, and I didn’t know how we were going to get my kids out of here,” he said.
They had planned to evacuate, but they waited too long. He’d parked his truck just down the block at the street corner. “By the time we got the stuff together, and I turned around, the water came up so fast, that I couldn’t even get out to the truck, so we had to go back into the house,” he recalled.
The floodwaters left the house damaged and highly contaminated with what was later determined to be heating oil from a ruptured oil tank that washed up on Aponte’s property, so the family has spent the past year living in a trailer home parked in their driveway. A few weeks ago, they finally had crews demolish their home. “We’re basically in limbo now,” said Andrea Kassimatis, Aponte’s fiancé. “We don’t know what the next steps are, cause we’re waiting on the grants, we’re still fighting insurance.” Their insurance company is refusing to do the necessary remediation because they say there’s a “fuel exclusion clause” in the policy.