Staten Island’s stories of Sandy
Staten Island, New York
By Mike Segar
As New York braced for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy three weeks ago, I was in California for a long-planned personal event. But I wasn’t about to miss what was shaping up to be a major story. I was determined to get back. I found a united flight to Detroit, Michigan, that was still listed as “on-time.” How far a drive would that be to New York? 10 hours? Through a hurricane?… I’ll take it, I thought. Seven hours later I was on the ground in Michigan driving through the night towards New York as winds howled and Sandy was coming ashore. I made it back to a region knocked to its knees by this storm.
The next seven days were a blur of finding and photographing those worst hit by the storm and hunting for gas for vehicles to keep going (not to mention returning home to a house without power, heat or hot water and without my wife and children who had evacuated to Massachusetts). Together Reuters photographers Lucas Jackson, Shannon Stapleton, Brendan McDermid, Keith Bedford, Adrees Latif, Andrew Kelly, Tom Mihalek, Carlo Alegri, Steve Nesius, Chip East, Adam Hunger and myself covered the immediate aftermath of Sandy in countless locations. We documented places and people affected by this massive natural disaster, one of the most destructive ever to hit the Northeast U.S. Our team made amazing pictures throughout and our collective photographic documentation of this disaster speaks for itself.
I found myself mostly covering the particularly hard hit borough of Staten Island where at least 23 people died. Many Staten Islanders say they live in New York City’s “forgotten borough.” On Staten Island’s south shore there are several long low-lying communities of mostly working class New Yorkers, many with civil service jobs. With a mixture of ethnic backgrounds of long-time residents and recent immigrants, this area consists of mostly beach bungalow style homes. The homes are mostly single story and packed closely together near the shore that stretches for about six miles and faces the Atlantic Ocean.
As I met more people and was invited to photograph what was left of their homes, I became interested in just who these neighbors were. Could I find a way to photograph them in a similar style and tell some of their stories? I began to try to put a face on this tragedy with compelling portraits as I moved through the area documenting the results of the storm surge.
I decided to ask all the subjects (I photographed more than 30 for this project) to look into the camera, and I photographed them all in a similar technical style. I felt that a completed set of pictures along with a short written piece about each person could stand out by itself and perhaps put more of a human face on the disaster for our readers.
From the interviews I conducted with the subjects I learned that when Sandy came ashore people here in Midland Beach, New Dorp Beach, Oakwood Beach, Great Kills and Bay Terrace who did not evacuate found themselves in what one resident described to me as a giant washing machine of homes, debris and wind-driven ocean. Within minutes, water reaching 10-18 feet high demolished hundreds and hundreds of homes. After the storm as I wandered through these neighborhoods photographing the aftermath, I kept finding myself stopping to talk to people. Cleaning out their ruined homes and searching for personal belongings, they were trying to cope with suddenly having nothing.
I worked to tell some of the amazing stories people told me of survival and loss on Staten Island. Stories like the one of survival by neighbors Lisa and Eddie Perez (no relation) of Oakwood. Both were swept away from their homes as they desperately tried to escape rushing storm surge waters at the height of the storm. Rising so fast they could not move against it, the two eventually helped each other up above the waters over their heads into a tree that saved their lives.
Dominic and Sheila Traina of New Dorp beach told me the story of their house they had lived in for 43 years, where they raised their 4 children, being demolished to a pile of rubble.
Or the story of Patrick Zoda of Midland Beach – one of the very first New York City firefighters to enter the north tower of the World Trade Center, escaping just moments before its collapse on 9/11, who found himself trapped inside his own home as Sandy struck. He spoke of floodwaters forcing him to escape through an open front window as water poured into his home. The waters reached the ceiling and he was forced to wade and swim blocks inland before finding dry ground and safety.
I hope that with this set of portraits and their accompanying stories, readers will get a different perspective on who it was that was devastated in Staten Island. My hope is that this stands as a record of just one of the thousands of communities throughout the region that will feel the effects of hurricane Sandy for years to come.