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Coney Island Stories: Category One

11/29/2012 10:46 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

"Coney Island." Two magic words heard round the world that conjure up sun, sand, summer, happiness, and wonderful childhood memories. These magic memories, seemingly universal ,were partly what inspired me to start an oral history of Coney island called "The Coney Island History Project " which was founded by myself and my late husband Jerome Albert. Little did I ever expect to be recording terrifying memories of a storm. There were anguished stories to be heard and wonderful inspiring stories of people doing the "good thing," "the right thing." One of those stories however, entered a special category: unforgettable. I call it "Category One."

This is the story of a woman who had worked for years in Coney Island and recently retired to a beautiful home in the Rockaways. Both beachfront communities were often referred to as "a little bit of paradise." "Armageddon" is certainly not a word you usually associate with paradise. In ordinary usage it conjures up hellfire. But something like it visited the night of the storm.

This woman had explained her predicament to me, shortly before Hurricane Sandy hit:

Look I'm trying to be sensible, I really don't see any alternative but to stay, and here's why. Last time I went to my cousin's, in Northern N.J., and it was even worse there. Now I have a three month old baby grandchild, and my husband who is in a wheelchair, and a shelter is not a solution. " There's really no place to go. I know we're vulnerable but we're not on the ocean, we're blocks from the ocean, it would have to be an extreme surge, and my house is a little higher than some of the others, so everyone in the family is coming to my house, we're going to have to risk it and stay.

I didn't hear from her until four days later.

It was the description of a nightmare that you would not think could happen anywhere adjacent to New York City. The fires that were burning homes and eventually destroyed over 110 houses in Breezy Point hissed and burned throughout the night as residents of Rockaway watched, in growing terror, the endless wall of flames moving ever closer. The ferocious winds were hurling the burning embers a tremendous distance, all the way down the Rockaway beaches, raining down on heads and houses, lighting up the sky in horrible flashes. My friend was staring out of her living room window. She could see, through the dark, that the street water was waist high, because it was illuminated by the lights from the flashing fire engines, stymied by the flood, unable to reach the fires. They could not get down the street. Houses were burning up and down the street; the fires were getting closer. My friend:

The water was rising so fast it had filled my basement, almost nine feet and was coming up through the kitchen floor. We were terrified. Then my son saw the house two doors away from us catch fire and go up and he grabbed me and said, 'Mom we have to get out, we're going to go up if we don't. We must leave. Now.' 'Where can we go,' I said "it's a pitch black storm now.' And he said, 'We have to go. Go now. We'll knock on doors until somebody lets us in...'

My friend was thinking about her husband: how were they going to get a man in a wheelchair in waist high water out through the storm? The son had already bolted out the door. He had noticed earlier that the people next door had tied their plastic tubes from their swimming pool together and an assortment of inflated toys was swinging eerily in the wind around a post. He rushed out, unfastened the tubes, brought them in, lashed them together and moved his father out of the wheelchair into the tubes. Then, he opened the door and led his terrified family into the waist deep water. The inflated toys held. As they paraded through the dark in the hip high water -- the mother, the father in the tubes pushed by the son, the wife holding the three month old baby -- they shook with fear as they felt the freezing water rising, as the fire embers -- "like a vision of hell," the woman said -- flashed all around them, falling like bombs in a satanic hiss.

My friend was praying that someone would take them in before another surge swept them all into oblivion. The son was yelling at the top of his lungs into the wind and the dark. He knew there was a brick house somewhere fairly close by. Screaming out the neighbor's name, yelling and pushing through the water, they kept on until a barely lit figure with a flashlight suddenly moved into a doorway, its startled owner yelling "Who's calling me out there? Who's there?"

"It's me, it's Larry Casey!" the son yelled back. The neighbor, astonished, waving his flashlight to guide them, cried out, "oh my God, come in come in." In the brick house they spent the night, shaking with relief and gratitude.

There were others, as we now know, who were not so lucky. Tragedy was all around. The moon, the tide, the cold front, all contributed to it, this we know. But it was a Category One. Certainly lives were saved with the warnings and evacuation actions but Sandy exposed deep vulnerabilities -- transit and delivery vulnerabilities, failed generator systems in hospitals that thought they were prepared, miles of exploded transformers and destroyed electric lines, insufficient gas for vehicles and generators, rampant sewage overflow, and growing mold -- unimagined vulnerabilities that have shaken to the core the arrogance and misplaced confidence of that tough, informed and now greatly saddened and troubled citizen, The New Yorker.

We have all been hearing stories. Some of us have been in them. So, while there is still optimism about rebuilding, it is now tempered -- by defiance and determination -- as well as by an accumulation of memories, filmed, told to, listened to, overheard, strung like pearls and worry beads on our all too human necks. It was only a Category One.