Five years ago, black 50-pound trash bags, full of demolition debris and waterlogged belongings, lined the streets of Freeport after Superstorm Sandy left a long trail of destruction on Oct. 29, 2012.
In the storm’s wake, the nonprofit group Friends of Freeport quickly formed to help many local families return to their homes. “We try to help as many people as we can,” said Lois Howes, the organization’s founder and president. “We mostly help people in close proximity to Freeport, but we’ve gone further. We’ve gone to Lindenhurst, Sayville, Long Beach and Baldwin, too.”
“Friends of Freeport started right after Hurricane Sandy, after a few of us were running around Freeport, trying to see what we could do to help people, and we kept running into each other,” Howes said. “So instead of doing things separately, we started working together to do what we were all doing — helping with the storm recovery.”
Among the families that Friends of Freeport helped are the Brunettis. Tess Brunetti, a manager at the Baldwin-based non-profit Mothers Center of Southwest Nassau, lived in Baldwin until Sandy severely damaged her Bay Front Drive home, and her family was forced to move to a rental property in Lynbrook. She and her husband had one child — who was then age 2 and is now 7 — when the storm struck. Their second child — now 3 — was born after Sandy.
“The financial aspect was the most difficult part,” Tess Brunetti said of the years after the storm. “We had to take a loan out just so that we could rebuild the house.” The Brunettis had intended to refinance the house to more easily afford the loan, but were unable to receive a certificate of occupancy while repairs were under way, so they couldn’t.
“The financial burden has just been overwhelming,” Tess continued. “Sometimes we just throw our hands up in the air and try to continue living our lives, because we have two kids to focus on.”
The Brunettis moved back to their house on Oct. 21. There are many repairs still to be done, mostly on the second floor, which the family plans to complete “little by little.” But, Brunetti said, they are happy to be back home.
“We’re still not done,” she said. “We’ve been struggling to get the whole house done. We just didn’t want to live in limbo anymore.”
The Brunettis are not alone in their struggles. The NY Rising Community Reconstruction Program has helped more than 120 New York state communities severely damaged by Sandy. The program provided recovery and resiliency assistance for thousands of residents and businesses, but there is still more to be done.
“The NY Rising program has been a game-changer for the communities I represent,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach.
“It has allowed homes to rise from Sandy’s ruins into beautiful, storm-resistant structures that will withstand the test of future storms. However, everyone is not home yet. I’m still hearing from families every day who are displaced, living in partially repaired homes or in debt.
“This has been a five-year ordeal for these storm victims,” Kaminsky continued, “and our government must not forget them, and must exhaust every last resource and marshal every effort to get them home.”
“Sandy was a learning experience for people,” said Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford. “And what we have to do now, five years after, is make sure that we did learn from that and what happened.”
Brooks has followed the recovery effort since taking office in January, and while there is still much work to do to continue the community recovery effort and improve storm resiliency, he said he was impressed by the response from emergency services during the storm five years ago.
“One thing you always see in this country and in our communities, in particular, during these catastrophic events is there are people that are not only willing to help, but are trained to help,” Brooks said.
There are still many people who need support and assistance, and five years later, many local residents are still struggling to keep their heads above water.