The sky was clear, the winds were calm, the sounds of a regular evening in Howard Beach — airplane engines overhead and cars whizzing past on the Belt Parkway — were the norm for a typical October evening.
But one year ago, none of that was true. One year ago Tuesday night, Howard Beach was a very different place, literally struggling to stay above water as Hurricane Sandy’s full might took the neighborhood by complete surprise.
Across the street from St. Helen Church parking lot the site where a 30-foot tree crushed a car has been replaced with a new sidewalk and a new sapling, its leaves colored different shades of red.
People filed past the reconstructed sidewalk and walked diagonally across the street toward St. Helen School, where in the playground behind the building dozens of residents gathered, holding candles.
The vigil was an interfaith service that lasted just under an hour.
In between prayers and hymns, neighbors chatted with neighbors over cookies and water, sharing stories about that night one year ago and the slow, painful, exhausting process of picking up the pieces that ensued over the next 12 months.
One resident of Howard Beach was killed in the storm — Rose Faggiano of 98th Street, who drowned when the storm surge inundated her first floor. There were numerous injuries, mainly cuts and bruises. Some barely escaped with their lives, including one man who nearly drowned in his basement apartment before being saved by four neighbors.
But battered nerves and souls made up the majority of the injuries in Howard Beach. Last year’s memories were still vivid. Residents spelled out their stories of water rising in their basement and into their first floor, of desperate attempts to save belongings by carrying them up to a second floor, of waking up the next morning to find their cars had been washed away or their garage door smashed in by the force of the water. They shared memories of the days and weeks after: the blackout that lasted as much as 12 days in parts of the neighborhood, the gas lines and desperation to find gas to run generators, the uncertainly over when the lights would come back on or when residents would receive money from the federal government to rebuild, the weeks and months living in hotels or a relative’s home, trying to get children to school in another borough, and collecting relief supplies from the relief center set up at Father Dooley Hall, behind which Tuesday’s vigil took place.
There were the concerns born out of Sandy, especially over new flood maps and the cost of flood insurance for homes that had never before seen so much water inside of them.
For many, Sandy changed Howard Beach, in good ways and bad ways. “Hurricane Sandy turned us into a community,” said one speaker, a minister from Far Rockaway.
“It’ll never be the same, living here,” one resident told her neighbor during the vigil. “It’s a different place now that we know this could happen.”
One resident, who did not want to be identified, came to the vigil in sweat clothes she claimed to have gotten from charity after she lost all her clothing in Sandy’s storm surge.
“This is literally all I had to wear after Sandy,” she said. “It just felt right to wear it now.”
Tuesday night’s vigil was the second one held this week in the neighborhood. Another was held Monday night at the Davenport Court firehouse of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Hamilton Beach.