Meghan Barr, Helen O'Neill, Katie Zezima
There was a moment of horrible disbelief when Linda Marten and her sister, Lauren Mullaney, realized that both of their homes on the Rockaway peninsula had burned to the ground the night Sandy came ashore.
"We were both on the phone, crying, saying, 'How could this happen?'" Marten recalled, her voice cracking with emotion. "How can we both lose our house? Both of us?"
Mullaney's home was among the charred wreckage of more than 100 houses in Breezy Point that were destroyed by a massive fire. A few miles farther east in New York City's borough of Queens, a fire in the town of Belle Harbor swept down Marten's block, consuming the home she and her husband purchased as newlyweds in 1995.
Now the two sisters live just a few blocks from each other in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where they have relocated with their families since the storm, having lost everything they owned.
"My daughter, she's 4, she's had dreams where she said she misses the Breezy house," said Mullaney, who is sharing a rental home with her parents, whose house was damaged by flooding in the storm. "She just thinks we're on one big adventure. I won't let her see what happened."
For Marten, it was crucial to get her children back to school as quickly as possible. Her two youngest boys, 8-year-old Matt and 10-year-old Terence, are among the storm's many young refugees, relocated temporarily to a new school while their Roman Catholic elementary school, St. Francis de Sales, is repaired from flood damage.
Her eldest son, 15-year-old Ray, has taken refuge at the home of the assistant headmaster at his private high school. There's simply not enough room for him at the home of Marten's mother-in-law, where the family of six has been living in cramped quarters for weeks with one dresser drawer of donated clothing each. Ray returns home to see the family every weekend.
"It's kind of like your kid goes off to college and you don't see him," Marten said. "Not having him with me every day and every night is probably the biggest change in our lives right now. It's hard."
The Martens will soon move — before Christmas, they hope — to a rental home in their old neighborhood that has room for all of them. And then they'll set about the task of rebuilding the place they called their dream home.
But Mullaney isn't as certain that she'll return to devastated Breezy Point, the summery shorefront place she has loved all her life.
While her husband navigates the insurance paperwork, she cares for her daughter and 10-month-old twins and tries to make sense of their new reality.
"Do we sell what we can and go somewhere else? Or do we stay in Breezy and rent until we can rebuild?" she wondered. "We're just not sure."
- By Meghan Barr.
It's been more than a month since Sandy, the superstorm combining a hurricane, a nor'easter and surging full-moon tides, tore through the Northeast, leaving billions of dollars in damage in the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut corridor.
Now as survivors dig out and try to regroup from the Oct. 29 storm even as wintry weather moves in, some are coping better than others.
There are those who can look ahead hopefully, even defiantly, vowing to "start fresh." Having lost everything, others see a grim future and brace for a long struggle back. "It's hard," many say, shorthand that understates their turmoil.
Some are questioning — "How could this happen?" ''Do we sell..., rebuild?" Some are prayerful. Some are simply numb.
Here, in the first part of an occasional series by a team of Associated Press reporters, is a look inside the world of a few families trying to find their way ahead after Sandy.
After Sandy hit and berms holding back the Hackensack River failed, sending a torrent into Little Ferry, N.J., Mayor Mauro Raguseo had a singular goal: to get his town back to normal, and his family.
He faced rebuilding a town that was 80 percent flooded and his own home, which was severely damaged.
After the river receded and residents started assessing the damage, heaping their mattresses, couches, children's toys and china cabinets on the sidewalks, Raguseo just wanted to move on from the storm as quickly as possible.
"I didn't want people feeling like they were living in a war zone," he said.
So, he and the borough council got debris removal companies in to quickly haul away destroyed belongings, he said. He let residents know of a FEMA recovery center and food and clothing distribution center in town.
And Raguseo insisted that a time-honored Little Ferry tradition go on: the annual Veteran's Day ceremony.
"I didn't want that day to go by without placing wreaths at the monument as I had done and previous mayors had done for over 100 years," he said. "And there is the sense that things are getting back to normal, and our town functions are the way they used to be."
For similar reasons, he insisted two weeks later that the town's holiday lights be hung.
Raguseo returned to his day job at the Bergen County Improvement Authority two weeks after the storm. He and his wife, Valerie, who moved into their home in April, are heading back next week, as soon as the sheetrock is hung for their new walls. They have been staying with Raguseo's parents in Little Ferry.
Now, when Raguseo finishes work and borough business, he heads to furniture stores with his wife. They've decided to purchase slightly different pieces than the sofas and chairs that were ruined.
"We wanted to start fresh," he said. They bought a black, bonded leather sectional sofa and plan to paint the new living room walls gray and the dining room walls tan.
One late night's errand: They ran out to pick up a vacuum cleaner, forgetting theirs was destroyed.
The Raguseos are the last family on their cul-de-sac to move back in to their home, he said.
While he and residents of the borough are inching back toward normalcy, Raguseo sees a lot of work ahead.
He's trying to find money to repair the firehouse and replace an ambulance that was damaged in the storm. He took a day off work to testify before a state senate panel about the storm, asking for an investigation into the berms.
He fears taxes will rise after the storm and wants to try to prevent it. The city council has already authorized a bond to rebuild.
"I know that this storm may have battered us, but it certainly didn't dampen our spirit," the mayor said. "When they say Jersey Strong, come to Little Ferry. You'll see Jersey Strong."
- By Katie Zezima.
Finding a warm place to lay their heads at night has become a full-time occupation for the Alhadad family, who swam to their SUV in waist-deep water as the ocean roared down their block on New York's Staten Island during the storm.
They slept in the car at first, running the engine to keep warm. But soon the family of six resumed sleeping in their tiny two-room rental home, which was reduced to a soggy, mildewed mess after the water rose nearly to the ceiling on the first floor.
The wreckage of their belongings was thrown out, replaced by donated furniture covered in Red Cross blankets and towels.
Piled under layers of blankets and sleeping bags on the floor, the family ran a generator for a few hours at night to drift off into a warm sleep. But when morning came, they were chilled to the bone.
"All of us have really bad colds," said Rachael Alhadad, who has a hacking cough. "We just take it day by day, that's all. That's all you can do now."
Last week, FEMA finally put the Alhadads up in two rooms at a nearby Holiday Inn, where they'll stay until the federal money runs out on Dec. 15. After that, if their home is still uninhabitable, the family might be eligible for a two-month rental assistance grant from FEMA. But they haven't made plans and aren't sure what's next.
Rachael and her husband, Amin, spend their days shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the house, cleaning the house and cooking meals on the gas stove, which is one of the only things in the house that still works.
Now they must wait as their landlord negotiates with his insurance company. As the days grow shorter, the place has become a damp breeding ground for mold.
"They have to bleach the walls. They have to redo all the floors," Rachael said. "The whole thing. The bathroom, the kitchen cupboards, the fridge."
Amin, who emigrated to the U.S. years ago from Dubai, lost his job as a truck driver because he missed so much work after the storm.
The stress of the past few weeks has taken its toll on 14-year-old Ameer and 15-year-old Ayman, who lost all of their school books and supplies in the flood.
"They just got their report cards, and they're not doing very good at all," Rachael said. "It's hard to study. Because then you gotta think about, 'Oh no, I gotta go home to the same thing again.'"
- By Meghan Barr.
At their Norwalk, Conn., beachfront cottage, Ben and Kim Cesare reflect wearily on how, in one year, they have become experts in disaster and recovery.
Badly flooded after tropical storm Irene, they had just finished rebuilding, when Sandy crashed through their modest two-story home, flooding the basement and first floor, tearing out newly installed windows and doors, shifting walls and dumping gigantic slabs of concrete sea wall onto their backyard.
"Irene took more than six months out of my life," said Ben, 49, who lost his marketing job during the recession and oversaw most of the repairs himself. "We have no idea how long this recovery will take."
Kim, 48, who works in financial services in New York, grew up in this house on Harbor View, with its sweeping views of Peck's Ledge lighthouse and Long Island Sound. Ben grew up nearby.
They love the close-knit community of about 100 homes, many of them charming cottages dating to the early 1900s, where everyone knows everyone and "high tide Friday" socials at the clubhouse (where the couple were married in 1994) are a staple of summer. They can't imagine raising their 5-year-old son, Matt, anywhere else.
"The whole reason we stayed in this house was to preserve it for the family," Ben said on a recent frigid morning as he surveyed the darkened shell of his first floor while waiting for yet another visit from a building inspector.
But disasters are taking their toll.
The 1908 house belongs to Kim's mother, Barbara Borden, who splits her time between Florida and Connecticut. Before the storm, the couple had intended buying it from her. They own a house across the road, which they rent out, and which was one of the few houses in the community not damaged by Sandy.
Now, all plans are on hold as they rent a house nearby and try to figure out their future. Do they stay in Kim's childhood home and raise and reinforce it, or move into their own home? Do they even want to live as close to the water anymore?
"There are a lot of complicated family discussions we need to have," Kim says.
In a strange way, they say, it helps that they are not alone. Many neighboring homes were badly damaged too, and the neighborhood is still jammed with Dumpsters and cleanup crews amid the boarded-up houses. In the first week, the Red Cross swept in with buckets and mops, firefighters brought food, and a busload of volunteers from a church in Tennessee mucked out homes. Neighbors whose homes were spared cooked hot dinners for those whose homes were flooded.
The goodwill goes a long way in persuading the Cesares to stay.
But questions persist — about costs, security and whether, as some suggest, massive coastal flooding has become the new normal.
Ben, for one, can't bear the thought of another year of "living in a permanent state of reconstruction," as he navigates insurance claims and small business loans and FEMA assistance.
"I'm incredibly attached to this place, and when I'm here with Al the electrician and Dan the plumber and it's all activity, I feel I'm making progress," he said.
But when they leave, and he is alone in his dark and damaged house with his doubts about the future, "I confess I look around and feel pretty depressed."
- By Helen O'Neill.
Tommy Cramer's home was destroyed a month ago, but he feels as though he can't move on.
Cramer and his wife, Irene, live in Lavallette, N.J. The island where the town is located is closed, and they can only access it on days that the town designates.
Unable so far to find a rental apartment amid immense competition, the couple is staying with his sister in Toms River, N.J. Adding to the sense of dislocation, the Cramers have been separated from their dog, Opus, who is staying with friends.
"It's really tough," Tommy Cramer said.
He and his wife were able to clean out their house, which had five feet of water in it, a few weeks ago. They disinfected it, but feel as though they can't make significant progress because of their limited access. Because of damage to the island's infrastructure, authorities want to keep people off after dark. Tommy is disabled and cannot work on the house alone, so must wait for the weekend when Irene is off from work.
"Every week is better, but every week you end up with different problems," he said. "We do the best we can."
The feeling is all too familiar for the Cramers. Last year they had to move out of their home for nine weeks after Hurricane Irene. They did learn some lessons. This time they are going to have professionals replace the sheetrock walls. They will try to save money by putting in their own kitchen cabinets.
The couple's first goal is to find a rental apartment so they can return to some type of normalcy. "If anything it's going to be a mental thing to help us move on," Tommy said.
Getting Opus back will also help Irene, who treats the pet like her child.
"We used to do certain things like our walks in the morning, and he hasn't walked since it happened," he said. "That's the big thing. Get him back to not waking up in a stranger's house."
Despite their hardship, Cramer knows they can rebuild their home, even though the couple must grapple with uncertainty about whether to modify and raise it. While he knows it will take a long time to get things back to normal, Cramer feels lucky to still have his home.
"The devastation is so great, it's taking forever to get it all done. But when you go in and see the devastation you just bite your tongue. There are a lot of people complaining and moaning," he said. "I just thank the Lord we're able to be in there doing what little we can."
- By Katie Zezima.